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New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Avery Point Light
Groton, Connecticut
Avery Point Light main page / History / Bibliography / Cruises / Photos

History

This lighthouse’s life as an active navigational aid (from 1944 to 1967) was relatively brief, and it never had a resident keeper like its older neighbors.  But like every lighthouse, it has its own compelling story.  

The tower stands on the shore at the east side of the entrance to the Thames River, on the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point Campus in Groton.  Avery Point is named for Capt. James Avery, a prominent early settler of New London.  The campus was once the 70-plus-acre estate of wealthy industrialist, philanthropist, and yachtsman Morton F. Plant. 

Plant, who inherited the Southern Express Company from his father, built a luxurious 31-room summer “cottage” called Branford House at Avery Point in 1903.  The Plants reportedly stayed at Branford House for only a month or two each year, but a staff of 50 was employed to keep things in good order year-round.  

old photo of lighthouse

U.S. Coast Guard photo

This building was built as Morton Plant's "Branford House" at Avery Point. Today, it houses administrative offices for the University of Connecticut.  Click here for more information.
Morton Plant died in 1918, and in 1942 the estate was sold to the state of Connecticut.  Shortly thereafter it was deeded to the U.S. Coast Guard, which planned to develop it into a training facility.  The Coast Guard had a small training facility on the New London side of the Thames but needed a larger site.

The deed from the state stipulated that the Coast Guard would “erect and maintain on or over the land hereinafter described beacon lights or other buildings and apparatus to be used in aid of navigation.”

The United States Coast Guard Training Station was soon established at Avery Point, with Branford House serving as an administration building and living quarters for the station’s commanding officer.  Thousands of Coast Guard personnel received training at the site.  Subjects included aids to navigation, advanced seamanship, gunnery, electricity, electronics, radar, and administrative and clerical work.  During World War II, 100 people arrived every week to begin 13-week courses, and for years more than 3,000 people graduated annually. Also on the same grounds was the Coast Guard Institute, which trained Coast Guard personnel through correspondence courses and also administered service-wide examinations.

The lighthouse, the last to be built in Connecticut, was finished by March 1943. The octagonal 41-foot tower, designed by Alfred Hopkins and Associates  of New York, New York, harks back to the nation’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century masonry towers and has some Colonial Revival details. The lighthouse was constructed of light brown concrete blocks with an eight-sided wooden lantern.  The lantern gallery deck was surrounded by a cast-concrete railing with 32 white Italian marble balusters salvaged from the Plant estate. 

Its debut as a lighted aid to navigation was delayed by war concerns.  On May 2, 1944, it was lighted for the first time with an unusual array of eight 200-watt bulbs, creating a fixed white light 55 feet above sea level.  The light was useful for vessels entering a cove east of Avery Point and for those navigating the Pine Island Channel.  

The light also served a purpose for keepers at Race Rock Light Station out in Fisher’s Island Sound.  When the fog got so thick that they could no longer see the light at Avery Point, the keepers knew it was time to turn the foghorn on.

In the 1994 edition of his book America’s Atlantic Coast Lighthouses: A Traveler's Guide, Kenneth Kochel states that “the tower was built as a memorial tower and as a symbolic representation of the USCG lighthouse keeping responsibilities.”  If there are source documents to back up this attractive notion, they’re hard to find.  According to the listing for the National Register of Historic Places prepared by the Connecticut Historical Commission, this “misunderstanding” dates back to a 1955 article in U.S. Coast Guard magazine.  The article, by Robert Miller,  stated:

When the State of Connecticut gave the Training Station property to the Coast Guard there was one stipulation—“that a light tower be built at the extremity of the peninsula where day and night it would serve as a reminder of illustrious names from the past and an active and useful present.” Remember whose names, I don’t know, but maybe it’s the names of students—like the 1,462 who graduated last year.

The “illustrious names” could also be interpreted to mean lighthouse keepers of the past.  In any event, no such language actually appeared in the deed. Although the origins of the memorial notion are hazy, it’s been repeated so often that for all intents and purposes Avery Point Lighthouse has come to serve that very purpose for many people.  Whether or not it was originally built as a memorial tower, it is one today.

During its active years, the light was apparently tended by personnel or students from the training facility, saving the expense of a keeper.  In 1960 the light’s characteristic was changed to flashing green and the candlepower was increased from 100 to 200.

The Coast Guard relocated its training facility from Avery Point to Governor’s Island, New York, in 1967.  The lighthouse’s days as an aid to navigation ended on June 25, 1967. The Avery Point property reverted to the state of Connecticut, and in 1969 it was converted to the Southeastern Campus of the University of Connecticut, later renamed the University of Connecticut at Avery Point.

lighthouse looking run down

The lighthouse in 1996

The lighthouse was used for a time by Coast Guard research and development personnel for various navigational aid experiments.  But it was eventually abandoned, and the elements and neglect exacted their toll.  The concrete blocks were pitted and began to crumble, the wooden lantern rotted, and chunks of the marble balusters fell to the ground.  By July 1997 the university said the tower was in “dangerously poor condition” and declared it a safety hazard.


Jim Streeter of the Avery Point Lighthouse Society during restoration in 2004
Jim Streeter, a police handwriting expert, spearheaded a drive to save the local landmark.  In 1999 fund-raising began through the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF), and the Avery Point Lighthouse Society (APLS) was founded in the following year as a chapter of ALF.  Stephen W. Gulyas and Dale Treadway came on board as cochairmen with Streeter. 

A petition drive eventually garnered the signatures of more than 19,000 people supporting the restoration and relighting of Avery Point Light.

Restoration was first estimated at $150,000, but as time passed it became clear that it could run as high as $350,000 or more. By the fall of 2000, $12,000 had been raised.  Many people also chipped in with in-kind donations, such as James Norden of Gibble Norden Champion Consulting Engineers of Old Saybrook, who provided an engineering study of the tower at no cost, and Don Perkins of Cape Cod, who created and donated a finely detailed replica of the lighthouse to be exhibited to raise awareness and donations.  The New England Lighthouse Lovers (NELL), another chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation, donated funds for a new door for the lighthouse.

lantern on ground The beginning of restoration became a dramatic reality on December 1, 2001.  On that day workers from Mattern Construction of Baltic, Connecticut, and Marino Crane Company of Hartford lifted the lantern off the tower using a 90-foot crane, to the cheers and applause of the volunteers of APLS and other spectators. 

Because the old lantern was so deteriorated, it was decided that a replica would be made.

The West Mystic Wooden Boat Building Company fabricated a new lantern in 2003 and 2004, donating the cost of labor and materials.  The company is owned by former lighthouse keeper (at Harbor of Refuge Light in Delaware) and University of Connecticut English professor Steve Jones.  


The new lantern was constructed by Mark C. Robinson, a carpenter and boatbuilder for the company.

headless lighthouse

The "headless" Avery Point Lighthouse in August 2002

In September 2003, work began on the tower. Close examination of the crumbling concrete blocks revealed that they had been fabricated using a very high amount of sand.  As the mortar between the blocks expanded and contracted over the years, the poorly made blocks began to crumble.  After much study, it was decided that the only way to save the tower would be to remove the outer faces of the blocks and replace them with new block faces.  At the same time the old blocks would be strengthened with cement and steel reinforcements.

The restoration was completed in early 2006, and the tower was relighted in a gala ceremony on October 15.

Click here to read more. 


before and after photos
Before and after restoration, courtesy of the Avery Point Lighthouse Society.

Contributions to the Avery Point Light fund can be sent to:

Avery Point Lighthouse Society
P.O. Box 1552
Groton, CT 06340

The tower can be reached easily by a short walk from the campus parking area. It can also be seen from various ferries out of New London. To find out more about the effort to save Avery Point Light, email JIMSTREETR@aol.com.

You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of Connecticut by Jeremy D'Entremont.

Webmaster's note: This tower is very close to Project Oceanology, which runs great trips to New London Ledge Lighthouse.

Last updated 12/16/11
  Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

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