Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2012-09-08.
Although it is a much smaller harbor than its nearby neighbor New London, it was important enough that the Federal Government felt that it should be lit. Congress had appropriated $3,500 for construction of a light on May 7, 1822. Contractor Benjamin Chase started construction in 1823 of a one-and-a-half story stone dwelling and thirty-foot cylindrical stone tower, which was completed in 1824. It was illuminated by a Lewis optic and was visible from twelve miles.
The lighthouse would not stay in use long due to constant erosion. By 1836, high tide was only forty-five feet from the base of the tower. References found in the Army and Navy Chronicle dating to 1837 show that measures to stop the erosion were investigated:
Dec. 1. Survey and estimate for the erection of a sea-wall for the protection of the harbor of Stonington, Connecticut; Lt. Prescott.
Within two years, the tower was in imminent danger of being swept out to sea. At that point, the decision was made to rebuild at another location further up the peninsula. The lighthouse was dismantled and many of the stones were reused to build a new one-and-a-half story stone dwelling. When the tower was constructed, it was raised several feet bringing it to a height of thirty-three feet.
The tower displayed a fixed white light from eight lamps surrounded by sixteen-inch reflectors. They were employed until sometime in 1856, when they were replaced with a more efficient sixth order Fresnel lens.
There are records that indicate a breakwater lighthouse was built before 1888. Records from the Office of the Lighthouse Board show that the Providence Steamboat Company had established and maintained a light and fog signal at the eastern end of the breakwater, thus mitigating the importance of the harbor lighthouse.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1886 defines the structure as follows:
Stonington Breakwater, on the outer side of the breakwater, Stonington Harbor, Connecticut - A gray stone pyramid against a square brown tower, with a bell and lantern on top, was made and maintained by private parties. Upon completion of the light-house now in process of construction at the extremity of the breakwater the light and bell will be no longer maintained, and the beacon will be dropped from the list.
Given the success of the Providence Steamboat Company's private aid to navigation, it was recommended to discontinue the harbor lighthouse. Also recommended was a government constructed and funded breakwater lighthouse.
Work on the breakwater lighthouse was started in 1888, and was finished a year later. The lighthouse was a conical twenty-five foot tall iron tower with a fog bell displaying a fixed red light. Benjamin Pendleton, the keeper of the harbor light, was reassigned as keeper of the breakwater light. The harbor lighthouse was discontinued on November 1, 1889.
Although the keeper continued to live in the dwelling attached to the harbor lighthouse, a small shack was constructed on the breakwater for times when it was too dangerous to make the trek back to the house. A 1901 inspection found the living conditions at the harbor lighthouse dwelling unhealthy. The inspector commented about the high rates of sickness among the inhabitants over the past twenty years, and recommended a new dwelling be built. It would be 1910 before that new dwelling was constructed. The property next door to the harbor lighthouse was used for the new dwelling.
Given that the harbor lighthouse, dwelling, and property were no longer of use, the government offered it up for sale in March of 1925. The only bid received was from the Stonington Historical Society. Upon winning the property, the group has since refurbished the lighthouse and converted it to a museum. For more information on the museum, visit www.stoningtonhistory.org.
In 1926, the breakwater lighthouse was dismantled, having been replaced by an automated skeletal tower.
Directions: The lighthouse is located at 7 Water Street, Stonington, Connecticut. From US-1 in Stonington, follow North Water Street south. It will change names to Water Street. Follow this to the end.
From the parking lot of the Stonington Lighthouse, you can see the Latimer Reef Lighthouse in Fishers Island Sound, just offshore.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by the Stonington Historical Society. Grounds open. Tower open in season.View more Stonington Harbor Lighthouse pictures