Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-01-21.
Latimer Reef is comprised of several rocky ledges throughout Fishers Island Sound. The name comes from James Latemore, a Patriot during the Revolutionary War, who set out to gather intelligence on a British Fleet anchored in Fishers Island Sound.
While on a small skiff, Mr. Latemore was spotted by a lookout on one of the British vessels, a chase ensued, and during the chase, Mr. Latemore's skiff ran aground on the reef that would later take his name. He was captured and hanged at sunrise the following day. His body was disposed of by burial at sea.
As early as 1804, there was an iron spindle to mark the reef; it was later replaced with a buoy. From 1837 to 1849, the Stonington Railroad and Steamboat Company had operated a private light boat to mark the Fishers Island Sound channel.
In 1849, the Federal Government established a lightship in the area known as the Eel Grass Shoal Lightship. It was described as a forty-one ton, wood-hull vessel showing a fixed white light, equipped with a fog bell and horn. This vessel was also known as Lightship L before 1867 when the Lighthouse Board adopted a numbering scheme for lightships.
Many ships would occupy the Eel Grass Shoal post over the years. At some point between 1849 and 1871, LV-12 occupied the site. It started life as a supply tender named Guthrie, and was later converted to a lightship. The vessel was retired in 1871 and sold for $322.87.
The next vessel to occupy the Eel Grass Shoal station was LV-22 which had previously served as the Wolf Trap Shoal Lightship until the Wolf Trap Light was activated. When the vessel was transferred to the Eel Grass Shoal location, the hull was renumbered from LV-22 to LV-12.
LV-25 was towed by the steamer Nettle to the Eel Grass Shoal in June of 1872 to take over for LV-12 which was moved to Cornfield Point in Connecticut. LV-12 served the station until 1877 when it was deemed too small and ill-suited for use in the district. It was sent to New London for Relief duty use.
LV-17 would take a turn as being the Eel Grass Shoal Lightship starting in 1877. This vessel would serve until 1882 when it was withdrawn for repair. After repairs, it was assigned as Relief. It would serve Relief duty until its retirement in 1890. In 1891, it was turned over to the United States Navy to use as target practice and sunk on October 15, 1891.
Once again, LV-12 would return to the Eel Grass Shoal post. After a year in service at this location, it was found that the vessel would need an estimated $20,000 in repairs to return it satisfactory condition. It was estimated that a lighthouse could be constructed on Latimer Reef for $25,000 which was close enough to where the Eel Grass Shoal Lightship was anchored to take its place.
The Lighthouse Board had moved forward with the construction of the lighthouse, and on July 1, 1884 Charles E.P. Noyes lighted the lamps. After that, LV-12 was assigned to Relief duty out of New London, and was later assigned to Hog Island Shoal in Narragansett Bay.
The cast-iron tower constructed was very similar to the many offshore lighthouses built in the 1880s such as Whale Rock, Conimicut Point, and Sakonnet Point all in Rhode Island. Given their unique shape, they were originally known as "coffee pot" lighthouses, later known as "spark plug" lighthouses once the internal combustion engine became more widely used. They usually consisted of four stories where the first three floors served as living quarters, with the fourth floor acting as a watch room or gallery.
Latimer Reef Lighthouse (Courtesy USCG)
The forty-nine foot tall tower was erected upon a cast-iron, concrete-filled foundation in eighteen feet of water on the western edge of the reef. The tower was painted brown and outfitted with a fifth-order Fresnel lens which exhibited a flashing white light. At a later date, the tower was painted white.
To help insulate the iron towers, many times they were lined with brick. The Latimer Reef Lighthouse was only partially brick-lined, so consequently the tower was hot and damp in the summer, and frigid in the winter months.
Life at the station seems to have settled in as very few entries were made in the Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board. However, in 1893 the following entry was made:
179. Latimer Reef, on Latimer Reef, Fishers Island Sound, New York - A coal bin was built; the concrete deck of the pier was repaired, and 275 tons of riprap were placed. Various minor repairs were made.
In 1891, the station received a fog bell and striking mechanism. An entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1896 indicated that the Stevens striking mechanism was replaced by a new one and other general repairs were made.
The illuminating apparatus was upgraded in 1898 to increase the intensity light. A fourth-order Fresnel lens with an improved rotating mechanism was installed on December 24, 1898. The tower still displayed a flashing white light. On May 15, 1899, the lighthouse received its unique brown band across its mid-section.
The Latimer Reef Lighthouse survived one the strongest nor'easters on record. The Great Blizzard of March 1, 1914 brought about the lowest barometric pressure recorded outside of a hurricane. The reading of 952 millibars was recoded at Bridgehampton, New York on Long Island. The Blizzard proceeded to drop two-feet of heavy wet snow on the New York / New Jersey area.
Inside the Latimer Reef Lighthouse, Keeper William H. Smith reported that, "the sea was so high that it broke over the platform and pier." He was able to tie down the station boats which survived the onslaught, but lost were the station's outhouse, woodshed and its contents, and a fence along the pier.
The station was automated in 1974. The Coast Guard removed the fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1983 and replaced it with a more maintenance friendly plastic optic.
On July 9, 2008 the Coast Guard deemed the property as excess and made it available under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. After no eligible group showed interest, the General Services Administration put the property to auction. The winning bid of $225,000 was accepted in August of 2010.
Directions: The best viewing spot is from the parking lot of the Stonington Harbor Lighthouse. To get there from US-1 in Stonington, follow North Water Street south. It will change names to Water Street. Follow this to the end.
Access: The lighthouse is privately owned. There is no access to the tower.
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