story & photos
by Todd Gipstein
We were out in a terrible storm, coming up the coast of Connecticut. Our ship was being tossed. The seas were high, the wind and rain intense. We were scared. The helmsman gripped the wheel as we peered into the darkness. We were all looking for Ledge Light. We knew when we spotted that beacon, we would make our home port of New London safely.
We sailed on. The storm battered us. And then came the cry, “Ledge Light to starboard!” And we all saw it. That bright light, blinking in the darkness, telling us where we were, where to go. We breathed a sigh of relief.
Until you have been out at sea in a storm, you can never really know what that lighthouse means. To a mariner, it is comfort. It says, “You are home.”
It is a point on a chart. It is a building, alone in the sea, on a tiny manmade island. It is an aid to navigation. It is a symbol of maritime New London. It is New London Ledge Lighthouse.
Perched out in Fishers Island Sound, at the mouth of the Thames River, Ledge Light has served us for a century.
This is its story.
Around 1900, the Lighthouse Board determined that the increased boat traffic to New London harbor warranted a new lighthouse to supplement New London Harbor Light, upriver on Pequot Avenue.
Building of the lighthouse was authorized by the United States Senate in 1906 and in 1908 the contract to build the structure was awarded to the T.A. Scott Company of New London. Total cost allocated for the project was not to exceed $115,000. Completed in 1909, the lighthouse was originally named Southwest Ledge; however, to avoid confusion with a lighthouse having the same name in New Haven harbor, the name was changed to New London Ledge Light.
The unique three-story, eleven room brick and granite design of the house came about as result of the influence of Edward Harkness and Morton Plant, two wealthy home owners in Waterford and Groton. They wanted the lighthouse to be representative of the styles of their homes. Architects came up with a design incorporating both Colonial Revival and French Second Empire styles.
Ledge Lighthouse was originally equipped with a fourth-order Fresnel lens, now on display at the Custom House in New London. The characteristic of the beacon was three white flashes followed by a red flash every thirty seconds. The lighthouse was placed in operation on November 10, 1909. Three-man crews maintained the light and the house, doing the daily polishing, oiling, fueling, painting and repairs that a lighthouse needs.
Their days at the house included plenty of time to read, fish, make music, keep an eye on boats, and contemplate the beauty around them.
And then there was Ernie.
Facts about Ernie are hard to come by, but stories are not. Whether he ever existed is somewhat of a moot point by now. He has grown in legend and is so associated with Ledge Light that he might as well be real.
According to the legend, Ernie was a keeper, probably in the 1920s or 30s. His younger wife, who lived ashore, ran off with the Captain of the Block Island Ferry. Consumed with grief and loneliness, Ernie allegedly climbed to the roof of the lighthouse and jumped. His body was never found. But his business with Ledge Light was not done. Legend has it that Ernie haunts the lighthouse to this day. He sometimes turns on the foghorn on clear days. There are cold spots inside. Strange noises, whispers. Boats are mysteriously untied. All manner of occurrences have been ascribed to Ernie.
This writer can report he spent a night on Ledge Light unmolested by any spirits. Perhaps Ernie just found me uninteresting. Or maybe he was on shore leave.
There are other stories and other ghosts associated with this lighthouse. They are all as real as we want them to be.
Ledge Light continued on with keepers coming and going and the years spinning by. It survived the 1938 hurricane, when waves crashed up to the second floor and the keepers took refuge in the lantern room. The lighthouse was automated, and in 1987, the keepers left.
The same weather which creates painterly vistas of the light have also been its worst enemies. The relentless pounding of the waves, the wind, ice and rain have all taken a toll on this venerable structure. With no keepers to attend to daily maintenance, the structure has deteriorated. Ledge Light may look fine from a distance, but on a visit to it one encounters rust, crumbing walls, a foundation peeling away from the iron sub-structure, broken glass, and leaks. The building is itself a ghost, haunted by a glory that has faded with time.
What will happen to it? What will be Ledge Light’s next chapter?
Will it crumble away to be replaced someday by a steel tower?
Or will it be restored and preserved to be used as a museum, study center or bed and breakfast? Ledge Light has great potential, and there are many ideas for its future.
In 1988, the New London Ledge Lighthouse Foundation, a non-profit organization, received a thirty-year lease from the Coast Guard. The Foundation wants to restore and preserve this landmark, a lighthouse that is one of the best known in America and a symbol of our area. Look how many business and organizations use it as part of their logos and you will understand the grip it has on our local hearts and how much it is a part of our identity!
The Foundation is in the process of merging with the American Lighthouse Foundation. Becoming a chapter of a larger organization will give us many more resources and options as we move forward.
To celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Ledge Lighthouse, we are holding a Centennial Gala at the Port ‘n Starboard at Ocean Beach on September 25th. There, we will be able to look out and see Ledge Lighthouse as we celebrate its century of service. There will be cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Music. There will be the premiere of National Geographic photographer/producer Todd Gipstein’s documentary film “Ledge Light.” There will be auctions of art, objects and experiences related to Ledge Light and our maritime area.
This once-in-a-century event will also kick off fundraising efforts. We need to raise as much as $40,000 dollars to conduct engineering and architectural studies to determine the exact status of the lighthouse and its foundation. Only then can we proceed with the actual restoration and adaptive reuse of this local landmark.
You can help us.
We need you to come to the gala and show your support. We need you to get the word out and encourage others to join us on September 25th. Tickets are $75. There are other donor levels of 250, 350, 500, 1,000, and 5,000 dollars (each includes 2 Gala tickets). You can send a check for tickets / donations to the New London Ledge Lighthouse Foundation at P.O. Box 855, New London, CT 06320. Or you can email your credit card information to Light@Gipstein.com. Or you can call us at 860.445.1949.
If you have ever looked at Ledge Lighthouse, ever sailed by it or fished near it, you will know what it means to this area. It belongs to us all.
We don’t want to lose it.
With your help and support, we won’t. With your help, this beacon in the darkness, this symbol of our area, this aid to navigation, this home for ghosts will live on for another century, lighting a path home for mariners and for dreamers.