Water Towers

Water Towers

Along the eastern reaches of the Long Island Sound is a constellation of lighthouses dating mostly to the 19th century. Built in places where shipwrecks were frequent, they’re a testament to the number of vessels navigating to and from regional ports—and to the invisible islands, underwater ledges and tidal races lying in wait.

Long Island, it turns out, ends with an ellipsis, dropping perilous crumbs of itself from its North Fork all the way to the southwestern tip of Rhode Island. One of the smallest of those crumbs is Race Rock, which in the 1800s was nothing more—or less—than a submerged 200-foot boulder. The gap between it and Fishers Island was said to have capsized eight vessels in as many years, so a lighthouse was by grave necessity planned and, after 18 years of bureaucracy and another eight years of construction, activated there in 1879, the boulder ultimately crowned in a concrete and stone foundation wide and tall enough to turn Race Rock into an island.

The Race Rock Lighthouse is now a starkly beautiful curiosity, a Gothic Revival stone dwelling surrounded beneath its foundation by a low rocky pile and open water. The Cross Sound Ferry and other companies equipped with a multi-deck catamaran offer lighthouse tours in the summer and fall (sadly finished for 2023), enabling you to see up to 12 lighthouses as captains of merchant and whaling ships once did, some of them still only visible from a boat. The New London Ledge Lighthouse, for its part, can be spied from land, but not in any detail. It was the first stop on the catamaran I boarded, on a tour hosted by the Connecticut Audubon Society. (Where there be lighthouses, there also be seabirds.) The Ledge house is, like the Rock house, a multi-story dwelling on an island of its own foundation. Its fanciful French style, with mansard roof and bright red-painted brick, make it, too, appear like a home that had somehow floated offshore.

Lighthouses of greater familiarity, the sort that appear in land- and seascape paintings, revealed themselves as the boat motored from the mouth of the Thames to the mouth of the Connecticut. The New London Harbor Lighthouse and, in Old Saybrook, the Lynde Point Lighthouse share a tall, octagonal, white-painted stone profile, providing an illustration of how function, over time, becomes form. They had been built to resist weather while reaching heights easily visible from the Sound, but their stately lines and lamps now make them beautiful monuments.

It’s the squat, cylindrical cast iron lighthouses, however, that attract the most affection from their localities. The Saybrook Breakwater Light—the outer lighthouse to inner Lynde Point—is a recognized symbol of shoreline Connecticut and the one immortalized on “Preserve The Sound” license plates. Likewise, the Orient Point Lighthouse, which tilts slightly but rustily on a pile of rocks between Plum Island and Orient Point, was vehemently defended by Orient Pointers when the Coast Guard announced it would be dismantled in the 1970s. Such lighthouses, foundry-forged and mounted to steel cylinders filled with rocks, then ringed by more rocks, are affectionately described as coffee pots or spark plugs, almost as if they’d been discarded there.

As the catamaran motored eastward from Orient Point, then swung west around Fishers Island to complete its circle, we passed more lighthouses on Little Gull Island and North Dumpling Island. Both islets in their heyday accommodated a single family-sized homestead, and the latter still does, along with a wind turbine and a replica of Stonehenge. Both have in common private ownership, a protection that ends up restoring their lighthouses to a traditional role. The lights still draw attention to themselves—but not too close attention—for the purpose of directing your boat elsewhere.

Photo Key:
1. New London Harbor Lighthouse.
2. Race Rock Lighthouse.
3. New London Ledge Lighthouse
4. Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse (near) and Lynde Point Lighthouse (far).
5. Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse.
6. Little Gull Island Lighthouse.
7. North Dumpling Lighthouse.

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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