New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Five Mile Point (New Haven Harbor) Light
New Haven, Connecticut
Five Mile Point Light main page / History / Bibliography / Photos / Postcards

History
  Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

Established by Puritans in 1638 based on its sheltered harbor, New Haven was for over two centuries the co-capital of Connecticut with Hartford. New Haven was one of New England's most prosperous cities. The American Gazetteer reported in 1810, "As to pleasantness of situation and salubrity of air, New Haven is hardly exceeded by any city in America." The prominence of the "Elm City" was largely due to the presence of Yale College, which moved to New Haven from Saybrook in 1716.

Before there was a lighthouse at New Haven's Five Mile Point, the spot was noted for a battle in the American Revolution, when American riflemen repelled a British attempt to land and invade New Haven. British Ensign and Assistant Adjutant Watkins was killed in the skirmish and was buried close to where the lighthouse now stands. The British later landed at Five Mile Point and burned down the house of resident Amos Morris. Morris repaired his house and it still stands, not far from Lighthouse Park.

From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell
Inside the tower

New Haven was a flourishing port in coastal and West Indies trade. Built in 1805 on the east side of the harbor entrance, the first New Haven Light was an octagonal 30-foot wooden tower. It was commonly called Five Mile Point Light after its distance from downtown New Haven. The first keeper was Amos Morris ,Jr., who sold the land for the lighthouse to the government. Morris remained keeper for only three weeks.

One of the early keepers, Greenwich native Jonathan Finch, spent sixteen years (from 1805 to 1821) at Five Mile Point, apparently augmenting his meager keeper’s salary by taking in guests. It isn’t known how long Keeper Finch engaged in this practice, which was generally frowned on by the authorities. An ad in the June 28, 1810, edition of the American Mercury read:

A SUMMER RETREAT.  Gentlemen and Ladies, who, during the summer months, wish to enjoy a delightful sea breeze, an extensive prospect, shady bowers, &c. &c. are invited to the LIGHT-HOUSE, at the south point of New-Haven harbor, where arrangements are made for their accommodation. —– Lobsters, fish, clams &c. taken directly from their natural element, and served up at a short notice, with the best trimmings —– Liquors of the first chop —– Pasture or stabling for horses. —– Gentlemen who have passed their grand climactic, may here have their mental faculties perfectly restored in three days. —– No cure, no pay.  J. FINCH.

From the start the light was considered too low and too dim. In an 1838 report, Lieutenant. George M. Bache described the tower as “very much decayed” and leaky, and said that none of the lights were in the proper position.  He also reported the keeper’s house to be “in a very bad state of repair.”  The light was also deemed too low and dim to be much of a help to navigation. 

There was some consideration given to the possibility idea of a new lighthouse offshore on Southwest Ledge, a more advantageous location, but building a lighthouse on the rocky ledge was then prohibitively expensive.  Instead, $10,000 was appropriated for a new, taller tower at Five Mile Point on March 3, 1847.

view
In this view from the top of the lighthouse, the old storm signal tower is at the left. In the distance in the upper right is Southwest Shoal Light.

The new 80-foot octagonal tower was constructed by contractor Marcus Bassett of using brownstone from the East Haven quarry of Jabez Potter. The stone was brought to Five Mile Point by horse-drawn drays. The interior was lined with New Haven brick, and a circular granite stairway with 74 steps was added. A system of 12 lamps and reflectors was installed inside the cast- iron lantern, with the light 97 feet above sea level.  A new two-and-one-half-story brick keeper’s house was also erected. The 12 lamps and reflectors were replaced in 1855 by a fourth-order Fresnel lens, and a fog bell was added in the 1860s.

Captain Elizur Thompson, born in East Haven in 1809, became keeper in 1860. As it turned out, he was the light’s last keeper, staying until 1877 except for a two-year gap from 1867 to 1869.   Thompson’s wife, Elizabeth (Bradley), was on the payroll as an assistant keeper for two years, and their sons Sidney and George also served as assistants.

When Southwest Ledge Light was established offshore in 1877, the old light at Five Mile Point was extinguished. Thompson went to Southwest Ledge to serve as the first keeper. After almost five years in that position, he returned to live in the old keeper’s house at Five Mile Point, flying storm signal flags for the United States Weather Bureau. An 1890 article in the New York Times described the 81-year-old veteran keeper:

Capt. Elizur Thompson . . . is eighty-one years old, but still he climbs the steps of the tower with agility to display the signals.  He is a hospitable man and very popular among the professors of Yale College . . . He is an authority on matters of local history that have transpired during the past seventy years.

Among many other interesting incidents, Thompson remembered shaking General Lafayette’s hand when the French general was visiting the area in 1824, when Thompson was 15. Thompson’s colorful life also included a journey to California in search of riches during the gold rush of 1849.

When Elizur Thompson died in 1897 an obituary said, “There is hardly a mariner along the Sound who has not been guided by the light on the point at Morris Cove, and has not been thankful for its keeper, Capt. Thompson, for the reliance he could always place upon it.”

In 1896, Five Mile Point Lighthouse was transferred to the War Department. In 1922 the land was transferred to the State of Connecticut and the buildings went to the City of New Haven, and in 1924 the City bought the entire property for $11,180.

The New Haven Park Commission opened Lighthouse Point Park with the city's only public swimming beach.

 
Visitors to Lighthouse Point Park, circa 1920s

Lawrence "Ted" Porter, moved in as caretaker in 1943. Porter had started his career with the city of New Haven at the age of 14, lighting gas lamps on the city's streets. His stay as caretaker at Lighthouse Point Park stretched into the 1970s. A 1964 newspaper article reported that Porter had the duty of flying storm warning flags as needed from a steel tower, which still stands near the lighthouse.

Ted Porter endured some memorable storms, including a 1944 hurricane that had seawater lapping at his front door. It wasn't unusual for the caretaker and his family to be stuck inside the house for two or three days after a severe snowstorm.

A $67,000 renovation was completed in 1986. The interior and exterior of the tower were steam-cleaned and decades of guano was removed from the stairs. Plexiglas was installed in the lantern room and chips in the mortar were repaired.

The old lighthouse tower stands today near a restored antique carousel. The grounds are open year-round but the tower is usually closed.


In October 2002 the Lighthouse Point Park Rangers started offering tours of the lighthouse on a limited, reservations-only basis. Call the Lighthouse Point Park rangers at 203-946-8790 to see if any tours are scheduled.

Please note that there is now a parking fee

A view from the top of the lighthouse, looking toward downtown New Haven

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

rangers
Lighthouse Point Park rangers Terry McCool and Phil Vallie in 2003
carousel
This restored antique carousel is in a pavilion near the lighthouse

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.)

Amos Morris, Jr. (1805), ? Wedmore (1805), Jonathan Finch (1805-1821), William Finch (1821-1824), Elihu Ives (1824-1846), George W. Hicks (1846-1849), Stephen Willard (1849-1853), Merritt Thompson (1853-1860), Elizur Thompson (1860-1867 and 1869-1877), Charles W. Bradley (1867-1869); Elizabeth Thompson (assistant 1869-1871), George Thompson (assistant, 1873-1876), Theodore (?) Thompson (assistant, 1871-1873), Sidney Thompson (assistant, 1876)


Last updated 12/14/11
  Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.
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