As early as the late 1730s, New London's first 'beacon' was established at Harris' Point on the west bank of the 'Harbor's Mouth', where the Thames River meets Long Island Sound. The beacon was associated with a military position - to be lit only to provide warning (to the main battery at the downtown New London Parade) against the approach of the French fleet.
The original harbor lighthouse was built in the colonial era, in the reigns of Kings George II and III. The land was purchased in 1759. The actual 1761 lighthouse construction cost about £ 715, roughly $285,000 in 2010 dollars, with 70% paid with private financing – a lottery, another 30% ultimately paid with Connecticut colony tax revenues.
The 1761 printed plan of the Lottery includes the following statement, promoting the utility of the proposed New London Harbor lighthouse: ... (shipping) ... will be conducted to the safe Harbour of New London; and those bound Eastward or Westward, will be Directed by the said Light-House, to go out, or come in, through the Horse Race (aka ‘the Race’ where Long Island Sound opens up to the Atlantic Ocean) and proceed their course.
The original New London Harbor Light was made of stone, 64 feet tall and 24 feet around at the base. The date of the first lighting was November 7th, 1761.
The ‘new’ lighthouse helped to guide American privateers to New London. The City's Shaw family made a fortune in shipping during the colonial years leading to the American Revolution. At the start of hostilities in 1775 and under the permission of the Governor of Connecticut Johnathan Trumbull, Shaw began to outfit ships of line to wreak havoc on British supply ships. This type of legal piracy, known as privateering, was an extremely effective tool for the colonies, as there was a real American navy at this point. The ship owner and his investors shared in the profits of the goods that were taken and resold at the docks, at escalated prices. A share would then go to the coffers of the state.
This activity prompted Benedict Arnold to target and burn down New London in 1781, having landed his troops on the beach near the lighthouse then marching into town.
New London Harbor Light was the first lighthouse built on Long Island Sound. It is also was the fourth of the original 12 colonial lights that the young United States government managed under its newly established Lighthouse Board in 1789. George Washington himself signed a contract authorizing the expenditure of $360 quarterly to supply New London Harbor Light's six lamps with spermaceti oil in 1791 when he enacted the Act for the Establishment and support of Lighthouse, Beacons, Buoys, and Public Piers.
Within 10 years, however, the government decided to rebuild the lighthouse. By 1799, the tower had developed 10-foot crack that ran down from the top. Complaints also had received that the lighthouse light was difficult to distinguish from new neighboring homes and was not not sufficiently visible to ships entering the harbor from the west.
Abasha Woodward of New London completed construction of the new lighthouse in 1801, along with an oil house and cistern building, all for a total cost of $15,547. The handsome 89-foot octagonal tower, made of granite with a brownstone facade and lined with brick, was originally left unpainted. The tower was painted white some time in the mid-19th century. Today it is the oldest and tallest lighthouse in Connecticut.
New London’s lighthouse was close to the action during the War of 1812. In fact, at the request of Commodore Decatur, the Americans put out the light so that British ships could not use it to navigate the harbor. With the militia nearby the British decided not to raid New London's harbor lighthouse, but they did raid Little Gull Island Light farther out at the Race.
A new keeper's dwelling was built in 1818 for $1,200. The tower's cast-iron circular stair and lantern added in the mid-19th century. The present keeper's house was built in 1863 and was enlarged in 1900. The station was automated in 1912.
New London's lighthouse is mentioned in Eugene O'Neill's play Long Day's Journey Into Night. and its former foghorn in the New London playwright's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Once New London Ledge Light was built in 2009, the foghorn moved offshore.
In 1931, the grounds were divided and the keeper’s house sold to a private party. The United States Coast Guard kept ownership of the lighthouse.
In 2009, through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 and thanks to the work of NLMS president Ben Martin in 2002-3, New London Maritime Society became owners of New London Harbor Light. The formal conveyance took place October 13, 2010.
In 2013, New London Harbor Light was selected to represent Connecticut in the US Postal Service's Lighthouses of New England stamp series.
The lantern underwent an exterior restoration in 2014.
We thank John T Phillips II for his research on the colonial history of the lighthouse, and the New London Country Historical Society for the Shaw family information.
25 August, 2010 Dear NLMS, I am enclosing two pictures (see images above left) of my grandfather, Antonio Dimaggio and his brother(half-brother? Francesco) in front of the keeper's house. He was keeper from 1916-1918.
The other picture is of my grandmother Marianna, my mother Josephine, and my grandfather Antonio DiMaggio at the door of the keeper's house. --Marian Dickson
July 1-3, 2011
we held our first Celebration
of New London's Lighthouse Heritage
sponsored by the
The US Coast Guard continues to operate the structure as an aid to navigation. Meanwhile, New London Harbor Light is open to the public, by appointment, on a strictly limited basis. Please call 860-447-2501 to make inquiries.
From the top of the lighthouse, it is possible to see at least seven other lighthouses: New London Ledge, Race Rock, Little Gull Island, Plum Island, Little Dumpling, Montauk, and Avery Point.
The New London Maritime Society is pleased to annouce that a generous gift from the Kitchings Family has been used to establish a lighthouse endowment. This fund will be used to insure the light's permanent care. Additional contributions to the lighthouse fund may be made to:
New London Harbor Light Fund
New London Maritime Society
150 Bank Street, New London, CT 06320
below: James Diaz-Saavedra's collection of lighthouse postcards, on view at the Custom House in Summer 2009.
Reference #89001470. Year Listed: 1990
Abisha Woodward was a contractor from New London, Connecticut, evidently a man of many talents. In 1793, he won a federal contract to complete the original Bald Head Island Light at Cape Fear, North Carolina. The state of North Carolina had begun work on this lighthouse before the new federal government assumed control of aids to navigation in 1789, and the tower was well advanced in construction when Woodward arrived on the scene. It's not his fault that the lighthouse was built too close to the shore and had to be torn down in 1813.
In 1799 a large crack developed in the wooden lighthouse at New London Harbor in Woodward's home town, and he was selected to build a stone replacement. The 89-foot tower Woodward completed in 1801 continues to shine today. The lantern has held a fourth order Fresnel lens since 1857. In many respects it shows a rather strong resemblance to the Cape Henry Light; this resemblance reflects the federal specifications, which described in detail the form and shape of the tower. Like McComb's lighthouses, Woodward's towers show robust design and careful and sturdy workmanship.
In 1802, Woodward built a second stone tower, about half the height of the New London lighthouse, at Faulkner's Island off the Connecticut coast. This tower looks very much like the upper half of the New London tower.
What are some interesting facts about lighthouses? from the USCG
First lighthouse - Boston, MA (1716)
Oldest original lighthouse in service - Sandy Hook, NJ (1764)
Newest shoreside lighthouse - Charleston, SC (1962)
Only triangular-shaped lighthouse tower - Charleston, SC (1962)
Only lighthouse equipped with an elevator - Charleston, SC (1962)
Tallest lighthouse - Cape Hatteras, NC (191 ft)
First American-built West Coast lighthouse - Alcatraz Lighthouse (1854)
First lighthouse to use electricity - Statue of Liberty (1886)
First Great Lakes lighthouses - Buffalo, NY & Erie, PA (1818)
Most expensive lighthouse (adjusted cost) - St. George’s Reef, CA (1891)
First lighthouse built completely by the Federal Government - Montauk Point, NY (1797)
Founding of the U.S. Lighthouse Service - 7 August 1789
U.S. Lighthouse Service merged with the Coast Guard - 7 July 1939
Second most powerful lighthouse in the world (and most powerful in the Western Hemisphere) - Charleston, SC (1962)
In March, 2012, the French Musee national de Marine opened a magnificent exhibition: PHARES -- Lighthouses. If you don't plan to be in Paris before the show ends on November 4, visit the Frank L. McGuire Maritime Research Library at the Custom House Maritime Museum to see the exhibition catalog.