Taking the long view from atop New London Harbor Light
New London ― The New London Maritime Society gave a five-person tour of the city’s historic Harbor or “Pequot” Light, located on Pequot Avenue on Sunday afternoon.
The society’s director, Susan Tamulevich, guided visitors up 116 narrow, spiral steps into the lighthouses lantern room, where she gave an overview of city’s rich harbor history, including a shipwreck that involved stolen treasure.
Upon reaching the top of the steps, Tamulevich advised visitors to watch their heads as they crawled up through the narrow opening to the lantern room. The lantern itself features two 2,000-watt light bulbs that project light about 10 miles into Long Island Sound.
Harbor Light was built in 1801, and it is the oldest and tallest lighthouse on Long Island Sound, Tamulevich said from the lantern room, overlooking New London Harbor. About 10 stories below, waves crashed softly against the flaky-looking granite that surrounds the tower’s base.
The room offers an incredible view, Tamulevich said. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, from this spot, one can see more lighthouses than from any place on earth, she said.
Eight lighthouses are visible from the top of Harbor Light, Tamulevich said: Avery Point, Latimer Reef, North Dumpling, Ledge Light, Race Rock, Montauk Point, Little Gull Island, Orient Point and Plum Island.
“I haven’t seen that one, but they say you can,” Tamulevich admitted, referring to Plum Island Lighthouse, which is located just northeast of Orient Point.
The maritime society officially acquired control of Harbor Light in 2010, Tamulevich said. It completes a triangle of sound lighthouses owned by the maritime society. It acquired the other two -- Race Rock Light and Ledge Light -- in 2013 and 2014, respectively, according to its website.
All three lighthouses are operated and actively used by the Coast Guard, Tamulevich said.
Visitors on Sunday’s tour expressed enjoying the view atop the light and learning about the area’s maritime history.
“I didn’t know we would get all the way to the top,” said Debra Bennethum, who was visiting from Michigan with her husband, Greg.
“I really appreciate all the maritime history,” Greg Bennethum said after taking the tour.
The maritime society’s Harbor Light tour is open to the public and costs $35 for adults and $25 for children. The proceeds go toward upkeep and restoration of the society’s three lighthouses. Students of New London Public Schools can visit with their families for the cost of just $5.
“We are the nonprofit we say we are,” Tamulevich said. “We just knock ourselves out to make these accessible and preserve them and make sure they last.”
The Wreck of the Saint Joseph and Saint Helena
An important factor in New London’s push to erect Harbor Light came in the form of a Spanish shipwreck and the mishandling of precious cargo onboard. The following account comes from a 1934 pamphlet written for the Connecticut tercentenary.
In 1752, a Spanish cargo vessel, the Saint Joseph and Saint Helena, had sprung a leak after scraping its hull at Bartlett Reef, which lies underwater across from present-day Harkness Memorial State Park. The ship, which was on a return voyage from the West Indies, carried valuable gold, silver and indigo and was forced to seek shelter in the city’s harbor.
In an attempt to free the Saint Joseph and Saint Helena, a schooner commanded by Captain Richard Durfey removed the Spanish cargo and brought it ashore, where he was greeted by a large mob of the city’s residents. Fearing for his safety and the safety of the Spanish cargo, he called on magistrate Gurdon Saltonstall, an assistant to the governor, for protection.
Realizing the cargo was in real danger, Saltonstall agreed to help and even volunteered to store the treasure in his warehouse, where several guards were enlisted to make sure it be kept intact.The gold was stored in the facility’s inner cellar. Originally, the guards were stationed outside the building. But when it started to get colder, they were allowed inside the outer cellar.
Eventually, four of the guards devised a plan to go after the treasure.
“They tunneled from the outer cellar into the inner one, dragged the chest of gold through the tunnel and substituted stones for the coins. The gold was then divided into four parts and each of the four thieves took one of these parts and hid it,” wrote Roland Mather Hooker, author of the pamphlet.
Local authorities examined the guards afterwards, and during cross-questioning, one broke down and confessed the plot.
The wreck of the Spanish ship, and subsequent mishandling of its cargo, led to a widespread perception of New London as an unsafe harbor, Tamulevich said.
“They had great hopes for the harbor,” Tamulevich said. “Everything in New London kind of revolved around the idea of a great harbor. That disaster was a terrible thing to the young colony. They really wanted to shape up. And in the other places like Boston, the way they did that was by erecting a lighthouse.”
There had been a lighthouse built in Boston in 1716. In the wake of the wreck, interest mounted among New London officials to build a lighthouse to guide people into the city’s harbor, Tamulevich said. The area’s underwater topography would have been quite perilous to ships at that time, Tamuelvich added, due to the impact of glaciation.
“Because of the glacier, we have reefs, we have ledges, and they are all treacherous if you have a large ship,” Tamulevich said. “If you can find the channel and navigate into the channel, that’s the trick.“
The importance of safety in the harbor was realized in 1761, when Harbor Light was constructed at a cost of £715, or roughly $285,000. It was first lit the night of Nov. 7, 1761, the society’s website said.
The lighthouse was replaced in 1801 by the current lighthouse.
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