New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
New London Ledge Light
New London, Connecticut
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History

This one-of-a-kind building was one of the last lighthouses built in New England, and it represents a rare case of an early 20th century offshore lighthouse that is not of cast-iron construction. The stately red brick building with its mansard roof and granite detailing makes a striking picture standing off by itself near the entrance to Connecticut's New London Harbor, at the extreme eastern end of Long Island Sound.

The lighthouse reportedly owes its distinctive French Second Empire style to the influence of the wealthy home owners on the local coast, who wanted a structure in keeping with the elegance of their own homes. Many of the large homes near the shore in the area were destroyed in the great hurricane of September 21, 1938.

By the early 1900s, New London, with its protected harbor at the mouth of the Thames River, had made the transition from whaling center to industrial city. New London Ledge Light was built because New London Harbor Light wasn't sufficient to direct vessels around the dangerous ledges at the entrance to the harbor.

U.S. Coast Guard photo
 

Lobbying for the lighthouse began in 1890. In 1903 the Lighthouse Board made this recommendation:

The necessity for establishing a light and an efficient fog signal in such a position as to enable vessels to enter and leave the harbor of New London, Conn., has become evident, and especially so for the aid of those approaching from seaward.

The numerous outlying shoals and ledges surrounding the entrance to this harbor make the approach to it dangerous in thick weather. ... In view of these facts... it is suggested that a light and fog signal station be established...

The lighthouse was built by the Hamilton R. Douglas Company of New London. This company also built Groton Town Hall. The crib it stands on was constructed by the T.A. Scott Company in Groton and was towed to the site, where it was filled with concrete and riprap and sunk in 28 feet of water.

A riprap deposit, 82 feet square and 10 feet deep, surrounds and protects the foundation. A concrete pier, 50 feet square and rising 18 feet above low water, was constructed on top of the foundation. The pier contains cellar space and two water cisterns.

The lighthouse was at first called Southwest Ledge Light, but the name was changed to avoid confusion with the lighthouse of the same name in New Haven Harbor.

The cast-iron lantern rises from the center of the building's mansard roof. The lantern originally held a fourth-order Fresnel lens (now at the Custom House in New London) from the Henry-Lepaute Company of Paris, with an icandescent oil vapor lamp. A clockwork mechanism had to be wound every four hours to keep the lens revolving.

U.S. Coast Guard photo
Howard Beebe

Howard Beebe

When it was first lighted, the New London Day reported that the light could be seen up to 18 miles away. The characteristic was three white flashes followed by a red flash every 30 seconds. A fog signal was added in 1911, replacing the one at New London Harbor Light.

Howard B. Beebe was keeper during the hurricane of September 21,1938. He was in the lighthouse with a second assistant keeper and a tinsmith. Beebe's family was on shore at the time the gale struck. "It washed out everything," 

Keeper Beebe later told the Providence Journal:

About 3:15, the engines conked out, but the light was going. We moved to the lantern. It was a three-story building. Waves were coming through the second floor. I've seen waves before, in the Bay of Fundy, but I never saw them like that. There was 11 tons of coal in the cellar, and it boiled it all out.

William Ivan Clark was the last civilian keeper (1954-59); he was transferred from New York's Little Dumpling Light because of health concerns and a desire to keep him closer to shore. Clark was keeper until 1970 at Watch Hill Light in Rhode Island; he was among the nation's last civilian keepers.

Coast Guard crews lived at the lighthouse from then until its automation in 1987. The crew worked in three man shifts, spending up to three weeks at the lighthouse followed by six days on shore. Somebody once explained why there were three men at the lighthouse at one time -- if two men had a fight, there would be a third to break it up. According to Elinor De Wire, author of the book Guardians of the Lights, they were occasionally driven to distraction by the smells wafting from the mainland -- freshly mown lawns and barbecues -- as well as by the sight, viewable by binoculars, of young women on a nearby beach.

Ed Jonin, on the crew 1974-76, later recalled:

We were a weather station so every four hours we sent the weather, maintained the building and anything else we needed to do, with a buoy tender coming out every so often to bring us fresh water and fuel . . . 

A hurricane with winds up to 120 making the building move a bit when the waves crashed up against the base, the snow and ice storms, fog for weeks at a time, with those damn foghorns blowing every few seconds, trying to sleep with them on. . . was not really the best of duty, but it's what we had to do. We fished sometimes, tried to spot the girls on the beach, watch the people run out of the water when someone cried shark (the movie Jaws had just came out), but come evening that little light bulb was turned on and every so often someone would go up there to crank the weight back up . . .

low angle of lighthouse

Ledge Light was generally considered undesirable duty, but some enjoyed the solitude and beauty of the place. Petty Officer 1st Class Timothy Grant, a Maine native, told the New York Times in 1984, "After a week ashore, I can't wait to get back here." He knew it wasn't for everybody, adding, "This might be an ideal place for a loner, but it would drive whoever lives with him up a wall." Seaman Don Place put it simply, "You get a lot of time to think."

Probably the best-known part of this station's history and lore is the lighthouse's infamous ghost, "Ernie." It's been claimed that in the 1920s or '30s, a keeper learned that his wife had run off with the captain of the Block Island ferry. Distraught, the keeper jumped -- or fell -- from the roof of the lighthouse to his death, the story goes. Some versions of this story say that Ernie's real name may have been John Randolf or Randolph. If there's any truth behind the legend, it's elusive.

But there does seem to be unexplainable activity at the lighthouse. Doors have been known to open and close mysteriously, decks have swabbed themselves, televisions have turned themselves off, and the fog horn seems to turn on and off for no reason. Securely tied boats have mysteriously been set adrift.

An investigation by New England Ghost Project produced the alternate theory that "Ernie" is actually the spirit of a man who was part of a construction crew working at the lighthouse and fell from the roof to his death.

In 1987, New London Ledge Light became the last lighthouse on Long Island Sound to be automated. On the last day before automation, a Coast Guardsman entered in the log:

Rock of slow torture. Ernie's domain. Hell on earth -- may New London Ledge's light shine on forever because I'm through. I will watch it from afar while drinking a brew.

This painting of the lighthouse on a wall on the first floor was done by one of the last Coast Guardsmen on duty at the light.
painting of lighthouse
two views of Fresnel lens
Views of both sides of the Fresnel lens on display in the Custom House Museum of Maritime History in New London. The lens produced a sequence of three white flashes and one red flash.

The fourth-order Fresnel lens once in the lighthouse is now at Custom House Museum of Maritime History in New London. There is now a VRB-25 optic in use in the lighthouse.

Solar panels were added in 1998, providing power for the light and fog signal. The rest of the electricity is provided by a cable from Avery Point.

The lighthouse is leased to the New London Ledge Lighthouse Foundation. This group, with the help of grants and private contributions, has done some restoration of the building's interior. In 2009, the group became a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation.

Volunteers have completed much more restoration work in recent years, and an interpretive center has been established in the lighthouse.

Project Oceanology in Groton offers tours to the lighthouse; click here for information.

You can see the lighthouse fairly distantly from the shore of New London, especially in the Pequot Avenue area, and you can get a good view from the Fisher's Island and Block Island ferries leaving New London.


You can also contact the New London Ledge Lighthouse Foundation (a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation) for more information:

New London Ledge Lighthouse Foundation
P.O. Box 855
New London, Connecticut 06320

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


Keepers: 

(This 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 nelights@gmail.com. Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)

? Bloom (1910-?-); George Hansen (c. 1913-1916), Charles E. Minkler (second assistant, 1914-?); Howard Beebe (1926-1938), William Ivan Clark (1954-1959), Robert Melick (Coast Guard, 1966-1970), Roland Ludington (Coast Guard, c. 1973-1974), Ed Jonin (Coast Guard,1974-1976), John E. Ethridge (Coast Guard, c. 1981), Richard Mumenthaler (Coast Guard, c. 1981), Vernon L. Smith (Coast Guard, c. 1981), Timothy Grant (Coast Guard, c. 1984), Donald Place (Coast Guard, c. 1984), Dean Notte (Coast Guard, c. 1984), Charles Kerr (Coast Guard officer in charge, c. 1985), Mark DeBiase (Coast Guard, c. 1984-1985)

  Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any part of this website without permission of the author.
Last updated 12/27//11

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