was one of many New London locations where people turned their attention to lighthouses this holiday weekend. Representatives from the Coast Guard, the Stonington Historical Society, and the Norwalk Seaport Association were on hand to speak about these local icons.
The morning session of Saturday’s symposium was part of the ’s “Sentinels on the Sound” weekend, three days of lighthouse-related activities around the city. Focusing less on the familiar exteriors of these structures, this discussion highlighted the behind the scenes work that goes into building, maintaining, operating and preserving the lights.
Lighthouses are just part of the Coast Guard’s many responsibilities. They are a storied part, however: the United States Lighthouse Service dates to 1789, one year before the establishment of the Coast Guard, into which it was incorporated in 1939.
Captain Joseph Vojvodich, Commander of Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound, described the three lighthouses at the center of Sentinels on the Sound: the New London Harbor Light, the fourth lighthouse established in the nation; the New London Ledge Light, where Coast Guard crews still work in three week shifts; and the Avery Point Light in Groton, one of many private aids to navigation on the Guard’s “Light List.” Vojvodich also outlined the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, which allows federally owned lighthouses to be acquired by entities such as local governments or community or educational organizations. Individuals can own lighthouses too, most of them not as pricey as the one on New York’s North Dumpling Island, purchased in 1986 by the inventor of the Segway for $2.5 million.
Active lighthouses, privately owned or not, are maintained by the Coast Guard. Petty Officer Stephen Newberry of the Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team described what that entails. Lighthouse technicians repair malfunctioning lights and foghorns, perform routine upkeep of paint and wiring, and are currently upgrading old incandescent bulbs to new LED lights. Nineteenth century Fresnel lenses, however, will stay, due to their historic significance. Not all of the beacons Newberry services are lighthouses. One, for example, shines from the railroad bridge across the Thames.
Mark and Pauline Schlegel of the Norwalk Seaport Association spoke about another side of caring for a lighthouse. Their organization owns the Sheffield Island Light, an 1868 stone house topped with a tower. A non-profit, the Seaport Association raises funds in part by hosting events, like weddings, and by ferrying visitors to the island, which is also a wildlife refuge. The Schlegels’ battle is with erosion; in the 1990s, storms twice devastated the island and flooded the lighthouse and cottage on the grounds. A 500-foot Gabion Wall, made of wire baskets full of rock and constructed by volunteers, has protected Sheffield Island since 1997.
For Liz Wood of the Stonington Historical Society, the construction of some area lighthouses involved a double mystery. When Wood came across the papers of Stonington native Charles Hewitt Smith at the Connecticut Historical Society, she realized their significance. Smith, who constructed many 19th century lighthouses along the Connecticut shore and beyond, recorded everything. He wrote down employee hours and detailed lists of building materials. He saved correspondence and contracts and the ledgers of his “company store,” from which he outfitted his crews and sold them rum and tobacco. Smith’s papers, jumbled in with early town records, led Wood to investigate both the circumstances of their surfacing (she believes they turned up when some houses were demolished in the 1960s) and what they might reveal about the man who played such an important role in the history of navigation on the Sound.
Pauline Schlegel recalled a European visitor to Sheffield Island. Lighthouses, the tourist said, are the New England equivalent of Europe’s castles. Perhaps with continued efforts by their stewards, the lighthouses of the Sound will still be standing hundreds of years from now.