New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Saybrook Breakwater Light
(Saybrook Outer Light)
Old Saybrook, Connecticut
Saybrook Breakwater Light main page / History / Bibliography / Cruises / Photos / Postcards

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

The harbor of Old Saybrook, at the mouth of the Connecticut River, was limited in its development by the presence of a large sand bar at the harbor entrance. 


Buoys were placed to mark the bar, but the shifting sand made navigation difficult. In the 1870s, two parallel stone jetties were built and a deep channel was dredged between them. $20,000 was appropriated by Congress in 1882 for the construction of a lighthouse on the west jetty.

Saybrook Breakwater Light, also known as the Outer Light, was first lighted on June 15, 1886. It's about 3,000 feet from Lynde Point Light. 



Saybrook Breakwater Light and Lynde Point Light c. 1890s
From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell

The 49-foot cast-iron tower on a cylindrical foundation is very similar to Connecticut's Stamford Harbor Light. It has a basement, four main floors, a watchroom and a lantern room. It was fitted with a fifth-order Fresnel lens exhibiting a fixed white light with a red sector. A more powerful fourth-order lens was installed in 1890.

The first keeper was Frank W. Parmele, a native of Guilford, Connecticut. A newspaper article in 1888 described winter life at the station:

With the advent of cold weather in the fall, the novelties and pleasures, attendant upon a lighthouse keeper's existence depart, and he is closely confined within the strong structure for the next six months, with only an occasional visit ashore for the purpose of procuring the necessaries of life. . .

All his enjoyments are confined to his home, and you are quite certain of finding him with his family every evening.  No down street business for him after supper; no lodge meetings or clubs to occupy his evenings and keep him away from his pleasant little sitting-room.  In this sort of a boudoir, which is located on the second floor of the lighthouse, is where Captain Frank W. Parmelee whiles away the long winter evenings.  He doesn't lack for entertainment there, for his most esteemed wife is a fine musician, playing equally well upon either the organ or banjo.  Then he has recourse to a library of standard works, which is furnished by the United States Lighthouse Establishment.  Games are quite often introduced, the Captain being an adept at chess and checkers, and he's not very slow in playing the pasteboards for all they are worth.

With all these home comforts and pleasures, life cannot, after all, be so unbearable as one might first suppose, and at times we even envy the happy skipper his lot. In a letter received a short time ago from our old time friend, Captain Parmelee, he tells us of the stability of his home on the breakwater.  Even during the fiercest storms, the wind has no effect upon the staunch structure, and the mighty seas beating against it, barely make a perceptible jar.  Of the late terrible snow storm, he jocosely remarks that "for once we had the best of the people on shore, for we did not get snowed in and had no snow to shovel, but there was lots of it passed by."  He states that while the blizzard was in progress, the sea came upon the deck of the lighthouse from the north'ard, striking the front door, a like occurrence never happening before during his residence at the station, nearly two years.  As the wind was off shore, the seas did not run very high, but sufficient spray flew to cause considerable ice to form on the house. . .

The worst misfortune that has happened to the captain during the winter was the spraining of his ankle while climbing on the breakwater, which compelled him to use crutches in order to get around for about two weeks.  He's all right again now.

(Thanks to Cinda Parmelee for this article.)

The lighthouse was equipped with a 1,000-pound fog bell in 1889. The sound was so objected to by local residents that it was replaced by a 250-pound bell; this bell was succeeded by a foghorn. Atmospheric conditions made it difficult to hear the fog signals very far at sea. In 1936, two powerful diaphragm horns were installed.

This was a tough assignment for a keeper; strong winds and currents frequently made the trip to shore treacherous. More stones were eventually added to the breakwater making it possible to walk to the lighthouse, but waves washed over the rocks and in the winter the breakwater was often covered with ice.

Andrew A. McLintock, a Rhode Island native who was born in 1901, was keeper at Saybrook Breakwater 1932-35. In her book, Dory of the Lighthouse, McLintock's daughter Doris M. McLintock-Hubbard recalled that the lighthouse had four floors of living space topped by the watchroom and lantern. The entry level was the galley, furnished with a coal stove. Cast-iron stairs led to the parlor on the next level. The next set of stairs led to the keeper's bedroom, and the next level held two tiny bedrooms.

Doris also recalled that her father had to repair damage done by the previous keeper, who, because he was angry at being fired, had contaminated the station's water supply with garbage. He had also pured kerosene into the mercury that served as a bearing for the revolving lens. Until he could carefully strain out the kerosene, McLintock and his wife had to turn the lens by hand all night for several cold January nights.

There were several powerful storms during the McLintock family's years at the station, but no storm in the lighthouse's history compared to the hurricane of 1938.

On the afternoon of September 21, 1938, Keeper Sidney Gross noted in the station's log that a light southeast breeze had sprung up from a perfect calm. He had no way of knowing that this was the first warning of the worst hurricane in recorded New England history.

As the skies darkened and the winds increased, Keeper Gross and Assistant Keeper Bennett turned on the fog signal and attempted to secure the station. By 4:00 p.m., the bridge from the lighthouse to the breakwater was swept away, as were the platform around the lighthouse and a 12-foot rowboat. At 4:30 a 1,500-gallon tank of kerosene was carried away by the waves, along with a 600-gallon tank. The two keepers boarded up the window to the engine room, but the waves smashed right through, flooding the room.

old photo of lighthouse
U.S. Coast Guard photo
Gross disconnected the electric light and put the old incandescent oil vapor lamp into use. The vibrations were so great that the lamp's mantle collapsed, so Gross switched to an older oil wick lamp.

Gross stayed in the lantern room all night keeping the light going, even as he feared that the lighthouse wouldn't stand through the night. In the morning Gross surveyed the damage and entered in the log: "Everything swept away by hurricane except the tower."

The light was automated in 1959 and its Fresnel lens was replaced by a modern optic. In the summer of 1996, the Coast Guard painted the lighthouse and removed a 500-gallon fuel tank and a generator at a cost of $64,000.

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.

Saybrook Breakwater Light continues to flash a green light as an active aid to navigation. The lighthouse is visible from several places along the shore, but the general public's best views are from the water. It's at the end of a private road and is difficult to reach on foot.

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.)

Frank W. Parmele (1886-1890); John G. Skipworth (1890-1896); George W. Fife (1896-1897); Robert S. Bishop (1897-1898); Nathaniel Dodge (1898); Thomas Bunker (1898-1899); John Dahlman (1899-1907); Herbert S. Knowles (1907-1911); Simon Sfvorinich (1911-1918); Joseph F. Woods (c. 1918); J. A. Davis (1918-1920); Paul G. Peterson (1920-?); Andrew A. McLintock (1932-1935); Sidney Gross (1938-?); S.L. Bennett (assistant, c. 1938); Thomas A. Buckridge (1942-1944); George E. Sheffield (both Lynde Point and breakwater lights, ?); Laureat LeClere (both Lynde Point and breakwater lights, 1954-1970)

Last updated 12/22/11
  Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

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