To make it safe by day and night
In 1885, a fierce nor’easter left New London County in an Arctic deep freeze. The Mystic River was completely iced over, and the thermometer outside Stoddard’s drug store in New London registered 4 degrees below zero.
Thomas Carroll, an assistant keeper at Race Rock Lighthouse off Fishers Island, had been visiting his family in Noank when the storm hit. After several days stuck ashore, and now with improving weather conditions, he was determined to get back to his duties. Undeterred by high seas, he left early one morning in his small boat and was last seen rowing into the waves and wind. Newspaper accounts of the tragedy praised his heroism in putting the safety of others above his own.
The history of Race Rock Lighthouse has other examples of heroism, none more astounding than the courage required to build it in the first place.
The Race, a channel of turbulent water between Fishers Island and Little Gull Island, is a treacherous place. Lined with boulders as big as houses and with depths ranging from 17 feet to 300 feet, it’s been the site of wrecks and strandings since the 1600s. Early attempts to mitigate the danger included setting out buoys and installing iron spindles on Race Rock, a ledge off the western tip of Fishers Island. Billions of gallons of rushing water and winter ice made short work of these devices, and of course they were no help at all at night. After years of various proposed solutions, it was determined that a lighthouse and keepers’ dwelling must be built.
Construction of the foundation began in 1871. It was a challenging project conducted under extreme weather conditions on a ledge that was always submerged. Francis Hopkinson Smith was hired as the structural engineer; he in turn hired master diver, Captain Thomas A. Scott. They had excellent credentials. Francis had built a stone breaker in Bridgeport harbor and jetties in Old Saybrook. Thomas was an experienced diver and salvage man, brave as well as skillful. Once he'd saved a ferry from sinking by stuffing his own body into the gaping hole where water was pouring in. He got hypothermia and a damaged arm, but he got the job done.
Government specifications called for the base to be composed of 10,000 tons of riprap, large stones deposited one at a time under water. In one incident, the boiler on a boat bringing a load of stones from New London exploded, leaving three men dead and many injured. The Custom House on Bank Street became a temporary hospital and morgue.
It was exhausting, dangerous work, and to the horror of all concerned, the finished product was an unstable platform that couldn’t standup to the fury of the Race. All the stones had to be moved and a new base built of graduated cement tiers. To get a richer appreciation of this jaw-dropping endeavor, I recommend a video presentation by Pierce Rafferty, executive director of the Henry L. Ferguson Museum, available on the museum’s website.
After six hellish years laying the foundation, it took just nine months to construct the building itself. It was easier, but far from easy. Francis, Thomas, and their crew lived in squalid conditions in shanties on an exposed platform subject to such high winds that they sometimes lashed themselves to machinery to keep from being blown away. Their finished product, a beautiful Gothic Revival style lighthouse, was first lit on Jan. 1, 1879, and continues to illuminate our night skies.
Afterwards, Francis went on to other projects, including constructing the foundation for the Statue of Liberty. He also wrote two best-selling books. One, “Caleb West, Master Diver,” is a fictionalized account of his time at Race Rock; the hero is based on his friend and colleague, Thomas.
As for Thomas, he established the T.A. Scott Company, a salvage and rescue business, which operated in New London for years. Fun fact: he still has a presence in the city because his great nephew and niece own Capt. Scott’s Lobster Dock!
The New London Maritime Society (NLMS) became stewards of Race Rock Light in 2013 through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. Their mission is preserving, educating, and enabling public access to the property. NLMS has made repairs, cleaned the building, and engaged an architectural preservation firm to craft a plan for the major work still needed. A campaign is underway to raise funds to preserve this engineering miracle, a monument to the courage of its builders and keepers who risked their lives for those in peril on the sea.
I’m indebted to those cited above, as well as the Noank Historical Society and the Mystic Seaport Museum for their help.
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