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In 1864, the steamer Rip Van Winkle ran into the rocks with a large number of passengers and a major tragedy was narrowly averted. In the winter of 1866-67 alone, four more vessels ran into the shoal. Local merchants and mariners clamored for a lighthouse to guide vessels safely around the treacherous area.
Captain D. C. Constable of the Lighthouse Board called the Cows “the most dangerous locality, during fogs and snow-storms, upon Long Island sound.” Benjamin Penfield, who had been navigating the sound for 40 years, added, “Vessels are stranded here every year, and our increasing commerce calls attention to something so important for its protection.”On April 22, 1868, Joseph Lederle, lighthouse engineer for the Third District, wrote the following to Admiral W. B. Shubrick of the Lighthouse Board:
Having carefully examined the locality referred to, I fully agree with the views of the light-house inspector of this district, and the petitioners, as to the necessity of having a light to guide clear of the shoal extending from Fairfield, about two miles distant.
This dangerous shoal is now marked by a day beacon and two buoys, sufficient guides for vessels passing by during daytime. At night the mariner is left without any mark to warn him of the danger; hence the many disasters which occur at this shoal. . .
The extreme end of the shoal is marked by three points, which are known as the Cows, Huncher Rock, and Penfield Reef. On Huncher Rock is the Black Rock beacon. . .
It is respectfully recommended to put the proposed light-house on Penfield Reef… The tower connected with the keeper’s dwelling is recommended to be built on the plan approved by the board for the Hudson river stations. It is further recommended to furnish the station with a powerful fog signal.
The Lighthouse Board asked for $55,000 for a light station on Penfield Reef, to be built in water about five feet deep. When Lederle referred to the Hudson River stations, he had in mind the newly designed Esopus Meadows Lighthouse that would be built in 1871. Esopus Meadows, like most other lighthouses of similar design, was a combination lighthouse/dwelling of wood frame construction with an integral cast iron tower. The style is considered Second Empire.
The dwelling at Penfield Reef would be built of stone. A close sibling of Penfield Reef Light was the Sabin Point Lighthouse built on the Providence River, Rhode Island, in 1871 with basically the same design and construction.
There was no immediate action, but finally on July 15, 1870, Congress appropriated $30,000, followed by an additional appropriation of $25,000 on March 3, 1871. The 1872 Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board described the early stages of construction and hinted at some difficulties involving the contractor for the granite pier upon which the lighthouse would stand:
The foundation of riprap was laid during the previous season, and stood uninjured throughout the winter gales. The landing, wharf, and pier are in progress of construction under contract, and will be completed so far this season as to admit of the commencement of the dwelling, which is also under contract. The contractor of the pier, owing to his want of adequate means, has delayed the work, and the forbearance of the engineer toward him has alone prevented the annulling of his contract and the commencement of suit to recover the amount of the bonds.
Race Rock, Penfield Reef and Stratford Shoal (1877) would prove to be among the last offshore masonry lighthouses on masonry foundations built in the U.S. before the use of cast iron towers on cylindrical cast iron caissons came into vogue.
In 1874 the Lighthouse Board reported:
The dwelling and tower of this station have been satisfactorily completed, and the light was exhibited the first time on January 16, 1874. A fog bell, struck by machinery, has been established at this station.
The first keeper, George Tomlinson, remained only two years. Turnover at the offshore station was great, with many keepers and assistants remaining only a year or two. William Jones was head keeper starting in 1880 at a salary of $500 yearly, and his wife, Pauline, was his assistant at $400 per year.
Neil Martin, formerly at Race Rock and Stamford Harbor, was keeper from 1882 to 1891. His wife Jane also served as an assistant keeper during some of that time. Jane Martin died in March of 1886, and Keeper Martin received a letter from the Lighthouse Depot in Tompkinsville, NY, coldly informing him, “Find a competent man to take your place, and then leave of absence to attend the burial of your wife is hereby granted you.”
It was often harrowing getting to and from the lighthouse, especially in winter. Nelson B. Allen, an assistant keeper, had a hair-raising experience in late January of 1888. The New York Times of January 30 reported:
He came ashore in the afternoon after medicine for his wife, and started on his return at 5 o’clock. His boat got wedged between two large cakes of ice which were drifting southward. He was unable to release it. After floating about for five hours he was rescued by the steamer City of New Haven and transferred to a tug which had been sent out in search of him. He was exhausted, and his limbs were frost-bitten. This afternoon he was taken to the light-house.
The saddest incident in the lighthouse’s history took place nearly three decades later. On December 22, 1916, Keeper Fred A. Jordan (sometimes spelled Jordon) left the lighthouse at twenty minutes past noon to row ashore. There were high seas and strong winds, but the keeper badly wanted to join his family for Christmas and to give his hand-made presents to his children. Assistant Keeper Rudolph Iten watched from the lighthouse as Jordan pushed his boat through the waves.
About a hundred yards from the lighthouse, Jordan’s boat capsized. He clung to the boat and signaled for Iten to lower the station’s remaining boat and come to his aid. Iten tried valiantly to do this, but the steadily increasing waves and wind made it impossible to launch the boat. He finally got underway about 1 p.m., but by that time Jordan had drifted a mile and a half to the southwest. Iten said later:
I did my level best to reach him, but I hadn’t pulled more than half a mile when the wind changed to the southwest, making a head-wind and an outgoing tide, against which I couldn’t move the heavy boat. I had to give up, and returned to the station in a regular gale. From the station I sent distress signals to passing ships, but none answered. At three o’clock I lost sight of the drifting boat. The poor fellow’s body wasn’t found until three months later. He was a fine fellow, was Fred.
Iten was absolved of any blame for Jordan’s death. He was promoted to head keeper and would remain for more than a decade. A May 14, 1922, article by F. A. Barrow in the Bridgeport Sunday Post offered an intimate glimpse at life at Penfield Reef. Iten lived at the lighthouse with two assistants at that time, Walter Harper and Arthur Bender. Each of the men, all World War I veterans, got eight days off each month. When Barrow entered the building, “a lively little dog came bounding and barking a welcome.” This was Penfield, or Pen for short.
The conversation upon Barrow’s arrival centered around the “merits of various washing and scouring powders,” prompting the writer to remark, “I would suggest to any suffragette looking for a husband who could keep house while she was attending business or lectures, that she might do well to choose a lighthouse keeper.” Barrow asked the keeper how the work was divided between the men. He replied, “We stand watches. This is my watch. At one in the morning Arthur goes on duty. The regular work we share, washing, scrubbing and cooking; and we can all cook, too – you wait and see.”
Barrow learned later that “the boast in regard to cooking was not an idle one” when he was treated to “steak and noodles a la Penfield.” Dessert was a “beautiful pink cake” that Arthur Bender had won in Fairfield.
Barrow described the living room, with green walls decorated with photos of all the Allied generals of World War I. The room was furnished with a table, several chairs, a desk and a “graphonola” with records. Reading material on hand included poems by Burns and Longfellow, and Poe’s The Gold Bug. The bedrooms on the second floor were “comfortably but not luxuriously furnished” with “cot-beds” all neatly made.
few years later another writer visited Iten, and a conversation in the
wee hours of the morning turned decidedly macabre. “They say that
all lighthouse keepers are mad,” said Iten as a preface to the
following chilling tale, told against the background of the whispering
wind and the gentle wash of the waves.
You ask if there has ever been anything in the nature of a supernatural occurrence at this lighthouse. Well, all light keepers are more or less hard-boiled and not given over to stretches of imagination. While I don’t deny or admit the theory of ghosts, something happened here one night that seemed to point to the establishment of the fact that there are such things as supernatural visitations.
An undated article in the Bridgeport Public Library claims that, on stormy nights, “the specter of the reef is said to be flitting among the rocks, poised on the rail of the gallery that surrounds the lantern or swaying, as if in agony, among the black and jagged rocks that surround the base of the light.” The article tells the story of a power yacht that ran into trouble on the rocks but was “piloted through the breakers to safety by a strange man who suddenly appeared amid the surf creaming over the rocks… in a row-boat.”
And then there were the two boys who were fishing near the reef when their canoe capsized, throwing them into the sea. A man appeared “from out of the rocks” and pulled them to safety. When they came to, they entered the lighthouse expecting to thank their savior, but he was nowhere to be found.
Keeper Iten said that he and the other keepers had performed 27 rescues in his years at Penfield Reef, including canoeists trying to cross the shoal and exhausted swimmers. The keepers once hauled a motorboat full of people on the reef and repaired the boat’s rudder. For their trouble, the men were given an underwhelming reward of one dollar. “Of course, we never accept monetary remuneration,” said Iten, “but the value put by the leader of the party on our lives and his company – at one dollar – well, it was amusing.”
In September 1916, nine barges of the Blue Line Company had piled up on part of the reef, a location henceforth known as the Blue Line Graveyard. Another time, a coal freighter ran right into the lighthouse, dislodging some of the riprap stones and making the keepers think an earthquake was in progress. And Iten told the story of the skipper of a small boat that hit the reef in broad daylight and then proceeded to lodge an official complaint about the light being “too dim.”
much of the Coast Guard era, three men were assigned to Penfield Reef,
with two on duty at one time. The men had two weeks on followed by
one week off. One of the last keepers was C. J. Stites, who later
became Bridgeport’s senior deputy harbormaster. In a 1983 article
in the Fairfield Citizen-News,
he said that visitors were generally not allowed, but sometimes people
did stop by with food or bits of news.
Clark Ellison was also among the
last Coast Guard keepers, and his memories dispel many notions of the
romance of lighthouse life:
Most people believed it an adventure or possibly even romantic to be a ‘wickie.’ It was not. Most of the time it was nothing more than boring. When I was there the second floor had a small bedroom for the officer in charge and a large bedroom for the other men, a bathroom and a radio room, and the ladder up to the light. The light had an electric lamp and motor to turn the light, but the motor never worked. The light was kept in motion by a stack of weights on cables that had to be wound up on a drum, and the weights would lower through the floor and through a gear box that would spin the light, which floated in a brass vat of mercury. Or so I was told, as one could not see the mercury. If the weights touched the floor they would spin and twist the cable causing the motion to stop.
The radio almost never worked as it was an old tube type and tubes were hard to come by. We had to change at least one a week and [the Coast Guard station at] Eaton's Neck did not want spend any unnecessary funds on the light, so we only received two or three a month. And then once in a while they would send a few extra so we could do our daily reports.
Water came from a 180-foot buoy tender through a hose that was hauled by hand across the water -- lots of fun when the tide was flowing. Do not ask where the septic field was as it did not exist. The washer and dryer were in the lowest level of the light also. On the first floor there was a kitchen and generator room. Penfield was the only light in our group that had shore power, so we only had one generator. How I hated the fog. The horn rattled the whole building, and my quarters were right above the horn.
In the summer we fished and it was generally good. but in the winter the wind blew through the building. The curtains in the crew’s quarters were seldom still. The dark green tiles on the galley deck were polished and waxed again and again as there was nothing else to do. The few times I managed to steal a TV from Eaton's Neck we did have TV to watch but as soon as I left, the guys from Eaton's Neck would retrieve the TV.
The water quality was such that it was boiled before drinking it. After a while we had five-gallon coolers with water, and we drained the cistern, scraped and repainted it. Doubt that I would fit through that little hole anymore.
Most people are interested in the ghost. I never believed in ghosts and had never even heard the story when I encountered him the first time. Stanley Blake and I were on the light and it was late at night. I heard Stan walking up the stairs and decided to get up and have coffee with him, thinking it was just before sunrise. I got out of bed and pulled on a pair of shorts and as I came out of the door I noticed there was no one coming up the stairs after all. It was at that time that Stan opened the door to his room and it was obvious he just woke up also. He said, ‘I did not know you were up and when I heard you I decided to get up and have some coffee.’
He and I slinked around the light looking for who was intruding and found no one. We were both sure someone had walked up the stairs as you could hear each step creak, one at a time, as they always did when someone came up. Now understand -- we had visitors that would let themselves in at all hours of the day and night, but they always announced their arrival when they entered the kitchen. We had more visitations after that but did not get up to seek the ghost in person.
After nearly a century of resident keepers, Penfield Reef Light was automated in 1971. The Coast Guard had planned to replace the structure with a pipe tower but local residents objected. With the help of Congressman Lowell Weicker and State Representative Stewart McKinney the venerable lighthouse was saved.
The light remains an active aid to navigation and an automated fog signal is still in use. The Fresnel lens has been replaced by a modern lens. In 2000 it was reported that the lantern was in danger of collapsing into the structure, but the Coast Guard has had the structure stabilized.
In April 2007, it was announced that the lighthouse would be
available to a suitable new owner under the guidelines of the National
Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.
You can read 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 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.)
George Tomlinson (1874-1876); Sidney B. Thompson (assistant 1874); Charles Nichols (assistant 1874-1875); Edward Burroughs (1875-1876); Augustus Eddy (assistant 1876, head keeper 1876-1880); George H. Lord (assistant 1876); Edward Matthewson (assistant 1876-1877); Charles Sommers (assistant 1877-1878); David Tuttle (assistant 1878-1879); Chauncy D. Norton (assistant 1879-1880); William Jones (1880-1882); Pauline Jones (assistant 1880-1882); Neil Martin (1882-1891); Jane Martin (assistant 1883-1886?); Charles Grantham (assistant 1886); John Daniel Luding (assistant 1886-1887); Charles Wells (assistant 1887); F. B. Couch (assistant 1887); William R. Holley (assistant 1887); Nelson B. Allen (assistant 1888); George W. Beckwith (assistant 1888-1890); James A. Hobson (assistant 1890-1899); William H. Haynes (1891-1908); Elmer Vincent Newton (assistant 1906-1908, head keeper 1908-?); James Boyce (assistant 1903-1905); Arthur Eddy (assistant 1905); Joseph Trombley (assistant 1905); John T. Dixon (assistant 1899-1900); Joseph D. Meade (assistant 1900-1901); George A. Porter (assistant 1901-1903); Joseph D. Burke (assistant 1908); Sidney Williams (assistant 1908-1909); Lawrence Farmington (?) (assistant 1909-1910); Jerome McDougall (assistant 1910); Ernest Hatcher (?) (assistant 1910); A. B. Miller (assistant 1910-1911); Albert J. Brown (assistant 1911); Jesse Orton (assistant 1911-1912); W. H. Oliver (assistant 1912-?); Frederick Jordan (?-1916); Rudolph Iten (1916-c. 1926); Arthur Bender (1st assistant c. 1920s); Walter Harper (2nd assistant c. 1920s); George Petzolt (c. 1935-1941); William Hardwick (assistant? 1932-1941); Patrick R. Tomlinson (Coast Guard, 1968-1969); Clark Ellison (Coast Guard officer in charge, c. 1969-1971).