Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2012-05-23.
Mariners have requested a lighthouse to mark the ledges near the entrance to the Thames River as early as the 1850s. Although the New London Harbor Lighthouse was located just onshore, it was ineffective in heavy fog. Mariners claimed that the ledge was claiming a vessel a month, many with the loss of the entire ship and cargo and some with a loss of life. Buoys have marked the site, but many mariners deemed them ineffective, and more times than not, they were missing, having been swept off in heavy seas or ice floes.
To help placate the mariners, the Lighthouse Service had stood up an iron day-beacon on Black Ledge; however, it too was swept away the following winter by an ice flow. It was later replaced, but the Lighthouse Service knew that something more permanent would need to be put in place as shipping increased in the area.
New London Ledge (Courtesy USCG)
To remedy this situation, a lighthouse and fog signal were approved for Black Ledge with an appropriation of $60,000 that was set aside on April 28, 1904. However, Acts of Congress dated June 20, 1906 and March 4, 1907 made the appropriation of 1904 available for the establishment of a lighthouse at Southwest Ledge, a quarter mile away when it was deemed a better location. On March 4, 1909, and additional $60,000 was set to ensure that the project was properly funded, however, the lighthouse total would come in much less at $93,968.96 when completed.
Construction of the light started in July of 1908. A timber crib 52 feet square by 31 feet high was constructed and then set in 28 feet of water. Its outer face was filled with concrete while the interior was filled with gravel and riprap. On top of the crib sat a 3 feet high concrete cap. Sitting atop of the concrete cap was another pier measuring 50 feet square by 18 feet high which made up the basement of the lighthouse.
It was upon this pier that the nearly 35 feet tall brick and granite lighthouse was built. The three-story structure was composed of fourteen rooms and featured Colonial and French stylings. Atop the mansard-styled roof was an octagonal watch-room and cast-iron lantern room.
The lighting apparatus consisted of a Henry LePaute fourth order Fresnel lens rotating on ball bearings by a weighted clockwork. The light source in 1910 was a kerosene lamp, which was changed out to an incandescent oil vapor lamp in 1913. The "signature" of three white flashes followed by a red flash every thirty-seconds was created using four panels, three white and one red.
The lighthouse was completed in October of 1909. To avoid confusion, the Lighthouse Board had requested the name be changed to the New London Ledge Lighthouse as there was already a Southwest Ledge Lighthouse near New Haven, Connecticut. The Secretary of Labor and Commerce approved the name change on October 21, 1909 and it was first lit on the night of November 10, 1909.
The Reports of the Department of Commerce and Labor dated 1912 list the lighthouse layout as such:
Quarters. - There are quarters for three keepers. They consist of a basement containing a large room, below which are the cisterns and water tanks and a coal room and oil room. The first floor contains entrance hall, kitchen, dining room, and closets. The second floor provides two bedrooms and a bathroom, and the third floor a bedroom and a watch room. Supplies are landed at the station by the tender. There are two landing platforms and ladders and davits for hoisting the keepers' boats.
There are rumors that the lighthouse is haunted. The story is that of a civilian keeper during the 1930s named Ernie who had climbed to the top of the tower and leapt to his death. His impetus was a letter from his wife received earlier in the day that said she was leaving him for the captain of the Block Island Ferry. After that, keepers and Coast Guard personnel that had succeed Ernie had reported feeling sudden chills, items being moved around, door opening and closing by themselves, and footsteps when no one is around.
The New London Ledge Lighthouse was the last lighthouse on Long Island Sound to be automated. The four-man Coast Guard crew left on May 1, 1987 after the lighthouse was automated. In 1988, the Coast Guard was back to remove the fourth order Fresnel lens, replacing it with a FA-251 rotating beacon. The fourth order Fresnel lens is now on display at the Custom House Maritime Museum in New London.
The Library of Congress has many interior and exterior photos of the New London Ledge Lighthouse. You can view them here.
Directions: Given that this lighthouse sits off shore at the mouth of the Thames River and Long Island Sound, it is best viewed from the water. There are several cruise companies that pass by the lighthouse. However, distant views might be had at Ocean Beach Park or from the Avery Point Lighthouse.
To get to Ocean Beach Park, 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. Follow Pequot Ave. to the end, make a right onto Neptune Ave. This will lead you into the park.
Directions: The lighthouse sits off shore. Lighthouse closed.View more New London Ledge Lighthouse pictures