Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2012-08-11.
The town of New London, founded in 1646, was important for its strategic location at the mouth of the Thames River and was considered the best deep water harbor on Long Island Sound. By the early 1800s, New London had become one of the busiest whaling ports in the world behind New Bedford and Nantucket in Massachusetts.
As early as the 1750s, locals kept a light on shore to guide ships to port; however, the first official lighthouse to occupy the site, as provisioned by the General Assembly of the Colony of Connecticut, was completed in 1761. The lighthouse at New London Harbor was the fourth lighthouse built in Colonial America having been completed 1761 just behind Boston harbor (Little Brewster) and Brant Point in Massachusetts, and the Beavertail Lighthouse in Rhode Island.
The lighthouse, constructed of stone stood sixty-four feet tall, having been funded by selling lottery tickets and placing a tax on shipping. At its base, it had a diameter of twenty-four feet and tapered up to two feet in diameter at the top. In 1790, the tower was turned over to the newly formed Federal Government. By 1799, a ten-foot crack had appeared in the tower, and Congress had appropriated $15,700 for its replacement on May 7, 1800.
New London Harbor Lighthouse (Courtesy USCG)
Many mariners complained that the light was ineffective, and that they had trouble distinguishing it from the neighboring houses. The government sought to remedy that with a new tower. A local New London resident by the name of Abisha Woodward was awarded the contract for the construction of the tower, which was completed in the spring of 1801.
The new tower, constructed of brownstone, stood eighty-nine feet tall and was topped off with a 12-sided cast-iron lantern room. Also constructed at that time were a keeper's dwelling, an oil house, and a cistern. In addition to the additional height of the new tower, its light characteristic was changed. Oil lamps produced the light, and an eclipser was added to make it flash. A wooden staircase inside would provide the keeper access to the lantern room.
The lighthouse was extinguished during the War of 1812 under orders from Commodore Decatur to keep it from guiding British ships into the harbor. A local militia stood guard over the tower to deter British forces. The British left it alone and instead chose the unprotected target of Little Gull Island just offshore.
By 1833, the tower was in poor condition. The lantern room was replaced with a new copper dome and iron railings. The wooden stairs inside were replaced as well as the outer door. The joints were coated with hydraulic cement and the entire tower was whitewashed. The work, conducted by Charles H. Smith, came at a cost of $1,500.
The station would undergo many changes over the years, some out of necessity and some to improve efficiency. By 1818, the keepers dwelling was in poor condition and was replaced at a cost of $1,200. A new dwelling measuring 36'x18' was constructed by Kimball Prince and Lewis Crandall of New London. Improvements would continue with a new kitchen wing being added in 1836, completed by John Bishop at a cost of $590.
The keeper's quarters would again need replacing, and be rebuilt in 1863. It would go through another transformation in 1900 when it was enlarged to provide additional living space for the assistant keeper's family, which had previously been available to single men only.
Most of the lighthouses under control of the Federal Government had received the Winslow Lewis patented reflector system during 1812. However, the installation date was delayed for the New London harbor Light since it was extinguished during the War of 1812.
The Winslow Lewis reflector system was finally installed in 1816. It employed eleven lamps with fourteen-inch reflectors to provide the light. The lighting system was put back in when a new lens was installed in 1834. The reflectors were removed in 1857 when a fourth order Fresnel was installed in the tower.
The lighting apparatus would change again over the years. Incandescent Oil Vapor would provide the illumination in 1909, only to be changed out three years later in favor of acetylene. The final change would come in 1930 when the lighthouse would be electrified.
Fog signals were an important part of the history of the New London Harbor Lighthouse. Many systems were tested there. A fog signal engine was installed in 1869, but it would several years before the 2nd class Daboll trumpets were installed in 1974. Due to the importance of this area, dual trumpets were installed to ensure the system was always at the ready.
There was a need for a better fog signal, and in 1883 it was upgraded to a first class system. The engines and air compressors were upgraded again in 1896. By 1900, the fog signal building was converted into oil storage shed. A new fog signal building was constructed in 1903 and outfitted with thirteen-horsepower engines. The engines would power the trumpets and a siren.
The trumpets would be used until the fog signal at the New London Ledge Lighthouse was made operational in 1911. At this time, the lighthouse was automated and the keepers were dismissed. The property, which was split into two separate parcels when Pequot Avenue was constructed in the 1860s, went to auction.
The keeper's dwelling is now a private residence, and the tower is still an active aid to navigation. The current owner of the New London Harbor Lighthouse is the New London Maritime Society which took ownership in 2009 through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The group runs tours of the lighthouse by appointment only.
Note: The keeper's dwelling is private property and the lighthouse grounds are closed except during guided tours, please respect this and do not trespass.
Directions: From I-95 near New London, exit at Colman Street (US-1) and head south. Colman will end at Bank Street. At Bank Street, make a left and follow that about 400 yards to Shaw Street. Make a right onto Shaw Street, and follow that south about 2.6 miles. The street name will change to Pequot Ave. The lighthouse will be on the left side. The grounds around the lighthouse are private property. Do not tresspass.
The best viewing area is from the water via boat, or from the grounds of the Avery Point Lighthouse just across the Thames River. Other views might be possible from Eastern Point Beach in the City of Groton.
Access: The keeper's dwelling is private property and the lighthouse grounds are closed except during guided tours, please respect this and do not trespass.View more New London Harbor Lighthouse pictures