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Great Captain Island Light
Greenwich, Connecticut
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History

Great Captain Island is at the western end of Long Island Sound, north of the main channel into New York's East River. The 17-acre island is about 28 miles from Manhattan and a little over a mile south of Greenwich, Connecticut.

In 1829, Samuel Lyons sold 3.5 acres on the southeast part of Great Captain Island to the federal government for the building of a lighthouse. There had been a slight mixup; the land was purchased before the site selection was final. Stamford Point had been considered as a site for the lighthouse, but three months later the Great Captain Island site was finalized. There was also a dispute over ownership of the island, with both Connecticut and New York claiming jurisdiction. It was over 50 years before a decision was made in favor of Connecticut.

1935 photo
1935 photo by R. C. Smith, courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

The first lighthouse, built for about $3,000, was finished in 1829 along with a five-room keeper's house. A system of 10 lamps and reflectors sent light in every direction.

An 1838 inspection reported that the 30-foot stone tower had been poorly constructed; the walls were already badly cracked. It was reported in 1850:

[The dwelling] is leaky about the windows, and I suppose always was. Lighting apparatus is miserable, being table lamps... The whole of the establishment is in rather a neglected and filthy state. Lighting apparatus ought to be new, and there ought to be a new keeper, or the present one made to keep things in better order.

A fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in 1858, showing a fixed white light. By 1867, the tower was in such disrepair that a new one was needed. The extant lighthouse was built in 1868, and the 1858 Fresnel lens was moved to the new structure. The style is very similar to lighthouses built in the same period at Block Island, Sheffield Island and a few other locations. It's a handsome granite dwelling with a cast-iron tower attached to the front end of its roof.

In 1890, a fog whistle was added. The signal was upgraded to a powerful siren in 1905. The sound was a shock to Greenwich residents. A local paper asked, "What has Greenwich done that the government inflicts such severe punishment on this community?" A reporter compared the siren to "an army of panthers" and "the wail of a lost soul" among other things. The signal was modulated so that it was somewhat more acceptable to the local population.

A 1904 article described a visit of the lighthouse tender Larkspur to Great Captain Island. Arthur Hewitt wrote:

I went ashore and chatted with the keeper. He showed me over his quarters and explained his light; everything was remarkably spick and span. His eyes, however, bore the look of a constant sufferer -- eyes dulled by anguish and continued heartache. Wondering at this, I inquired how he liked the life; he replied, 'It was all right while she was here, but now 'tain't any good any more.' ...When I inquired why, now that his life's partner was dead and gone, he did not ask for a transfer where scenes would at least be new and therefore brighter, he muttered something about not wishing to 'bother' the inspector; he might as well keep the light, some one had to do it. And now at times as I lie abed in my own little home some ten miles further up the coast, and hear the steam siren of Great Captain Island belching out over the fog-laden waters its three-second blast at half-minute intervals, I cannot help but ponder its lonely keeper.

Keeper Adam Kohlman cleaning the lens, circa 1930s. Courtesy of Lois Valentine.

Keeper Adam Kohlman's wife, Susan (far right) amd other family members at the lighthouse, circa 1932.
aerial photograoh
U.S. Coast Guard photo

In the fall of 1929, Keeper Adam L. Kohlman was officially commended for the rescue of two small boys from drowning near the lighthouse.

Frank B. Abel was Coast Guard Officer in Charge of the station in 1969. He later recalled:

As a Second Class Boatswain Mate, I was in charge of the light station, its mission, and the maintenance. I had a Third Class Engineman and one non-rate for crew. We stood two weeks on and one week off. Log runs were made from Eaton's Neck. It was a wonderful tour of duty. I was the last officer in charge that ran the light.

Abel later was Officer in Charge at Montauk Point Light Station on Long Island, New York in 1975-76.

In 1970, Great Captain Island Light was extinguished and replaced by an automatic light on a skeleton tower. With no caretaker on the island the lighthouse was immediately damaged by vandals.

By 1966, the town of Greenwich had acquired most of Great Captain Island. In 1973, the town also acquired the lighthouse and the surrounding 2.6 acres for $42,500. A married couple moved in as resident caretakers, putting an end to the vandalism.

egrets
A pond on the island serves as a nesting area for egrets and herons

For nearly two decades beginning in 1985, the caretaker was Otto Lauersdorf. Lauersdorf weathered hurricanes, medical emergencies, and vandals in his years on the island. His wife and children lived most of the time on shore, but they spent much time in the summer on the island.

Lauersdorf spent his time tending a garden, building model airplanes and reading. "If you have to depend on others, this is not the job for you," he said.

The Greenwich Chamber of Commerce started a campaign in the late 1990s to relight the lighthouse. The Indian Harbor Yacht Club worked with the Chamber to raise funds for renovation. With the building falling into increasingly poor condition, no caretaker lived there for several years.

Restoration was delayed numerous times, but the details were worked out and much restoration was completed in 2009. A nonprofit fundraising effort called Return the Light paid $250,000 of the $1.3 million lighthouse renovation. 

Sadly, one of the original fundraising team members, Bennett Fisher, died in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. As part of the restoration, a 9/11 memorial has been established at the lighthouse.

In November 2009, a light was installed in the lantern of the lighthouse. The flashing green light is not an official aid to navigation, but it helped bring the lighthouse back to life. "From a historical standpoint, I applaud it," Henry Marx of Landfall Navigation told the Greenwich Time newspaper.

There is a ferry to Great Captain Island in the summer. You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of Connecticut by Jeremy D'Entremont.


Keepers: John W. Smith (1830-1834); James Merritt (1834-?); James Bride (1839-1848); Benjamin Merritt (1848-1849); George W. Anderson (1849-?); Charles McIntosh (?); Alexander (?) Worden (1856-1858); Gilbert Horton (1858-1861); James Merritt (1861-1863); James Travis (?) (1863-1864); George Lusk (?) (1864); James McCulloch (1864-1871); Eliakim F. Worden (1871-1890); George Porter (assistant, 1889); Eliakim F. Worden (Jr.?) (assistant, 1891); Frank Wadley (assistant, 1891); John Latour (assistant, 1891); John Shaw (assistant, 1891-1893); William Tooker (assistant, 1891-1892); Eugene Mulligan (1890-c. 1907); Julius Young (assistant, 1895); Otto Rudolph (assistant, 1903, 1907); Morell E. Hulse (assistant, 1905); Herbert S. Knowles (assistant, 1905); Louis F. Schlitt (assistant, c. 1907); Harry H. Fisher (assistant, 1907); John Nelson (c. 1916); Adam L. Kohlman (c. late 1920s to c.1944), James Honeycutt (Coast Guard, c. 1967-1969), Andrew Lampman (Coast Guard, c. 1968), Robert C. Jenkins (Coast Guard, c. 1968), Frank B. Abel (Coast Guard Officer in Charge 1969)

Last updated 2/13/12
Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.

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