Established by Puritans in
1638 based on its sheltered harbor, New Haven was for over two
centuries the co-capital of Connecticut with Hartford. New Haven was
one of New England's most prosperous cities. The American Gazetteer
reported in 1810, "As to pleasantness of situation and salubrity of
air, New Haven is hardly exceeded by any city in America." The
prominence of the "Elm City" was largely due to the presence of Yale
College, which moved to New Haven from Saybrook in 1716.
Before there was a lighthouse at New Haven's Five Mile
Point, the spot was noted for a battle in the American Revolution, when
American riflemen repelled a British attempt to land and invade New
Haven. British Ensign and Assistant Adjutant Watkins was killed in the
skirmish and was buried close to where the lighthouse now stands. The
British later landed at Five Mile Point and burned down the house of
resident Amos Morris. Morris repaired his house and it still stands,
not far from Lighthouse Park.
From the collection of Edward
Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell
Inside the tower
New Haven was a flourishing port in coastal and West
Indies trade. Built in 1805 on the east side of the harbor entrance,
the first New Haven Light was an octagonal 30-foot wooden tower. It was
commonly called Five Mile Point Light after its distance from downtown
New Haven. The first keeper was Amos Morris ,Jr., who sold the land for
the lighthouse to the government. Morris remained keeper for only three
of the early keepers, Greenwich native Jonathan Finch, spent sixteen
years (from 1805 to 1821) at Five Mile Point, apparently augmenting his
meager keeper’s salary by taking in guests. It isn’t known how long
Keeper Finch engaged in this practice, which was generally frowned on
by the authorities. An ad in the June 28, 1810, edition of the American Mercury read:
A SUMMER RETREAT.
Gentlemen and Ladies, who, during the summer months, wish to enjoy a
delightful sea breeze, an extensive prospect, shady bowers, &c.
&c. are invited to the LIGHT-HOUSE, at the south point of New-Haven
harbor, where arrangements are made for their accommodation. —–
Lobsters, fish, clams &c. taken directly from their natural
element, and served up at a short notice, with the best trimmings —–
Liquors of the first chop —– Pasture or stabling for horses. —–
Gentlemen who have passed their grand climactic, may here have their
mental faculties perfectly restored in three days. —– No cure, no
pay. J. FINCH.
From the start the light was
considered too low and too dim. In an 1838 report, Lieutenant. George
Bache described the tower as “very much decayed” and leaky, and said
that none of the lights were in the proper position. He also
the keeper’s house to be “in a very bad state of repair.” The
was also deemed too low and dim to be much of a help to
There was some consideration
given to the possibility idea of a new
lighthouse offshore on Southwest Ledge, a more advantageous location,
but building a lighthouse on the rocky ledge was then prohibitively
expensive. Instead, $10,000 was appropriated for a new, taller
at Five Mile Point on March 3, 1847.
In this view from the
top of the lighthouse, the old storm signal tower is at the left. In
the distance in the upper right is Southwest Shoal Light.
The new 80-foot octagonal tower was
constructed by contractor Marcus Bassett of using brownstone from the
East Haven quarry of Jabez Potter. The stone was brought to Five Mile
Point by horse-drawn drays. The interior was lined with New Haven
brick, and a circular granite stairway with 74 steps was added. A
system of 12 lamps and reflectors was installed inside the cast- iron
lantern, with the light 97 feet above sea level. A new
two-and-one-half-story brick keeper’s house was also erected. The 12
lamps and reflectors were replaced in 1855 by a fourth-order Fresnel
lens, and a fog bell was added in the 1860s.
Captain Elizur Thompson, born in
East Haven in 1809, became keeper in 1860. As it turned out, he was the
light’s last keeper, staying until 1877 except for a two-year gap from
1867 to 1869. Thompson’s wife, Elizabeth (Bradley), was on
the payroll as an assistant keeper for two years, and their sons Sidney
and George also served as assistants.
When Southwest Ledge Light was
established offshore in 1877, the old light at Five Mile Point was
extinguished. Thompson went to Southwest Ledge to serve as the first
keeper. After almost five years in that position, he returned to live
in the old keeper’s house at Five Mile Point, flying storm signal flags
for the United States Weather Bureau. An 1890 article in the New York Times described the
81-year-old veteran keeper:
Elizur Thompson . . . is eighty-one years old, but still he climbs the
steps of the tower with agility to display the signals. He is a
hospitable man and very popular among the professors of Yale College .
. He is an authority on matters of local history that have
transpired during the past seventy years.
Among many other interesting
incidents, Thompson remembered shaking General Lafayette’s hand when
the French general was visiting the area in 1824, when Thompson was 15.
Thompson’s colorful life also included a journey to California in
search of riches during the gold rush of 1849.
When Elizur Thompson died in 1897 an
obituary said, “There is hardly a mariner along the Sound who has not
been guided by the light on the point at Morris Cove, and has not been
thankful for its keeper, Capt. Thompson, for the reliance he could
always place upon it.”
In 1896, Five Mile Point Lighthouse
was transferred to the War Department. In 1922 the land was transferred
to the State of Connecticut and the buildings went to the City of New
Haven, and in 1924 the City bought the entire property for $11,180.
The New Haven Park Commission opened
Point Park with the city's only public swimming beach.
Visitors to Lighthouse Point
Park, circa 1920s
Lawrence "Ted" Porter, moved in as caretaker in 1943.
Porter had started his career with the city of New Haven at the age of
14, lighting gas lamps on the city's streets. His stay as caretaker at
Lighthouse Point Park stretched into the 1970s. A 1964 newspaper
article reported that Porter had the duty of flying storm warning flags
as needed from a steel tower, which still stands near the lighthouse.
Ted Porter endured some memorable storms, including a
1944 hurricane that had seawater lapping at his front door. It wasn't
unusual for the caretaker and his family to be stuck inside the house
for two or three days after a severe snowstorm.
A $67,000 renovation was completed in 1986. The interior
and exterior of the tower were steam-cleaned and decades of guano was
removed from the stairs. Plexiglas was installed in the lantern room
and chips in the mortar were repaired.
The old lighthouse tower stands today near a restored
antique carousel. The grounds are open year-round but the tower is
In October 2002 the Lighthouse
Point Park Rangers started offering tours of the lighthouse on
a limited, reservations-only basis. Call the Lighthouse
Point Park rangers at 203-946-8790 to see if any tours are
Please note that there is now a parking fee
A view from the top
of the lighthouse, looking toward downtown New Haven
You can read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of
Connecticut by Jeremy D'Entremont.
Lighthouse Point Park
rangers Terry McCool and Phil Vallie in 2003
This restored antique
carousel is in a pavilion near the lighthouse
list is a work in progress. If you have any information on the keepers
of this lighthouse, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own
risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
Amos Morris, Jr. (1805), ? Wedmore (1805), Jonathan Finch
(1805-1821), William Finch (1821-1824), Elihu Ives (1824-1846), George
W. Hicks (1846-1849), Stephen Willard (1849-1853), Merritt Thompson
(1853-1860), Elizur Thompson (1860-1867 and 1869-1877), Charles W.
Bradley (1867-1869); Elizabeth Thompson (assistant 1869-1871), George
Thompson (assistant, 1873-1876), Theodore (?) Thompson (assistant,
1871-1873), Sidney Thompson (assistant, 1876)