Historic Structures

Falkner's Island Lighthouse, Falkner Island Connecticut

Date added: June 27, 2022 Categories: Connecticut Lighthouse

Falkner Island Lighthouse, established in 1802, is the second oldest of twelve lighthouses in Connecticut still under Coast Guard jurisdiction, and the only one which has an island setting. Falkner Island is a later typical example of the masonry lighttower design codified by the Treasury Department during the first half of the nineteenth century and was the site of early fog-horn experiments carried out by Joseph Henry, head of the Smithsonian Institution and Chairman of the Lighthouse Board. The external spiral stair connecting the watchroom and the lantern deck at Falkner Island appears to be a unique feature in the Third Coast Guard District.

Falkner Island Lighthouse was built during the second decade of national control over lighthouse design, financed with a Congressional appropriation of six thousand dollars allotted from duties collected on imported goods. Governor Trumbull of Connecticut ceded the land to the U.S. on July 23, 1801, after the island had been purchased from Medad Stone by the federal government on May 12 of the same year for $325.00.

The name of the builder of Falkner Island Lighthouse is unknown, but the design of the structure follows a pattern which was prescribed in many early nineteenth century advertisements for lighthouse construction proposals. These ads were placed in newspapers by the U.S. Treasury Department, the federal agency responsible for building and maintaining aids to navigation at that time. Falkners Island Lighthouse was built as a tapering octagonal tower faced with hammered or edged brownstone, laid in courses, and lined with "rough stone." The walls vary in thickness from four feet, six inches at the bottom to eighteen inches at the top. The original interior stairs of wood led upwards to a scuttle or hatch in a deck. Wood stairs were replaced with iron in 1871. The roof on which the iron lantern rested was sheathed in sheet copper.

In 1837, Warren Gates of Waterford, Connecticut, and John and David Bishop of New London, Connecticut, contracted to repair the lighttower and enlarge the keeper's dwelling. They pointed the mortar of the lighttower walls, painted the exterior of the walls with Portland cement, and applied whitewash inside and cut. Repairs were made to the wood stairs and scuttle, the glass panes were re-puttied, and the lantern and lantern deck were painted black with a white cornice.

The original lantern was replaced in 1840. Within the old lantern, the lighting apparatus had consisted of twelve lamps with reflectors and eight lenses placed around two circular tables. For a cost of $2,842.00 in 1840, J.W.P. Lewis agreed to fit up the new lantern with nine lamps and sixteen inch reflectors.

Perhaps the present lantern was installed between 1870 and 1872. In 1870, Congress passed an appropriation for rebuilding the keeper's dwellings and for installing an iron stair in the lighttower at Falkner Island. As the iron stair is supported by the brick lining wall within the lighttower, the brick wall was probably installed in 1870 as well. An inspection of Falkner Island made during 1873 records a fourth order Fresnel fixed lens made by Sautter & Co., Paris, installed in a lantern with dimensions matching those of the one in place on the lighttower in 1985.

Falkner Island was the site chosen in 1865 and in 1902 for tests of different kinds of fog-signal apparatus, one of the most important fields of technological experimentation for New England coastal navigation. In 1865, Joseph Henrys head of the Smithsonian Institution and Chairman of the Lighthouse Board, spent some of his vacation setting up bells, steam whistles, reflectors, hot-air engines etc. on Falkner Islands and during four days of observation he and fellow scientists cruised Long Island Sounds recording the distance at which the various devices could be heard. In 1879 the fogbell on Falkner Island was replaced by a first-class steam fog whistle, installed in a large, gable-roofed shed to the north of the lighttower. In 1902 a first-class compressed air siren, in duplicate, was installed in a new masonry engine house, which still stands south of the light tower. The siren was powered by two 16 and 1/2 horsepower oil engines. In September of that year trials were made as to the comparative range of sound penetration of whistles, the compressed air siren and diaphone. In 1934 a Leslie typhon in duplicate was installed in the engine house.

The one-and-one-half-story, frame keeper's dwelling erected in 1801 contained six rooms. The structure was enlarged in 1837. A three-story frame dwelling with eight rooms replaced the original keeper's house in 1871, remaining in use on Falkner Island for over one hundred years until it was destroyed by fire in March, 1976. The personnel were removed from the island thereafter. That same year the tower was sandblasteds repointed and painted; the lower windows of the tower were bricked in and a steel door and iron jamb were installed, and the Fresnel lens and pedestal were removed to New Haven for safekeeping.

The 1902 fog signal engine house south of the lighttower, and a frame boathouse at the boat landing area on the western shore are the only other light station structures which remain standing on the island. In addition, a frame observation post stands some distance north of the tower, used by researchers who are studying two species of terns, common and roseates which have established nesting colonies on Falkner Island.

In July, 1985, the island was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by the Coast Guard, as part of the Connecticut Coastal National Wildlife Refuge which was established by Congress in October, 1984. The Coast Guard retains responsibility for maintaining the light tower, the docks, and the rest of the navigational facilities.

Operating Lighthouses in Connecticut
Falkner Island Lighthouse (1802) Falkner's Island
Lynde Point Lighthouse (1838) Old Saybrook
New London Harbor Lighthouse (1801) New London
New London Ledge Light Station (1906) New London
Penfield Reef Lighthouse (1874) Bridgeport
Stratford Point Lighthouse (1881)
Stratford Shoal Lighthouse
Tongue Point Lighthouse (1894)
Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse (1886)
Southwest Ledge Lighthouse (1876)
Greens Ledge Lighthouse (1902)
Peck Ledge Lighthouse (1906)


Map of Lighthouses in Connecticut