Norwalk, settled in 1649,
was a major oystering and manufacturing center as far back as the
1700s, with pottery one of the major exports.
In 1827, a lighthouse was built on 53-acre Sheffield
Island to mark the dangerous ledges at the entrance to the city's
harbor. The original one-story stone keeper's cottage still stands, but
the site of the first tower is now underwater.
The first keeper was Gershom Smith, who had bought the
island from his wife's father, Capt. Robert Sheffield. In 1818 Smith
had opened a hotel, or "house of entertainment," on Sheffield Island.
Smith also raised cattle; the cows sometimes wandered to other islands
at low tide. The Smith family lived on Sheffield Island for five
Right: Gershom Smith with
his wife, Temperance. Courtesy of the Norwalk Seaport Association.
The original 1826 keeper's house
The first lighthouse had an unusual and intricate
lighting system. Ten lamps with parabolic reflectors were turned using
a clockwork mechanism, producing alternating red and white flashes.
This system was replaced by a fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1857.
An 1850 inspection reported:
Lantern apparatus was clean, and so was everything
in and about the light-house; lamps are in good burning order, but the
reflectors are poor... Keeper is alone, entirely so, and everything he
has in the house is out of fix; nothing is done right; nothing is as it
should be. Poor man, and miserable, and will continue so without a wife.
The stone mid-Victorian style lighthouse that still
stands was built in 1868. The style is very similar to several other
lighthouses built about the same time: Block Island North Light in
Rhode Island, Great Captain Island Light and Morgan Point Light in
Connecticut, and Plum Island Light and Field Point Light in New York.
newspaper story in July 1872 announced that Noah Mosher, who had been
keeper since 1861, had died suddenly a few days earlier. According to
the story, Mosher "was seated in a chair, spyglass in hand, watching
several vessels which were passing the island, and talking about them
to persons standing near, when he suddenly fell backward and in an
instant was dead."
In August 1901, Keeper Samuel Armour became ill with
typhoid fever after drinking contaminated water from the station's
cistern. Armour's wife served as keeper until he recovered three months
Sheffield Island Light was replaced in 1902 by the new
Greens Ledge Light farther west. The lighthouse was sold at auction for
under $5,000 in 1914 to Thorsten O. Stabell, captain of the Norwalk
In the 1930s, an attempt was made to create a resort on
Sheffield Island, with a golf course and tennis courts. The enterprise
shut down in 1937 because of the lack of fresh water on the island.
From the collection of Edward Rowe
Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell
In 1991, archaeologist Karen
Orawsky was working on historic site preservation on Sheffield Island.
One day, as she approached the island in a boat, she heard "hypnotic
and mystical" music coming from the island, with no apparent source.
She also heard what seemed to be a foghorn where there was no foghorn,
and distant cries for help. Some believe the music could be attributed
to the spirit of Captain Robert Sheffield, who played an unusual
instrument called the "long spell," like an oversized violin played
with porcupine quills.
The lighthouse remained the property of the Stabell
family until it was sold to the Norwalk Seaport Association for
$700,000 in 1986. The ten-room building was placed on the National
Register of Historic Places in 1989.
In 1993, major services were contributed by the
Telephone Pioneers of America, Pitney Bowes employees and CVIA
volunteers. A utility generator was rebuilt and electricity was added
to the keeper's house.
In the fall of 1993 a tropical storm named Beth sent
waves crashing against the lighthouse's foundation. Stones smashed
through basement windows and the basement was flooded with over four
feet of water. A number of artifacts and furnishings were lost. A
utility shed holding the restored generator was knocked off its
footings and the generator was thrown into the water. The station's
water cistern filled with seawater and had to be drained. The storm
also significantly changed the shape of Sheffield Island.
Work was done in 1997 to slow the erosion near the
lighthouse. Gabions were installed and beach grass and roses were
The Norwalk Seaport Association raises funds through
memberships and by holding a yearly Oyster Festival featuring top-name
perfomers like Little Richard and Peter Frampton. Faced with the
expenses of maintaining the lighthouse and initiating erosion control
measures, the Association was facing a $400,000 deficit in late 1996.
In 1998, Norwalk Mayor Frank Esposito and four former
mayors gathered on the steps of the Norwalk Concert Hall to draw
attention to the preservation of the lighthouse. "If it went into
private hands it would be lost as a resource for people to enjoy," said
former Mayor Donald J. Irwin.
A view from the top. The
original 1826 lighthouse was in the area where rocks can be seen in the
water, to the left of the point extending in the background.
On September 11, 2000 the Norwalk Seaport Association's
four-year campaign to retire the $540,000 mortage on the lighthouse
culminated in a Mortage Burning Ceremony.
recently, the association was awarded a state grant of $250,000 for
restoration, and a $9500 grant from the Connecticut Trust for Historic
Preservation to pay for the planning of restoration work.
solar-powered light was put in service in the lighthouse on October 17,
2011, thanks to the support of NRG Energy, Inc. The light is not
considered an aid to navigation.
Staff from NRG rebuilt the
island's entire electric system. Norwalk Seaport Association President
Tom Shrum said, “We’re grateful to NRG for their generosity and the
great work they’ve done. . . The tower light is not only a symbol of a
great partnership, but will be a welcoming beacon to our visitors and a
reminder of the history and significance of the lighthouse.”
The Norwalk Seaport Association provides public tours of the
lighthouse throughout the summer. You can take a ferry from the Seaport
Dock next to the Norwalk Maritime Aquarium.
For more information or to help support the preservation of
Sheffield Island Light, contact:
- Norwalk Seaport
- 132 Water Street
- South Norwalk, CT 06854
- (203) 838-9444
- Fax (203) 855-1017
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 email@example.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.)
- Gershom Smith (1827-1845); Lewis Whitlock (1845-1861); Noah
Mosher (1861-1872); Frederick Comstock (1878-1885); Neil Ward
(1885-1886); Samuel Armour (1886-1902)