New London Maritime Society takes over as New London Ledge Light owner

New London Ledge Light Foundation volunteers wave as they open the front doors to New London Ledge Light as a tour aboard the Project O research vessel Enviro Lab II approaches the lighthouse Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
New London Ledge Light Foundation volunteers wave as they open the front doors to New London Ledge Light as a tour aboard the Project O research vessel Enviro Lab II approaches the lighthouse Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

New London — In what Congressman Joe Courtney called a "real estate closing on steroids," the federal government on Thursday handed over the deed of the iconic New London Ledge Light to the New London Maritime Society.

Members of the group almost immediately took to a Project Oceanology boat for a tour of the 106-year-old lighthouse hosted by the nonprofit Ledge Light Foundation, which has for years worked to maintain and restore the structure at the mouth of the Thames River.

Groups walked to the top of the three-story lighthouse, now a museum, to marvel at the thumb-sized light that can be seen from as far as nearly 19 miles and take in panoramic views of the coastlines of Groton and New London.

There is even a room dedicated to Ernie, a light keeper who supposedly haunts the structure.

While beginning to show its age from the outside, Ledge Light Foundation President Todd Gipstein said the lighthouse actually has made a dramatic comeback, especially since 2009, its 100th anniversary year.

A host of volunteers that included Naval submarine crews, Coast Guard cadets, the City of Groton and local citizens have come out to patch or paint walls and hang exhibits. Gipstein said the lighthouse actually sits in Groton waters.

"Every person that has been out there believes that the brush stroke of paint they put on the wall is really much more than that. It's an acknowledgment that the past is important and by preserving it they're doing their part to ensure a beloved local maritime treasure will endure," Gipstein said.

Gipstein said his organization will lease the lighthouse from the New London Maritime Society as it had done from the U.S. Coast Guard previously. The Coast Guard will maintain rights to access the lighthouse since it is still used as a navigation aid, with its light and foghorn powered by solar panels.

With Thursday's transfer, the nonprofit organization New London Maritime Society has the distinction of being the owner of three historic lighthouses. Along with the group's previously obtained New London Harbor Light and Race Rock Light as part of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act program.

The program offered the lighthouses at no cost to public bodies and nonprofits as the U.S. General Services Administration looks to help federal agencies part ways with unneeded properties.

Robert Zarnetske, regional administrator for the U.S. General Services Administration, said the GSA handed over the deed on behalf of the U.S. Coast Guard, its former keepers. The ceremonial deed transfer included U.S. Coast Guard Captain Ed Cubanski III, Long Island Sound Sector Commander.

During a ceremony outside the Custom House Maritime Museum, New London Maritime Director Susan Tamulevich called it a unique educational and cultural opportunity.

"After one-hundred plus years of noble service to the maritime community, and defying decades of neglect, today we welcome the third in the triumvirate of beacons leading into the port of New London," she said.

Tamulevich said being a small organization, everything the Maritime Society does depends on partnerships such as the one formed with the Ledge Light Foundation.

Ledge Light Foundation, in a partnership with Project O, offers tours of the lighthouse on weekly summer tours of the lighthouse from both Groton and New London. They fund restoration projects through the tours, a gift shop at the lighthouse, donations and membership in the foundation.

"If we lose these lights, we lose part of our past," Gipstein said. "That's why lighthouses are worth preserving. We need to find ways to make them shine both literally and figuratively."

New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said with historic tourism being the primary economic driver in the Northeast, the addition of three lighthouses to a local organization is a boon for the city.

"Here in New London we have national historic treasures that you cannot create and you cannot replicate," Finizio said. "But they have been historically underutilized."

With the ongoing consolidation of historic sites in New London and Groton, there is the potential for a major tourism draw that could rival the Freedom Trail in Boston, he said. Among those sites are the Submarine Force Museum, the planned Coast Guard Museum, Fort Griswold, Fort Trumbull, the Nathan Hale School House and Shaw Mansion.

"These are unbelievable attractions. And by interconnecting them, by celebrating them, by promoting them, we are building a potential historic economic driver for our city for our shared port," Finizio said. "As these lighthouses brought commerce into our ports, let them bring tourists as well and maybe they'll leave a few dollars here when they come."

U.S. Rep. Courtney, D-2nd District, said the lighthouse has been the inspiration for multiple paintings, photographs and logos. Instead of being "shrink-wrapped and mothballed," it will now become a viable asset that the public will be able to access.

"That is the highest and best use for that property," Courtney said.

g.smith@theday.com

Twitter: @SmittyDay

Robert Zarnetske, left, regional administrator for the U.S. General Services Administration, prepares to transfer the deed to New London Ledge Light from the GSA to Todd Gipstein, center, president of the Ledge Light Foundation, and George Sprecace, right, president of the New London Maritime Society, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, at the society's Custom House Maritime Museum. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Robert Zarnetske, left, regional administrator for the U.S. General Services Administration, prepares to transfer the deed to New London Ledge Light from the GSA to Todd Gipstein, center, president of the Ledge Light Foundation, and George Sprecace, right, president of the New London Maritime Society, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, at the society's Custom House Maritime Museum. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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