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    Saturday, July 13, 2024

    One of a kind

    “I’ve seen waves before in the Bay of Fundy, but I never saw waves like that.”

    Today, New London Ledge Light is automated and unmanned, but on Sept. 21, 1938, lighthouse keeper Howard Beebe, his assistant, and a tinsmith were in residence there. When the full fury of the ’38 Hurricane struck, the building shuddered and water began pouring in through the second story windows. Waves swept away almost everything inside, including 11 tons of coal stored in the cellar. Howard and his companions took refuge in the third-floor lantern room. They and the well-built structure weathered the storm.

    The need for a lighthouse in New London harbor had been discussed since 1890. The harbor was an increasingly busy place, and the advent of electricity made the signal from Harbor Light on Pequot Avenue difficult to distinguish from the nearby street lights. The project, vigorously promoted by New London lawyer Senator Frank Brandegee, began in 1908. Capt. Thomas Scott, the owner of a salvage and rescue business on Pequot Avenue, was contracted to build what was first called Southwest Ledge Light, then renamed Ledge Light.

    Thomas was the man for the job, although you’d think that he’d have had quite enough of lighthouses. Years earlier, he’d been the co-lead on the construction of Race Rock Lighthouse off Fishers Island, an engineering masterpiece that took seven dangerous, miserable years to complete. Thomas was a master diver who held a record for the length of time he could remain under water. He was skilled, brave, and ethical.

    Once, while commanding a salvage vessel for another company, he came upon a ferry that was rapidly taking on water, posing imminent danger for the passengers. After frantic, conventional attempts to plug the damaged hull failed, he stuffed it with his own body and saved the day. When his employers tried to take advantage of the situation by claiming the ferry for salvage, Thomas quit in disgust. He’d risked his life for the women and children on board, not for profit. Soon after that, he was hired for the Race Rock project. Now, years later, Thomas, a man in his 70s, was at it again.

    The New London harbor site didn’t present the extreme challenges that Race Rock had, but still it wasn’t easy. Construction began over in Groton, where Thomas’s workers built a “crib“ that would serve as the framework for the foundation. It was made of wood, held together by iron and steel, and measured 52 feet square by 35 feet high. It was so heavy and cumbersome it took four tugboats a full day to haul the completed structure down the Thames River to the planned lighthouse site. Filling the crib with riprap and cement took a long time and was delayed until spring by inclement winter weather.

    Thomas subcontracted the construction of the lighthouse itself to Hamilton R. Douglas, the same firm that constructed the Groton Town Hall. The Second Empire style design is said to have been influenced by wealthy men like Edward Harkness and Morton Plant who didn’t want to gaze out at a big “sparkplug” in the harbor. The late, beloved Groton historian, Carol Kimball, wrote in some detail about Ledge Light, possibly drawing on information from her father, who’d been one of the workers on the building crew.

    Ledge Light, one of the last lighthouses built in New England, went into operation in November 1909. The Day reported that it had “all modern conveniences except electricity and gas,” and that it was so well built it “will rest undisturbed except by an act of God.” If hurricanes are acts of God, it could even withstand that!

    For years, Ledge Light was manned by a series of eight primary keepers and many assistants, until being taken over by the Coast Guard. Four-men crews served there for 18-month tours of duty. It was a tedious, lonesome assignment, although using binoculars to observe young ladies on the beaches was a seasonal bright spot.

    Fully automated in 1987, it was the last manned lighthouse on Long Island Sound. After that, local enthusiasts formed the Ledge Light Foundation (LLF) to help preserve and restore the lighthouse, and to promote public interest in it. In 2015, when the National Park Service offered Ledge Light to a qualified organization, the New London Maritime Society (NLMS), with assistance from LLF, applied for and was awarded the deed. The Society’s mission is preserving, educating, and enabling public access to the property. NLMS provides tours inside the lighthouse in summer, and you can see the original Fresno lens at the Custom House Museum year-round.

    Ledge Light has been characterized as one-of-a-kind. I think the same can be said about its general contractor, Thomas Scott, one of my favorite column subjects.

    NLMS, LLF and the Old Mystic History Center were sources for this column.

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