Historic Structures

New London Ledge Lighthouse, New London Connecticut

Date added: May 20, 2016 Categories: Connecticut Lighthouse

New London Ledge Lighthouse, built between 1906 and 1909, is a significant landmark in the history of navigation aids in New London Harbor. It marks a major hazard at the harbor entrance and replaced the New London Harbor Lighthouse, which was constructed in 1801. In the context of the history of lighthouse architecture, New London Ledge Lighthouse represents a rare example of a turn-of-the-century water-bound, masonry structure. This type of lighthouse design flourished in the United States during the 1860s and 1870s, but was largely supplanted by cheaper and more easily erected pre-fabricated cast-iron structures. Perhaps because the Congressional appropriation for this lighthouse followed the initiation of the design process by 14 years, the design of the superstructure combines nineteenth century ideas and styles with those of the twentieth century in an unusual way. Original working drawings of the lighthouses, dated 1906, show the use of steel beams and cinder slab floor construction, an early use of this technology in the United States.

Temporary lighted navigational aids were constructed in the American Colonies as early as the first half of the seventeenth century. The first permanent lighthouse was built on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor in 1716. The New London Harbor Light, established in 1760, was the first permanent lighthouse erected on Long Island Sound. A series of other lights were constructed along the northeastern coast to improve navigation on the busy shipping lanes between New York and Boston during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In the history of aids to navigation in the Thames River area, the site of New London Ledge was early marked as a dangerous hazard. The state of Connecticut ceded rocks and ledges off the harbor of New London to the federal government in 1790, as well as the old New London Harbor Light on the west shore. In 1794, Congress acted to establish a buoy on Southwest Ledge and other rocks to be funded by import duties and tonnage fees. In 1801 the original New London Harbor Light was replaced with a second lighthouse on the site. Lobbying for a new lighthouse in the area began in 1890, when the fog-signal and light at the old lighthouse in the harbor were felt to be inadequate in rough weather, and the light was difficult to discern against the illumination of lights on the shore. The first site chosen for the new lighthouse, Black Ledge, was later abandoned for Southwest Ledge. Since a Southwest Ledge Lighthouse already existed in Connecticut near New Haven, the name was changed to New London Ledge Lighthouse.

During the early 1870s, with the development at Hunting Island, S.C. of a pre-fabricated cast-iron lighthouse with a truncated conical shape, the combination house and light tower lost its domestic emphasis. The new breed of lighthouses with cylindrical cast-iron foundations were developed for marking difficult sites, such as reefs, shoals, and ledges, in northern waters where ice floes were a hazard. These foundations could be fabricated in sections and assembled on the site, making construction cheaper and faster. The development of superstructures which were also circular in section and constructed in the same economical way followed naturally. For water-bound sites such as that at Southwest Ledge, upon which New London Ledge Lighthouses rests, a cylindrical, cast-iron foundation would have been the common choice from the late 1870s until the 1920s.

The construction of the New London Ledge Lighthouse was delayed for more than a decade after initial consideration by Congress. The delay probably had an effect on the ultimate design of the lighthouse, which instead of following the more recent trend toward cast-iron construction, was executed with a masonry structural system. The contracts for the construction of the lighthouse were awarded in 1908. The T.A. Scott Company, which was located on the Thames River bank in Groton, was awarded the contract to build the lighthouse foundation. According to the Connecticut Historic Resources Inventory, this company was also involved in the construction of Race Rock Lighthouse. The timber foundation was towed into position, sunk in 28 feet of water over Southwest Ledge, and filled with riprap and concrete. On the concrete top layer of the foundation, which extended three feet above the water, the Hamilton R. Douglas Company of New London cast the concrete base and erected the lighthouse.

New London Ledge Lighthouse is a rare example of the combined keeper's-house-with-attached-tower type lighthouse built during the twentieth century. These lighthouses were usually designed in a revival style and in a domestic mode. Stylistically, New London Ledge Lighthouse reflects the influence of the early Colonial Revival in a variety of its features, such as red brick and white trim, small-paned rectangular windows, prominent quoins, pedimented dormers, and a shallow hipped roof with a dentiled cornice. The flooring system consists of cinder concrete and steel I-beams, innovative materials and building techniques when the lighthouse working drawings were drafted in 1906. The proportions and the scale of details, however, reflect the taste of the late nineteenth century and the period's enthusiasm for and appreciation of early American architecture.

The lighthouse type with attached rooftop cupola lantern first appeared in the United States in the 1830s with structures of wood-frame construction. The idea of combining living space and lighthouse functions in one structure, with architectural emphasis on the dwelling, was a design practice that flourished under the U.S. Lighthouse Board. After mid-century, in the Hudson River and Long Island Sound, the country's enthusiasm for revival styles was reflected in such lighthouses as Penfield Reef and Stratford Shoal. The practice continued into the period of prefabricated cast-iron construction and included metal houses-with-towers, such as the Fourteen Foot Bank Lighthouse in Delaware.

Upon completion of the structure in 1909, the fourth-order Fresnel lens, manufactured in Paris by Henri LePante, was illuminated for the first time. Its 22,000 candlepower beam supplemented the weaker beam of New London Harbor Lighthouse, and in 1911 the fog-signal apparatus at New London Ledge Lighthouse replaced that at the older lighthouse. The Fresnel lens was replaced in 1984 with a smaller modern lighting apparatus.