The Spirit of the New London Ledge Lighthouse
A few weeks ago, I came across some photographs taken close to 20 years ago when my wife and I and several lighthouse enthusiasts, all members of the New England Lighthouse Lovers organization, spent a summer weekend scraping, painting and doing other miscellaneous restoration work at the New London Ledge Lighthouse.
Of course most of us enjoyed a great deal of good-humored conversation and, for a few, some slight apprehension about an unexpected appearance of the lighthouse’s legendary “Ernie the Ghost” during the hours of darkness on our two-night stay. I recall my wife and I electing to sleep on sleeping bags in an upstairs bedroom that was reportedly once occupied by the former lighthouse keeper for whom the ghost had been named.
Except for a member of the group donning a sheet and making a few ghostly cries, at no time during the two nights stay was any paranormal event experienced.
Having been involved in several local lighthouse restoration projects, I have often been asked if there was any truth to the stories about the Ledge Lighthouse being haunted. Having personally conducted a great deal of investigation relating to this subject, I always find it a little difficult to provide a straightforward answer to the question.
Let me begin by providing the readers with some background about the New London Ledge Lighthouse.
The unique three-story, 11-room brick and granite French Empire style structure was built by the Hamilton R. Douglas Company of New London and is located in waters at the entrance to the Thames River. Originally named Southwest Ledge Lighthouse, it was placed in operation on Nov. 10, 1909.
It was staffed by lighthouse keepers from the United States Lighthouse Service from its beginning through 1939 and then by U.S. Coast Guard personnel until the light was automated in 1987.
I might point out here that for many years it was thought that the lighthouse was physically located in New London; however, according to official U.S. Coast Guard navigational charts, it is actually situated in Groton waters. I guess you might say it falls in the same category as the “Submarine Base New London” and the “Groton/New London Airport,” both of which are located in Groton, not New London.
Incidentally, within two years of it becoming operational, the name of the lighthouse was changed from the Southwest Ledge Lighthouse to the New London Ledge Lighthouse; the reason being that another older lighthouse, located in New Haven harbor, also bore the name Southwest Ledge which created a great deal of confusion among mariners.
Now for the story.
Purportedly, in the 1920s or 1930s, a light keeper named “Ernie” was assigned to the lighthouse. After learning that his wife had run off with the captain of the Block Island Ferry, he became extremely distraught and jumped or fell to his death from the roof of the lighthouse.
Another version has him cutting his throat before he jumped to his death. Whatever the case, his body was never found, and he has subsequently been haunting the lighthouse. It has been said that Ernie’s ghostly pranks have included opening and closing doors, washing floors, turning lights and the fog horn off and on, moving beds and removing sheets from them, knocking on walls and untying boats at the lighthouse to set them adrift.
He has also delighted in moving things around, especially in the room where he used to sleep when he was alive - “Ernie’s Room.”
Some versions of the story state that the suicide at the lighthouse took place in 1936 or 1938 and that Ernie’s real name was John Randolf or Randolph.
Although I am not going to come right out and say that “Ernie” does not exist, I would like to relay some bits and pieces of information I discovered while conducting research on the subject. It might be best to just list them and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.
•No one named John Randolf (or Randolph), or “Ernie” is on the official list of light keepers assigned to the lighthouse from the time it was first lit in 1909 through 1939, when the Coast Guard took over keeper responsibilities.
•The keeper assigned to the New London Ledge Lighthouse from 1926 through the time the Coast Guard took over in 1939 was a Howard B. Beebe.
•There are no notations in the official New London Ledge Lighthouse log books, maintained at the U.S. Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., referring to any paranormal or unexplained activities taking place at the lighthouse.
•No entry was found in the official New London Ledge Lighthouse log books mentioning any suicide or accidental death of anyone at the lighthouse.
•There was no mention in the official log books of any lighthouse keeper and assistant keeper by the name of John Randolf (or Randolph) being assigned to the lighthouse.
•No record was found in either the New London or Town of Groton clerk files recording the death of a John Randolf (or Randolph) during the period of 1909 through 1940.
•There is no one by the name of John Randolf (or Randolph) listed in the New London/Groton street directories for the period of 1920 through 1940.
•Several Connecticut newspapers in January 1908 published articles containing information about an assistant lighthouse keeper from the New Haven Southwest Ledge Lighthouse who had committed suicide by slashing his throat. Could this incident have been the source of the story about the keeper at New London Ledge, formerly known as Southwest Ledge Lighthouse, “cutting his own throat”?
Incidentally, the name of the keeper who had committed suicide in New Haven was in no way close to the name John Randolf (or Randolph).
•Various paranormal investigative groups have conducted studies at the lighthouse; however, no significant unexplainable activities were noted or documented.
Members of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS), who conducted intensive research at the lighthouse to identify and document any paranormal activities, concluded that there was “no evidence of haunting” at the lighthouse and that Ernie was “more lore than fact.”
•The haunting activities are mentioned and reportedly experienced only by members of the Coast Guard who were stationed at the lighthouse after 1939.
In hopes of not offending anyone, I have to say that, based upon the information uncovered in my research, I am personally not convinced of the existence of an “Ernie the Ghost” haunting the New London Ledge Lighthouse.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the various stories about “Ernie” are certainly intriguing and entertaining, but also leave a great deal to one’s imagination. I am sure there have been occurrences at the lighthouse that might lead a person to ask questions and, between those incidents and the folklore of “Ernie the Ghost,” a great deal of character and interest has been brought to the lighthouse. Thus, I hope the story of Ernie will live on forever.
Jim Streeter is Groton city historian and a former mayor.