For a safe harbor
The arrival of a Spanish galleon in New London in the 1750s was strictly bad news.
The ship, laden with silver and gold, had run aground on Bartlett Reef and was damaged beyond repair. She had to be towed into port, setting off two years of unpleasantness until a new vessel could be chartered. City officials had their hands full with a demanding captain, his rowdy sailors, and the tempting cargo that must be guarded against theft (rather unsuccessfully, I’m sorry to say).
When the Spanish finally sailed away, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. But the incident underscored the fact that bonfires at the mouth of the river were inadequate to prevent disasters. A lighthouse (sometimes called a light station) was needed.
The original New London Harbor Lighthouse was lit for the first time on November 7, 1761. It had been a team effort. Nathaniel Shaw, Jr., successful merchant and naval agent during the Revolution, sold the land for the building on what is now Pequot Avenue. His wife, Lucretia, had been given the property by her father, Daniel Harris, who became one of the early lighthouse keepers. Local residents Pygan Adams, Joseph Coit, David Gardiner, Jeremiah Miller, Thomas Mumford, and Nathaniel Shaw purchased lottery tickets offered by the colonial legislature to fund the project.
In a nice bit of serendipity, we know the names of these subscribers because a family, who relocated to Ohio after Arnold torched New London, saved an old newspaper article about the lottery. Centuries later, their descendants found it and gave it to the New London Maritime Society (NLMS), today’s stewards of the lighthouse.
When the first tower was completed in 1761, it was 64 feet tall and constructed of dressed stone. The keeper’s house would come later and so would a road. (Pequot Avenue wasn’t cut until 1868.) The area was so far out of town that during epidemics the grounds were sometimes used as a quarantine site.
In 1789, the United States Lighthouse Establishment was created, and by 1790, ownership of Harbor Light was ceded to the federal government. Customs officials retained responsibility for local administration; in New London, the customs collector was Jebediah Huntington, a Revolutionary War general and friend of George Washington. In 1791, Washington himself authorized the quarterly expenditure of $360 to keep the lantern supplied with whale oil.
By 1800, a 10-foot crack had developed and the lighthouse needed to be replaced. New London architect Abisha Woodward was hired to design the building. (A friend of mine has a clipping from a June 1800 issue of the Connecticut Gazette that outlines the exacting specifications.) Abisha had worked some years earlier on a lighthouse at Cape Fear, North Carolina, and after the New London project, he went on to design lighthouses in Old Saybrook, Guilford, New Haven, Long Island, and Bridgeport. His New London and Guilford lights still stand.
The new 90-foot octagonal tower was constructed of hammered stone, lined with brick A wooden staircase provided access to the lantern. Although erected on the same property as the original, it had a slightly different footprint. It’s been lighting the way ever since, except during the War of 1812, when it went dark to foil the British fleet lurking offshore.
The 19th century saw many improvements, some driven by changing technology. In 1857, a Fresnel lens was installed, which made the light visible at greater distances. That lens is still in use. In 1883, Celadon Leeds Daboll’s fog horn, called a trumpet, was installed; it was later moved offshore to Ledge Light because neighbors complained of the deafening noise. (Celadon was the grandson of Nathan Daboll, Groton mathematician of almanac fame.)
The NLMS became stewards of Harbor Light in 2009 through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. Subsequently, they also became responsible for Ledge Light and Race Rock Lighthouse. Their missions are preservation, providing educational programs, and enabling public access to the properties. (Tours of Harbor Light are available year-round.) An assessment showed that Harbor Light was in exceptionally good condition, only requiring painting and repointing. Following Superstorm Sandy, repairs were made to a walkway and a wall (not part of the building itself). Landscaping and fencing have been added. When I spoke with NLMS’s executive director, Susan Tamulevich, she credited a supportive community for assistance in these endeavors.
Harbor Light, the first and oldest lighthouse on Long Island Sound, is both utilitarian and beautiful. Over the years, its presence has saved countless lives; today, ferries coming into New London still rely on its beacon for safe harbor. Of no less importance, this iconic landmark continues to delight all who visit it.
Sincere thanks to the NLMS, the National Coast Guard Museum, and Wayne Wheeler, a Coast Guard veteran and lighthouse researcher, for their help with this topic.
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