Stonington Borough’s most-visited site, the Old Lighthouse Museum on Stonington Point, finally has a history to fit the 1840 Lighthouse into its place in Connecticut and national history.
The Stonington Historical Society, owner of the lighthouse since 1925, commissioned the book,
“Stonington’s Old Lighthouse and Its Keepers,” from two long-time editors, James Boylan and Betsy Wade. The publication date, August 24, was celebrated with a party at the lighthouse itself.
The new book, which includes more than 80 illustrations, almost half in their original colors, was written as an adjunct to current plans to restore the Old Lighthouse and improve access for the public. The book also provides a glimpse of Stonington’s role in an almost forgotten aspect of American history.
It’s not all about flashes and foghorns, though. The authors’ investigation in the National Archives in Washington and Waltham, Mass., disclosed the impact of corruption and graft in the Lighthouse establishment of the pre-Civil War era. Use of the efficient and reliable Fresnel lens, for example, was barred for years because of cronyism.
Such problems almost inevitably struck Stonington. The book reports that construction of the current lighthouse—the second at the point —was so slipshod that the walls leaked from the beginning. The first keeper, William Potter—a captain of the militiamen who fought off the British in the War of 1812—and his wife, Patty, who became the second keeper, saw some of their children die young as a result of living in constant damp.
After 50 years and eight keepers, the light was doused and replaced by a beacon on a harbor breakwater. The building thus fell derelict until 1925 when the Stonington Historical Society bought it and turned into a local-history museum, evidently the first such conversion in the country. The building, having now served as a museum longer than as a lighthouse, attracts thousands of visitors in the summer.
Boylan and Wade previously served as editors of a book series for the historical society. They also saw to press the society’s second edition of “The Davis Homestead,” the story of a Connecticut family farm created by a royal grant. Wade was an editor and columnist for The New York Times; Boylan was a professor of history and journalism at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and was founding editor of Columbia Journalism Review. The designer, Marie A. Carija of Mystic, previously designed five books for the society.
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