Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Halloween lighthouse story

Penfield Reef Lighthouse was built in 1874, more than a mile offshore from Fairfield, Connecticut. The saddest incident in the lighthouse’s history took place nearly three decades later.

On December 22, 1916, Keeper Fred A. Jordan left the lighthouse at twenty minutes past noon to row ashore. There were high seas and strong winds, but the keeper badly wanted to join his family for Christmas and to give his hand-made presents to his children. Assistant Keeper Rudolph Iten watched from the lighthouse as Jordan pushed his boat through the waves. About a hundred yards from the lighthouse, Jordan’s boat capsized.

He clung to the boat and signaled for Iten to lower the station’s remaining boat and come to his aid. Iten tried valiantly to do this, but the steadily increasing waves and wind made it impossible to launch the boat. He finally got underway about 1 p.m., but by that time Jordan had drifted a mile and a half to the southwest. Iten said later:

"I did my level best to reach him, but I hadn’t pulled more than half a mile when the wind changed to the southwest, making a head-wind and an outgoing tide, against which I couldn’t move the heavy boat. I had to give up, and returned to the station in a regular gale. From the station I sent distress signals to passing ships, but none answered. At three o’clock I lost sight of the drifting boat. The poor fellow’s body wasn’t found until three months later. He was a fine fellow, was Fred."

Rudolph Iten
Iten was absolved of any blame for Jordan’s death. He was promoted to head keeper and would remain for more than a decade. A few years later another writer visited Iten, and a conversation in the wee hours of the morning turned decidedly macabre.

“They say that all lighthouse keepers are mad,” said Iten as a preface to the following chilling tale, told against the background of the whispering wind and the gentle wash of the waves.

"You ask if there has ever been anything in the nature of a supernatural occurrence at this lighthouse. Well, all light keepers are more or less hard-boiled and not given over to stretches of imagination. While I don’t deny or admit the theory of ghosts, something happened here one night that seemed to point to the establishment of the fact that there are such things as supernatural visitations."

Iten recounted the accidental death of Keeper Jordan in December 1916, then continued:

"Some days later on what was one of the worst nights in the history of Penfield, and the waves were dashing over the lantern, I was awakened – I was off duty – by a strange feeling that someone was in my room. Sitting up I distinctly saw a gray, phosphorescent figure emerging from the room formerly occupied by Fred Jordan. It hovered at the top of the stairs, and then disappeared in the darkness below. Thinking it was the assistant keeper I called to know if anything was the matter, but he answered me from the lens room that all was well. 

"Much puzzled, I went downstairs and to my consternation I saw lying on the table the log-book of the lighthouse, with the page recording the drowning of Poor Jordan staring me in the face! 

"This is the only time the book has been taken from its place by other hands than mine or my assistants, and as to how it got on the table and lay open with the entry about Jordan will always remain a mystery to us here. I have seen the semblance of the figure several times since and so have the others, and we are all prepared to take an affidavit to that effect. Something comes here, that we are positive. There is an old saying, ‘What the Reef takes, the Reef will give back.’ Poor Jordan’s body was recovered not long after his drowning, and in the pocket of his coat was found a note addressed to me – which he probably forgot to leave before he started on his fateful ride in that rough sea – instructing me to complete the entries of that morning – the day he died – as they were not brought up to date."

An undated article in the Bridgeport Public Library claims that, on stormy nights, “the specter of the
reef is said to be flitting among the rocks, poised on the rail of the gallery that surrounds the lantern or swaying, as if in agony, among the black and jagged rocks that surround the base of the light.” The article tells the story of a power yacht that ran into trouble on the rocks but was “piloted through the breakers to safety by a strange man who suddenly appeared amid the surf creaming over the rocks… in a row-boat.”

And then there were the two boys who were fishing near the reef when their canoe capsized, throwing them into the sea. A man appeared “from out of the rocks” and pulled them to safety. When they came to, they entered the lighthouse expecting to thank their savior, but he was nowhere to be found.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

New Lighthouse Cruises from Norwalk, Connecticut

I'll be doing some commentary aboard this cruise on November 7. Space is limited -- make your reservations now!

NORWALK, CT – Venture out on Sat., Nov. 7 for a rare close-up look at five historic lighthouses on Long Island Sound during a Maritime Aquarium Lighthouse Cruise, a new boat outing offered at The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk.

Penfield Reef Lighthouse, photo © Jeremy D'Entremont
Participants aboard the Aquarium’s unique new hybrid-electric research vessel R/V Spirit of the Sound™ will make passes by five century-old beacons: Peck Ledge, Greens Ledge and Sheffield Island lighthouses in Norwalk, Penfield Reef Lighthouse in Fairfield and Stratford Shoal (Middle Ground) Light.

The 4.5-hour cruise departs at 10 a.m.

“As we see firsthand with our annual Festival of Lighthouses Contest, people have a special fondness for lighthouses,” said Tom Naiman, the Aquarium’s director of education. “There’s a respect there for the role that lighthouses play in our maritime history, and an appreciation for the different ways that they were designed and built. These cruises are a great chance to see these unique structures up close and from the water.”

The cruises will pass by:
• Greens Ledge Lighthouse, a cast-iron “sparkplug” lighthouse southwest of the Norwalk harbor (and south of the Five Mile River). It was built in 1902 and automated in 1972.
• Sheffield Island Lighthouse, one of Norwalk’s iconic structures. Built in 1868, the graniteblock lighthouse with a white lantern tower was deactivated in 1902 upon the debut of Greens Ledge Lighthouse. The Norwalk Seaport Association bought the lighthouse in 1986 and re-lit it in 2011 – but not for navigational purposes.
• Peck Ledge Lighthouse, a cast-iron “sparkplug” lighthouse at the southeast approach to Norwalk Harbor. Built in 1906 and automated in 1933. A recent online auction to place the lighthouse – but not the light’s operations – into private hands drew a top bid of $235,000.
• Penfield Reef Lighthouse, a charming granite-block lighthouse with a short lantern tower rising from the white mansard roof. Built in the early 1870s and automated in 1971.
• Stratford Shoal Lighthouse, a granite-block house whose location is still debated: is it actually in Connecticut or New York? Built about 8 miles off Bridgeport on the Sound’s dangerous Middleground Shoal in 1877, the light was automated in 1970.

All the lighthouses are on the National Register of Historic Places. Aquarium educators will offer details, histories, and anecdotes about the lighthouses, and also – since they’re in view – point out the Sound’s visiting winter waterfowl. Binoculars will be provided.

Click here or call (203) 852-0700, ext. 2206, to get your tickets!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Maine's Wood Island Lighthouse gets major donation for restoration

August 12, 2015

Wood Island Lighthouse, situated off the coast of Biddeford Pool, Maine, has a major new benefactor for its ongoing restoration work.  Today, Judith Klement, a resident of Savannah, Georgia, and the Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse (FOWIL) jointly announced a significant donation from Ms. Klement for the interior restoration of the lighthouse keeper’s house, beginning with an initial increment of $50,000 for work to be done this summer.

“My longtime interest in historic preservation and my fascination with Wood Island Lighthouse from my many summers at our family home in Saco, prompted me to write.” Ms. Klement said.  “Then, two trips to the island to learn about the restoration progress and to meet the FOWIL people reinforced my instinct to help advance the excellent work they are doing,” she added.

Brad Coupe, chair of FOWIL’s executive committee, said, “We are ecstatic and most grateful for Judy’s very generous commitment. With this first piece, we have been able to mobilize and start work on the project, and, with Judy’s further help, it should be possible to complete this phase in approximately a year’s time.”

Much will remain after the interior work is finished to achieve the full restoration of the light station, according to Mr. Coupe, but this phase will largely finish the restoration of the keeper’s house and the light tower.

The first stage of the interior project is the removal of badly degraded plaster ceilings in all nine rooms of the keeper’s house, to be followed by re-wiring of the house and restoration of the plaster walls. The whole interior project is estimated to cost $218,000 and Ms. Klement’s total contribution is expected to fund most of that work.

FOWIL plans to restore the house to its look in 1906, when the current  configuration was created. President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the  lighthouse in 1808.  It has undergone dramatic changes over the years, but the 1906 transformation, when the gambrel roof and columned open porch were added, is regarded by FOWIL to be its most pleasing architectural appearance.

FOWIL is obligated to perform work pursuant to National Park Service restoration guidelines as administered by the Maine State Historic Preservation Commission and the U. S. Coast Guard.  “It is exacting work with rigorous standards, but the results are rewarding and authentic,” Mr. Coupe said. “We have been at this since 2003, doing the work as we could raise the funds to pay for it. Judy’s donation, in the end, may turn out to be the largest we have had from any source and it will take us a long way toward realizing our complete restoration goal.  Her confidence in us is a source of great satisfaction and reward to all our volunteers who have devoted countless hours for more than a decade to the work of preserving this historic landmark.”

In addition to its restoration work, FOWIL operates a summer tour schedule taking vacationers out to experience the lighthouse. The group also makes educational presentations to school children and adult groups on the history of this lighthouse and its significance to the maritime commerce in the Saco Bay area. FOWIL is a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation, based in Owls Head, Maine.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Tours to Baker's Island Lighthouse

One of the most exciting developments in the New England lighthouse world this summer is the launch of tours to Baker's Island Lighthouse in Salem, Massachusetts, run by the new owners, the Essex National Heritage Commission (ENHC).

The tours last about 2 hours, leaving from the Salem Ferry dock at 10 Blaney Street. The trip to the island is aboard the Naumkeag, a specially designed craft that allows passengers to disembark on the beach near the lighthouse.

The knowledgable resident caretaker leads the tour on the island, along with the boat crew. This is a very historic light station, dating back to 1798. For many years there were two lighthouses on the island; one of them was demolished in 1926. Click here to read more history.

The 59-foot rubblestone tower that stands today was built in 1820. It was recently refurbished by the ENHC, and it's in pristine condition.

Visitors are not allowed up the stairs inside the lighthouse, but they are allowed to look inside at the stone stairs.

This is a wonderful opportunity to tour a nineteenth century light station. The trips run until early September. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

International Year of Light

It was my pleasure to contribute an essay -- What is it About Lighthouses? -- to UNESCO's "International Year of Light" blog.

You can read it by following this link:

What is it About Lighthouses?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

"Lighthouse" at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT, April 17-18

Don't miss the premiere of "Lighthouse" - 7:30 p.m. April 17 and 18 in the Aetna Theater at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT. Get your tickets today -- click here or call 860-527-9800.

"Lighthouse" presents the drama of a person, isolated from a sea of others yet longing for authentic connection. The lighthouse, its keeper, and the surrounding slip of jagged land where shipwrecked survivors find refuge become a metaphor for enlightenment in this moving, multi-arts performance.

"Lighthouse" artfully evokes the sense that the audience as witnesses, are actually participants, struggling with the fierce wave patterns and violent storms of the sea juxtaposed with the tranquility of solitude and the downside of loneliness of the keeper. Just as life is ever changing, so too is the sea. For centuries, the lighthouse has been a beacon for those at sea. For those on land, what is our light? NYC based composer/performer Robert Een, poet/novelist and human rights activist Marjorie Agosín, set designer Marcela Otéiza, and lighting designer Blu join the Ensemble as the collaborative team for this exciting new work.

2015 U.S./Canada 17-Lighthouse Grand Slam Tour!

Click here to read all about it!