Historic Structures

New London Harbor Lighthouse, New London Connecticut

Date added: June 28, 2022 Categories: Connecticut Lighthouse

New London Harbor Lighthouse is highly significant in the history of aids to navigation in Long Island Sound: the first lighthouse on the Sound was established on that site in 1760. New London Lighthouse was established as the fourth lighthouse in the United States, following the Boston (1716), Brant Point (1746), and Beavertail (1749) Lighthouses. The original lighttower was one of the 12 colonial lights taken over by the newly-formed federal government in 1789. George Washington signed the contract with the lighthouse supplier in New London in 1791, indicating both the interest taken in the Lighthouse Service by the leaders of the new country, and the small size of the federal government in that period. Constructed in 1801 as a replacement for the deteriorated colonial structure, the present tower is the oldest lighthouse remaining in Connecticut, and typifies the federal government's standardized format for masonry light towers which continued as a model into the mid-nineteenth century. New London Harbor Lighthouse also is significant as the site of numerous tests for improvements in lighting apparatus and fog-signal devices used by the federal lighthouse service, from the earliest incorporation of Lewis's parabolic reflecter and Argand lamp system in a chandelier to the thousands of candlepower of the twentieth century acetylene gas lamp and electrical equipment.

The original lighthouse was funded through a lottery at a time when lighthouses were built individually by local shipping interests. Between prosperous harbors great stretches of coast remained unmarked. Prior to the Revolution, the 1760 tower was maintained with funds granted by the state legislature; following the Revolution taxes on shipping were used. By 1789, when the federal government assumed responsibility for all lighthouses in the U.S., the New London light tower had developed a crack ten feet long in its hammered stone wall, and at 64 feet, its height was determined insufficient to be clearly visible from the west. On May 5, 1800, Congress appropriated $15,700.00 for rebuilding, altering and improving the lighthouse. A. Woodward of New London received the contract for construction of a lighthouse, an oil vault and a cistern for $16,500, eight hundred dollars more than the Congressional appropriation. Construction was begun in 1800. Completed in 1801, this structure remains as the present New London Harbor Lighthouse.

By 1833, the 1801 lighthouse needed extensive repair. In that year, Charles H. Smith contracted to furnish a new stone deck, lay on a brick arch, and supply the following: a new lantern surrounded with two iron rails one inch squares a new copper dome and vanes a new flight of wood stairs, and a new outer door and lock. He agreed to cement the outer joints in the tower with hydraulic or Roman cement and whitewash the whole. The lantern, decks and dome were to be equal in size to those at Morgan's Point in Groton, built in 1831-2. Repairs were to cost $1500.

In 1863 a third set of stairs, an iron circular stairway, was installed in the tower. In all likelihood this installation also included the brick lining wall which supports the outer ends of the stair treads.

A remarkable succession of innovative lighting devices have been used at New London Harbor Lighthouse. Oil lamps and an eclipser were installed in the newly constructed lighttower, only five years after the first use in the U.S. of such an intermittent lighting device at Cape Cod. Although Winslow Lewis's patent lamps and parabolic reflectors were adopted for the U.S. lighthouses in 1812, New London Harbor Lighthouse was darkened during the war. In 1816 it was among the last of the forty-nine American lighthouses to be refitted with the Lewis apparatus. When the new lantern was installed at the lighthouse in 1833, the Lewis apparatus was re-installed, but by 1850 a visiting inspector had declared the lighting apparatus in poor condition, noting that several arms to the reflectors were either loose or missing. Within the next decade, a Fresnel lens was installed. The Henry Lepaute fixed lens presently houses here may be the original equipment; it matches the description of the fourth order, fixed Henry Lepaute lens in place at New London Lighthouse in 1876, 1903 and 1911. In 1909, illumination was furnished by an incandescent oil-vapor lamp, changed to acetylene on July 20, 1912. In 1930, New London Harbor Lighthouse had a 2200 candlepower electric lamp.

A dwelling for the lighthouse keeper measuring thirty-six by eighteen feet in plans was constructed some distance to the west of the light tower in 1818. A contract for this job in the amount of $1200.00 was awarded to Kimball Prince and Lewis Crandall of New London. In 1836 John Bishop of New London enlarged the house with a one story kitchen wing for the sum of $590.00.

The present keeper's dwelling was built in 1863, somewhat altered from the plans drawn up by the Lighthouse Board's engineers. Alterations to the dwelling carried out in 1900 reflect a major development in the Lighthouse Service personnel policy. Prior to this time the assistant keeper position was available only to single men. However, the service realized that by providing accommodations for married assistant lighthouse keepers it could attract and train good candidates for future lighthouse keeper positions. To accommodate a married assistant keeper, the New London Harbor keeper's dwelling was raised one story in 1900, with two shed roof dormers installed on either slope of the gabled roof. A one-story, shed roofed porch on the south elevation also dates from this general period.

New London Harbor Lighthouse was particularly significant in the history of fog-signals. The Daboll trumpet, widely adopted by the Lighthouse Board after the mid-nineteenth century, was named after its developer, a citizen of New London. In 1858, a special committee was formed to investigate the Daboll invention. At New London Harbor, a fog-signal engine was in place by 1869, and in 1874 a 2nd order fog-signal in duplicate was completed and in operation. In 1877, the equipment at New London Harbor Lighthouse was described as a 2nd class Daboll trumpet in duplicate, operated by an 18" Ericsson hot-air engine, and housed in a brick fog signal buildings Measuring eighteen feet by fourteen feet in plan, this structure stood 148 feet from the lighthouse. The fog signal was in use 1165 hours during the year. Need for a better signal was expressed, and in 1883 a first class fog trumpet was installed. Thirteen years later, in 1896, the fog signal was improved with the installation of two 3-1/2 horsepower Hornsby-Akroyd oil engines and air compressors to operate the Daboll trumpets. In 1900 the old fog-signal house was converted into an oil storehouses and in 1904, was moved from its old site to the north side of a new fog-signal house, built in 1903. There it was converted into a workshop. The new fog-signal house contained two 13 horsepower engines for the trumpets and a siren. City water pipes were laid to the fog-signal house, as well as the dwelling the same year. In 1911 the fog-signal was discontinued on the site and moved to the new New London Ledge Lighthouse.

Lighthouse inspection reports and early photographs provide evidence of several structures related to the lighthouse station which no longer remain standing: a barns an engine room, an oil house and a privy. Only the lighthouse and the keeper's dwelling remain.

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