New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Fayerweather Island Light
(Black Rock Harbor Light)
Bridgeport, Connecticut
Fayerweather Island Light main page / History / Bibliography / Cruises / Photos / Postcards

History

The quiet waters behind Fayerweather Island invited ships to safe anchorage... Captains of commerce made their homes in this neighborhood. Fishermen, warriors, mariners, pleasure-seekers, builders and maritime industry have shared the life of the Port.

- Dr. Ivan O. Justinius, History of Black Rock, 1955.

Black Rock Harbor is a deep, protected harbor that developed as a trade port and shipbuilding center in the 1700s. The village of Black Rock was once part of Fairfield, but now is a neighborhood of the city of Bridgeport.

Black Rock Harbor is sheltered by Fayerweather Island, which made the island an ideal place for a lighthouse to mark the harbor entrance. Seven-acre Fayerweather Island, now attached to the mainland by a breakwater, at one time was a much larger island used mainly for the pasturing of sheep.

In 1807, the federal government purchased 9 1/2 acres on the island from Daniel Fayerweather for $200, and $5000 was appropriated for the new light station. The following year the first Fayerweather Island Lighthouse, an octagonal wooden tower, was built on the south end of the island.

The first keeper, John Maltbie of Fairfield, died after five months at the station. The 40-foot octagonal tower was destroyed in an 1821 hurricane, and a new tower was completed two years later.

The builder of the second Fayerweather Island Lighthouse proclaimed in a local newspaper that the tower was "built to withstand the storm of ages." In his American Coast Pilot, Edmund Blunt voiced another opinion: "A more contemptible Lighthouse does not disgrace Long Island Sound, most shamefully erected and badly kept."

The problem, according to Blunt and others, was that the exterior of the 47-foot stone tower was filled in with small stones and timbers. In spite of its less than perfect construction, the lighthouse has survived for more than 180 years.

The second (present) Fayerweather Island Light, c. 1880s

The most remarkable personality in the long history of Fayerweather Island Light was Catherine Moore. The daughter of the light's third keeper, Stephen Tomlinson Moore, Kate learned to trim the wicks and care for the light when she was young. She later described the importance of the light and the difficulties of maintaining the early lamps:

old photo of lighthouse

Sometimes there were more than two hundred sailing vessels in here at night, and some nights there were as many as three or four wrecks, so you may judge how essential it was that they should see our light.

It was a miserable one to keep going, too -- nothing like those in use nowadays. It consisted of eight oil lamps which took four gallons of oil each night... During windy nights it was impossible to keep them burning at all, and I had to stay there all night, but on other nights I slept at home, dressed in a suit of boys' clothes, my lighted lantern hanging at my headboard and my face turned so that I could see shining on the wall the light from the tower and know if anything happened to it. Our house was forty rods [about 700 feet] from the lighthouse, and to reach it I had to walk across tow planks under which on stormy nights were four feet of water, and it was not too easy to stay on those slippery, wet boards with the wind whirling and the spray blinding me.

Keeper Stephen Moore had become disabled after an accident and Kate took over full duties at the lighthouse as a young woman. Her father remained official keeper until he died in 1871.

An 1850 inspection reported "everything now pertaining to the light is first-rate." A new lantern was installed and the old lamps were replaced by a fifth order Fresnel lens in the mid-1850s.

Over the years Kate Moore maintained a garden and cared for a number of animals, including a flock of sheep. She also carved and sold duck decoys and had a thriving oyster business. When an outsider trespassed on her oyster beds, Moore would grab her shotgun and tell them, "I represent the United States Government and you've got to go." She was matter-of-fact about her unique life:

You see, I had done all this for so many years, and I knew no other life, so I was sort of fitted for it. I never had much of a childhood, as other children have it. That is, I never knew playmates. Mine were the chickens, ducks and lambs and my two Newfoundland dogs.

Kate Moore
Kate Moore, courtesy of Bridgeport Public Library Historical Collections.
Kate Moore was credited with 21 lives saved during her 62 years at Fayerweather Island. There were frequently vessels wrecked nearby in storms, and many times Kate and her father managed to pull survivors to safety in the keeper's house.
 
The shipwrecked men were given food and shelter, but according to Kate Moore, "The government never paid us a cent for boarding them." She said that the worst part of the job was recovering the bodies of those who died in wrecks.
 
After her father's death, Kate Moore was officially appointed keeper. She remained at the station for seven more years, resigning in 1878.

The house that Kate Moore and her father had lived in for many years was described as a "dilapidated old edifice" and was replaced by a new wood frame house in 1879.

house

The keeper's house stood from 1879 until 1977 when it burned down.

old photo of house
Kate Moore lived in this house after leaving the lighthouse. It was torn down in 1930.

Moore spent her last years in a cottage across from the Fayerweather Yacht Club, with a view of Fayerweather Island and Long Island Sound.

When asked if she missed her island home, she replied, "Never. The sea is a treacherous friend."

Leonard Clark, a Civil War veteran and former whaling captain, was keeper for 28 years. He and his wife raised three children on the island, and one of their sons became keeper of New York's Execution Rocks Lighthouse. In 1906, Mary Elizabeth Clark became keeper following her husband's death. Two months later she was succeeded by John D. Davis, a veteran of the Irish Lighthouse Service.

Davis remained keeper until 1932, when the lighthouse was discontinued. It was replaced by two automatic offshore lights, and Davis was transferred to Dutch Island Light in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay.

 

After its decommissioning, Fayerweather Island Light was given to the City of Bridgeport and became part of Seaside Park, a recreation area established in the nineteenth century largely through the efforts of P. T. Barnum. The historic structure soon fell prey to vandals, who gutted the interior. The 1879 keeper's house was destroyed by fire in 1977. Luckily, the exterior of the lighthouse was never seriously damaged and the tower remained structurally sound.

trash inside lighthouse
Inside the lighthouse c. 1997

In 1983, the Friends of Seaside Park and the Black Rock Community Council mounted a preservation effort. They replaced glass and secured the door and windows. The Friends of Seaside Park also cleaned Fayerweather Island of debris, planted trees and other greenery, and established the island as a nature preserve.

Unfortunately, the lighthouse and island again became sad victims of neglect and vandalism.

The door was forced open, and the interior of the lighthouse appeared to be a favorite spot for beer drinking parties. The future of the historic site looked bleak. 

New hope arrived with a preservation effort initiated by two local residents.

Black Rock artist David Grant Grimshaw and caterer Patricia Roche often wondered what could be done to save the lighthouse.

As a result of their concern, a lighthouse fund was established and began raising money in 1993. A Preservation Ball was initiated in 1994 by Grimshaw and became an annual event. Local artists like Grimshaw and Mary Chandler donated paintings to help raise funds.

graffiti covered lighthouse
The lighthouse has been a target of graffiti "artists"

The group, in association with the Black Rock Community Council, raised $25,000 in cash and in-kind services, and the City of Bridgeport's Board of Park Commissioners matched the amount by granting $25,000.

The Black Rock Seaport Foundation, affiliated with the Black Rock Community Council, oversaw the 1998 restoration. Under the direction of architect and Black Rock resident David Barbour, work on the lighthouse proceeded in earnest in the spring and summer of 1998. Barbour and landscape architect Stuart Sachs provided in-kind services, and the contractor was American Building Group of Bridgeport.

Work was delayed for a few months while paint and mortar were analyzed so that the original mortar and paint color could be matched. By the end of the year the masonry was repaired, a coat of graffiti-resistant paint was applied, the lantern room was reglazed, rust on the railings was removed, and new doors and windows were installed. The new windows have vandal-proof steel panes, which from a distance have the appearance of glass.

A protective stone seawall was also reconstructed, affording better protection for the foundation of the lighthouse.

The renovation was complete, except for one thing -- the group felt the landmark should be visible at night. Two power companies, United Illuminating and Bridgeport Energy, stepped in to help.

The companies donated solar panels and lighting equipment. Workers and materials were transported to the island by Captain's Cove Seaport and the Fayerweather Yacht Club, and the panels were installed in the top of the lighthouse away from public view.

The lights illuminate the tower but are not meant to serve as a navigational aid.

four people in front of yacht club
Some of the people responsible for the restoration of Fayerweather Island Light. L to R: Patricia Roche, Mary Chandler, Steve Tyliszczak, David Barbour

top of lighthouse
Solar panels provide power to illuminate the lighthouse
Instead of glass, the windows now have steel panes

According to an article in the Connecticut Post, the lighthouse had been temporarily -- and mysteriously -- relighted in April of 1996. David Grant Grimshaw arrived at the Black Rock Yacht Club on the evening of the Preservation Ball and couldn't believe his eyes. "Across the harbor was the eerie glow of the lighthouse against the black sky," he said. "Everyone thought I had arranged the illumination, but I hadn't." Attempts to find the phantom "keeper" were unsuccessful -- maybe the spirit of Kate Moore had grown tired of waiting for the restoration.

All involved are pleased with the fruits of their preservation efforts. "It was a real challenge. It does prove that people can make a difference," says Patricia Roche.

There was a temporary setback in 2004 when vandals smashed the solar panels on the tower. New panels with protective cages were in place by early 2007.

Fayerweather Island is accessible via this breakwater from Seaside Park
 egret
Fayerweather Island's only residents today are egrets and other wildlife

The lighthouse preservation fund is managed by the Burroughs Community Center in Bridgeport. For information on how you can help with the continued preservation of Fayerweather Island Lighthouse, call (203) 334-0293, or write:

Fayerweather Island Restoration Fund
c/o Burroughs Community Center
2470 Fairfield Ave.
Bridgeport, CT 06605

You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of Connecticut by Jeremy D'Entremont.


Keepers: (This list is a work in progress. If you have any information on the keepers of this lighthouse, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me at nelights@gmail.com. Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)

John Maltbie (1808-1809, died in service); Charles Isaac Judson (1809-1814?, died in service); Daniel Willson (Wilson) (1814-1817?); Stephen Moore (1817-1871); Catherine (Kate) Moore (1871-1878); Leonard Clark (1878-1906); Mary Elizabeth Clark (1906); John D. Davis (1906-1932); Charles H. Gilmore (caretaker?, 1933?-1952)

Last updated 11/10/11
  Jeremy D'Entremont, All Rights Reserved. Do not reproduce any images or text from this website without permission of the author.

Fayerweather Island Light main page / History / Bibliography / Cruises / Photos / Postcards
Connecticut Menu / New England Menu / Back to Contents
 
Vote for this site on Top 25 Lighthouse Web Sites List!
lighthouse banner