Sentinel of the Sound
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Magazine Holiday 2011)
Fairfield, CT – For nearly 140 years, since her Fresnel lens first flickered to life January 16, 1874, Penfield Reef Lighthouse, less than a mile off Fairfield Beach in Long Island Sound, has served as a guide to mariners and an icon for the town of Fairfield. In recent years, its Coast Guard parent has been seeking a new private owner and in Fall 2011, an online auction was initiated. Fairfield residents Sandye Mann and Bill Sapone formed the Penfield Reef Lighthouse Preservation Committee to campaign for local acquisition of the historic beacon and, at press time, were seeking donations to top a competitive bid of $25,000.
The initial driver for the construction of Penfield Light was an increase in shipping activity in Bridgeport Harbor after the Civil War. Penfield Reef, at the end of which the Light was ultimately erected, jutted out dangerously close to the route of steamers and schooners operating between Bridgeport and New York and was the cause of several boating accidents. In 1864, the passenger steamer Rip Van Winkle bumped the shoal and in the winter of 1866-67, four vessels were grounded on the reef. Spurred by local merchants and boaters, in April 1868, a lighthouse engineer petitioned the Lighthouse Board, which asked for and secured $55,000 from Congress to build a structure.
Construction began in 1872, with a conical ring of granite forming a base and cavity at the top serving as the basement of a granite and wood-frame two-story dwelling that would be built on top of it. The first floor housed a kitchen, living room and oil room. The second floor contained four bedrooms. Above that, an octagonal tower was erected, topped by a cast-iron lantern featuring a light that worked on a clockwork mechanism and flashed red every six seconds.
George Tomlinson was the first of many keepers the Light would have over the next century, with turnover occurring almost every other year. The initial annual salary was about $400, well earned by the keeper who often took his life in his hands traveling to and from the lighthouse, especially in winter. One keeper, in fact, Fred Jordan, anxious to join his family for Christmas, was drowned in rough seas December 22, 1916 when his rowboat capsized. Assistant Keeper Rudolph Iten was promoted in his place. Days later, Iten recounted seeing Jordan’s ghost and the lighthouse logbook mysteriously placed and opened on a table.
Life in the Light itself was comfortable enough, though water had to be boiled to purify it, the radio was often powerless and the foghorn loud. The hours were passed reading, cooking, washing, playing records and keeping watch. Newspapers were coveted and often dropped off by a passing lobsterman.
Penfield Reef Light was automated in 1971 and then almost replaced by a pipe tower. Local residents, Congressman Lowell Wicker and State Representative Stewart McKinney saved the structure, and today its light continues its decades-long mission.