New London, founded in
1646 by John Winthrop, Jr., became an important port in colonial
America because of its protected harbor at the mouth of the Thames
River. In 1834, over 30 ships and 900 men from New London were employed
in whaling. By the middle of the 1800s, New London was America's third
leading whaling port, behind New Bedford and Nantucket.
An early beacon of some kind was reportedly erected
around 1750 at the harbor's entrance, but it soon became apparent that
a more permanent lighthouse was needed.
A 64-foot stone tower with a wooden lantern was erected
at the west side of the harbor entrance in 1761, paid for by money
raised by selling lottery tickets.
Robert Dennis Collection of
Stereoscopic Views, Photography Collection, Miriam & Ira D. Wallach
Division of Art, Prints & Photographs, The New York Public Library.
land for the lighthouse was bought from the merchant Nathaniel Shaw,
Jr. It was part of the inheritance of his wife, Lucretia, the
only child of Daniel Harris. The prominent Harris family had lived on
the land since the earliest days of the settlement of New London.
New London Harbor Light was the fourth lighthouse in
North America and the first on Long Island Sound. A tax on local
shipping helped pay for the upkeep of the tower.
The lighthouse made it through the American Revolution
unscathed, helping to guide American privateers into New London Harbor.
In 1791, President George Washington signed legislation authorizing the
expenditure of $360 quarterly to supply New London Harbor Light's six
lamps with spermaceti oil.
The lighthouse developed a large crack by 1799, and
there were numerous complaints that the light was difficult to
distinguish from neighboring homes.
In 1801 a new 89-foot stone lighthouse with a cast-iron
lantern was completed by Abisha Woodward of New London, along with an
oil house and cistern building at a total cost of $15,547. The handsome
octagonal brownstone tower still stands and is the oldest existing
lighthouse in Connecticut.
An 1802 letter recommended that the salary of the keeper be
raised from $200 yearly, at which it had remained for many years,
because, "the Lighthouse has been made much higher, the light
augmented, the machinery of the eclipser to be kept in order..."
New London Harbor Light was one of the earliest American
lighthouses with a flashing light. The revolving eclipser gave it a
distinct characteristic so it couldn't be confused with the lights of
New London Harbor Light was extinguished during the War of
1812 at the request of Commodore Decatur. With the militia nearby the
British decided not to raid the lighthouse, but they did raid Little
Gull Island Light farther out in Fishers Island Sound.
A new keeper's dwelling was built in 1818 for $1,200. The
present keeper's house was built in 1863 and was enlarged in 1900.
An 1838 report by Lieutenant George M. Bache described
New London Harbor Light:
It is situated on a rocky point to the westward of
the entrance to the river Thames, and is two miles from the town of New
London; it is of great importance as a leading light for vessels going
in and out of the harbor of New London, which, on account of its
position and security, is much resorted to during the heavy gales of
The tower is a substantial building of freestone,
smooth hammered, and laid in courses; it is 80 feet in height, and is
ascended by an interior stairway of wood... The lighting
apparatus consists of 11 lamps, with parabolic reflectors, disposed
around two horizontal tables... This apparatus was furnished in 1834,
and is now in very good order... The light-keeper covers the ordinary
wicks with small pieces of cotton cloth, which he thinks increases the
consumption of oil, and causes the lamps to give a brighter light.
U.S. Coast Guard
The lighthouse's lamps and reflectors were replaced by a
fourth order Fresnel lens in 1857, and the lens remains in use today.
Many experiments with fog signals were carried out at
New London Harbor Light. A second-class Daboll trumpet was installed in
1874, operated by a hot-air engine.
In 1883 a new first-class fog signal was installed, and
in 1896 new engines and air compressors were added.
In 1904 a new fog siren provoked complaints from the
local summer residents. One man exclaimed, "How about that horrible
shrieking and groaning siren that has been stuck up on top of the
lighthouse here? Unless something is done pretty soon, this will be the
best field of practice for a specialist of nervous disease that I know
The mayor of New London was among 75 citizens who signed
a petition for the removal of the signal. A compromise was reached when
a less objectionable trumpet replaced the siren. In 1911 the fog signal
was relocated to the New London Ledge Light.
A 1904 article by Arthur Hewitt described a visit of the
lighthouse tender Larkspur to New London Harbor Light while the
fog signal was still located there:
The keeper [Charles B. Field], a Swede, was
a very intelligent man; curious to relate, he was a connoisseur in
violins, about which he told me a great deal and tried to tell me more;
but I wanted to know of other things -- the sea and ships.
When we were in the tower talking of fog, he told
me how one night, when he was operating the horn, and 'the fog was so
thick yer could have cut it with a knife and it fairly stuck in yer
throat,' suddenly the sound seemed to strike something and reverberate
with a strange echo against the lighthouse.
Instinct told him that this was caused by the sails
of some ship quite near by and in immediate danger of running on the
rocks. He shouted a warning to the invisible ship, and between the
blasts of the horn surely enough there came back an answer. He had
altered the vessel's course just in time.
(Left: The keeper seen in
this photo from the early 1900s is probably Charles B. Field.)
In 1912, the incandescent oil vapor lamp was replaced by an
automatic acetylene beacon. The keepers were removed and the property
was sold at auction. The property had been divided into two parcels by
the construction of Peqout Avenue in the 1860s, and it was sold as two
separate properties, one on each side of the street.
The entrance to the tower
The iron stairs in the tower
A view from the top
New London Harbor Light can be seen from Pequot Avenue,
but the grounds are not open to the public.
Excellent views can be obtained from many of the vessels
leaving New London, including ferries to Fishers Island, Block Island,
and Montauk, Long Island.
Venerable New London Harbor Light remains an active aid
to navigation, with a fixed white light and a red sector warning
mariners away from dangerous Sarah Ledge.
The New London Maritime
ownership of the lighthouse became official in 2009, and the formal
conveyance took place on October 13, 2010. According to the New London Maritime Society:
- In April 2005, it was announced that ownership of the
lighthouse would be transferred to the New London Maritime Society
under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation
Act of 2000. The society also operates the Custom House Maritime
Museum, and promotes the maritime history of New London through its
collections, library, archives, museum exhibits, and educational
London Maritime Society is making the repairs necessary to open New
London Harbor Light to the public on a strictly limited basis. . . The
New London Maritime
Society is pleased to announce that a generous gift from the Kitchings
Family has been used to establish a lighthouse endowment. This fund
will be used to insure the light's permanent care."
Additional contributions to the lighthouse fund may be made to:
New London Harbor Light Fund
New London Maritime Society
150 Bank Street, New London, CT 06320
- You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of
Connecticut by Jeremy D'Entremont.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own
risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
Nathaniel Shaw (c. 1761- at least 1771); Jedediah Huntington
(c. 1791); Griswold Harris (1814-at least 1816), John G. Munn (c.
1837-1841); John Mason (1841-1844); Nathan Buddington (1844-1845); ?
Comstock (?) (1845-1850); John Mason (1850-1853); Lyman Reed
(1853-1859), Elijah Bolles (1859-1868); Philip M. Ross (1868-1869);
Charles A. Bunnell (1869-1889); Charles A. Bunnell, Jr. (assistant
1872-1890); Henry A. Whaley (1889); Charles B. Field (1889-c.1908);
Christopher Culver, Jr. (assistant, c.1890-1892?); James A. Hobron (c.
1892-?); George L. Potter (assistant 1890-1895); Joseph D. Burke
(assistant 1895-1899), Elmer J. Rathbun (assistant 1899-?), Edward J.
Feeney (c. 19??)