Point in Time

T he eponymous lighthouse on Lighthouse Point hasn’t been lit since 1877. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive landmark on the east side of New Haven Harbor, visible from downtown as well as out in Long Island Sound. The human history of this point of land that reaches like the toe of a boot into the harbor goes back much farther, though, than its name might suggest.

Before it was Lighthouse Point, it was known both as Morris Point and Five Mile Point, a nod to its distance from the New Haven Green. Earlier still, it was the domain of the Quinnipiac, whose main village “sat at the intersection of a number of important travel routes that ran along the shore and to other Indian communities in the interior,” writes Paul Grant-Costa in “Quinnipiac: The People of the Long Water Land.”

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Pinning much of their hopes for prosperity on the impressive harbor, Puritan English settlers purchased large tracts of land including Lighthouse Point from the Quinnipiac, who retained a 1,200-acre reservation in what later became East Haven and Morris Cove. But it turned out the fledgling port wasn’t quite as conducive to trade as early colonists had hoped. “Even the settlers of the 17th century had fretted over the shallow harbor,” write Floyd Shumway and Richard Hegel in New Haven: An Illustrated History (1981). Among other things, a lighthouse was sorely needed.

But that was still a long way off, and in the meantime, there was a revolution to contend with. On July 5, 1779, British forces under Major General William Tryon made two landings at Morris Point, took nearby Black Rock Fort and Beacon Hill and “organized pillaging parties to roam about the East Haven section and terrorize the inhabitants” before moving into the countryside, Osterweis writes in Three Centuries of New Haven (1953). “Tryon’s vindictive attitude toward the patriots needs no further documentation than his own statement, that he would like ‘to burn every Committee [of Safety] Man’s house’ within his reach.” But slightly cooler heads looking for an “unhampered evacuation” prevailed, and British troops left the area mostly intact when, on July 7, they headed west to wreak further havoc on Fairfield and Norwalk.

A generation later, in 1804, Amos Morris sold land on Morris Point to the brand new US government for the express purpose of finally building a lighthouse, “with the privilege of passing back and forth through my land for the accommodation of said Light House and the keeper of it, in procuring and conveying necessary supplies,” according to East Haven town records quoted in The East Side of New Haven Harbor by Marjorie F. Hayward (1938). This first lighthouse was a “shingled, wooden structure, octagonal in shape,” the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees website notes. “The tower was approximately 18 feet at its base and 30 feet tall. An iron lantern surrounded the top of the tower. It is believed that the first lantern burned whale oil.”

Unfortunately, this lighthouse, with a relatively weak, static beacon, was located nearly at sea level and “too far north on the shore to be seen by ships coming from the east.” Consequently, it was “no protection from disaster,” the city’s website notes. “At least one ship ran onto the rocks, reportedly just one mile from the lighthouse, and was pounded to pieces.” So, the government tried again.

A new lighthouse was built to a height of 70 feet. Also octagonal, it was constructed of East Haven sandstone with a brick interior. Its keeper lived in a nearby brick house, originally connected to the lighthouse by a wooden passageway. Opened in 1847, the second lighthouse was in commission for 30 years, until the Southwest Ledge light was built farther out on a breakwater. Both it and the keeper’s house remain standing today in Lighthouse Point Park.

War briefly touched the point again during the short-lived Spanish-American War in 1898. Anticipating the possibility of an attack by Spain, New Haven Harbor was apparently mined, and “some obsolete cannon were mounted at Lighthouse Point,” Osterweis writes. “On colored postcards of the early 1900s,” according to Doris B. Townshend in The Streets of New Haven (1984), “the cannon are shown, nicknamed Old Sentries.” Unlike the British 119 years earlier, Spain never attacked, and all remained quiet on the point.

Until an amusement park came to town. Lighthouse Point Park was built between 1911 and 1917 by a trolley company “seeking new ways to increase ridership,” notes a National Register of Historic Places nomination. The park’s beloved carousel was installed in 1916. The nomination counts the figures: “one camel, two chariots, and sixty-nine horses, of which forty are galloping and twenty-nine are standing,” and all of which are “fine examples of their craft.”

“Lighthouse Park provided escape from the crowded life of the city,” the nomination states. “A trolley ride led city dwellers into a world of amusement, sea breezes, and holiday atmosphere.” In its 1920s heyday, residents enjoyed “swimming, ferry boat rides to Savin Rock [another park across the harbor], track meets, football games, field days and baseball leagues in the old grandstand/ballpark,” the city’s website notes. “The park, in the roaring 20’s, attracted legends Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb to Sunday afternoon games.” In 1925, the city purchased the park.

But it wasn’t smooth sailing from there. Connecticut’s infamous 1938 hurricane damaged the carousel, which was destined to spend the following decades in disrepair. Eventually, the National Register nomination states, “Public pressure to close the park increased, peaking when a small boy was electrocuted on one of the rides.” In the late 1950s, the original amusement park buildings were demolished and the carousel boarded up.

Over the last several decades, the park has experienced a resurgence. Swimmers spread out on the sand or float in the gentle waves of the Sound. Picnickers fire up their grills on the lawn. Kids play on the splash pad and the playground. Though the coming season may be quieter than most, the park generally hosts an annual bird migration festival, holiday lights festival and “polar plunge” as well as frequent weddings and parties. And, though you can’t climb the lighthouse’s 74 steps to its top, you can, in a normal summer, ride the carousel. In fact, it’s one of the few amusements that costs little more than it did “back in the day”: just 50 cents for a historic ride in a historic place.

Lighthouse Point Park
2 Lighthouse Rd, New Haven (map)
Daily 7am to sunset
New Haven residents free; non-resident vehicles $25/day (out-of-state $30/day)
www.newhavenct.gov/…

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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