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 Penfield Reef, CT    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.Boo! Lighthouse haunted.
Description: Penfield Reef has for centuries been a dreaded hazard to mariners sailing Long Island Sound. Even with a modern lighthouse now in position, flashing a strong light as a warning, it is not unusual for several boats a year to run aground on the reef.

Penfield Reef is over a mile long, extending out from Penfield Beach in Fairfield, Connecticut. Even as late as the middle of the 19th century, only a pair of buoys marked the reef, and ships were regularly hitting the rocks. The steamer Rip Van Winkle loaded with passengers ran aground on the reef in 1864, but miraculously disaster was narrowly avoided. Incidents like this led local mariners and merchants to protest loudly for a lighthouse to be placed on the reef. Captain D.C. Constable of the Board of Light-House Commissioners declared Penfield Reef to be “the most dangerous locality, during fogs and snow-storms, upon Long Island Sound.”

It took several more years, but finally in 1870 and 1871 Congress allocated a total of $55,000 for construction of a lighthouse. First a granite riprap foundation was laid, followed by an 18-foot tall cylindrical pier, made out of cut granite with a width of forty-eight and a half feet at its base. (Around the turn of the century builders added 1,200 tons of riprap to the foundation for extra protection.) The pier was filled with concrete, although space was left near the top for a basement. Then a twenty-eight square-foot keeper’s residence, complete with mansard roof, was built upon the pier. The first floor included a kitchen, sitting room, and oil room, and a wooden stairway led to four bedrooms on the second floor. The lighthouse began serving mariners in 1874 with a machine-operated fog bell and a fourth-order Fresnel lens exhibiting a flashing red light.

Interior of Penfield Reef Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy Library of Congress
Penfield Reef Lighthouse is said to be haunted by the ghost of an old keeper. Just before Christmas in 1916, Head Keeper Frederick A. Jordan anxiously climbed into a small boat and began rowing towards shore to spend the holiday with his family, whom he had not seen for several weeks as a series of storms had kept him trapped at the lighthouse. The assistant keeper, named Iten, watched as Jordan’s boat capsized in the choppy seas. Due to the increasingly stormy weather, Iten was delayed in launching a rescue boat, and watched helplessly as Jordan drifted away holding onto the overturned rowboat. Eventually Iten lost sight of the head keeper, and he was presumed lost and drowned.

Iten was promoted to head keeper after Jordan’s disappearance, but every so often he felt an unearthly chill in the lighthouse for unexplained reasons. One time he saw a hazy presence coming out of the dead keeper’s former room. After gathering his wits, the keeper looked around the station and found that the logbook was taken down from the shelf where it was stored, and had been opened to the page that described Jordan’s death! Even in more modern times, when the beacon occasionally behaves erratically longtime locals say it is the ghost of keeper Jordan having a little fun.

After ten years of service following the death of keeper Jordan, Iten said, "I have seen the semblance of the figure several times... and so have the others [two assistant keepers], and we are all prepared to make an affidavit to that effect. Something comes here, of that we are positive."

In 1969, the Coast Guard announced plans to tear down the venerable granite structure and replace it with a pipe tower. Local residents began a vocal campaign opposing these plans, and with the assistance of then Congressman Lowell Weicker and State Representative Stewart McKinney, the Penfield Reef Lighthouse was preserved. The beacon was automated in 1971, and in the following years the structure suffered from neglect. In 2000, an inspection showed that one of the main support beams had rotted, causing the lantern to tilt noticeably. The following year, water leaks in the lantern were repaired and mortar joints repointed. A new stainless steel roof was placed on the lantern room in 2003.

Penfield Reef Lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. Although it is reportedly possible to walk to the lighthouse during low tide, legend says that an incoming tide swept away one family attempting the crossing. In any case, it’s not considered advisable, and the safest way to get a close-up view is with a boat. This ride is best done with a captain familiar with the area. A sign warns mariners of the rocks near the lighthouse, and apparently a number of boaters have hit the rocks while trying to get close enough to read the sign.

The Coast Guard made preparations in 2005 to declare Penfield Reef Lighthouse expendable property and to transfer the title to an appropriate new caretaker, as directed by the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. In 2007, Penfield Reef Lighthouse was offered to qualified entities, including non-profit organizations and state and local agencies. Although several organizations initially expressed interest in the property, only the Town of Fairfield and Beacon Preservation submitted a formal application. On July 29, 2008, Beacon Preservation was informed that they had submitted a "superior" application and were being recommended to assume ownership of the lighthouse. Beacon Preservation, which earlier acquired Goose Rocks Lighthouse in Maine, plans to partner with Aquaculture School in Bridgeport, Fairfield University, and Western Connecticut State University who will jointly use the site as a research facility.

As part of the transfer agreement, Beacon Preservation was required to obtain a lease from the State of Connecticut for the submerged land on which the lighthouse stands. Beacon Preservation's lawyer, Keith Murray, expressed the groups concerns over this stipulation. "We could spend a lot of money, get the lighthouse completely restored and start running programs, and the state could decide after the 10-year lease not to renew or charge us a hefty fee." In 2007, the Connecticut General Assembly had passed a law transferring the bottomlands to the town of Fairfield, but the town said it would transfer the land back to the state who could then transfer it to Beacon Preservation.

Beacon Preservation sued the federal government in 2010 to secure the deed to the lighthouse without the need for a lease agreement from the state. In response, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior sent a letter to Beacon Preservation in February of 2011, rescinding the nonprofit's accepted application for the lighthouse due to its failure to reach a deal with the state.

After a litigious year, Beacon Preservation decided to abandon their claim to Penfield Reef Lighthouse. “We're letting it go at this point,” said Keith Murray. “We're not interested in the media attention or the lighthouse; we're just done.”

An online auction for the lighthouse opened on September 28, 2011 and closed on December 12 after only three bidders had each submitted just one bid. The winning bid was $45,000. The Penfield Reef Lighthouse Preservation Committee had been formed earlier in the year to try to raise funds to acquire the lighthouse for the Town of Fairfield. After the committee failed to raise enough to realistically win the auction, the town decided not to participate in the auction.

Upon learning that the lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and must be maintained within guidelines set by the Connecticut Historical Society, the top bidder decided to not close on the deal. A second online auction for the lighthouse will eventually be offered.

Hurricane Sandy ravaged Penfield Reef Lighthouse in 2012 with thirty-foot waves and a thirteen-foot storm surge, pushing in panels in doors and windows and ripping apart the built-in gutter on the roof. The Coast Guard invited bids in 2014 for repointing the exterior granite, erecting a new railing and access ladder, repairing the roof and lantern room, and cleaning up the interior. The project, which should get underway during the summer of 2014, is expected to cost between $500,000 and $1 million.

References

  1. The Lighthouses of Connecticut, Jeremy D’Entremont, 2005.
  2. Northeast Lights: Lighthouses and Lightships, Rhode Island to Cape May, New Jersey, Robert Bachand, 1989.
  3. "For Sale: Home W/Ocean Vu. Rocks Not Incl.," Shelly Banjo, The Wall Street Journal, May 12, 2011.
  4. "An Uncertain Future For a (Possibly Haunted) Historic Lighthouse Off Fairfield Beach," Marc Ferris, Fairfield Weekly, May 31, 2011.
  5. "Group Renews Effort to Save Fairfield Lighthouse," Greg Canuel, The Daily Fairfield , May 3, 2012.

Location: Located 1.4 miles offshore from Fairfield, marking the entrance to Black Rock Harbor.
Latitude: 41.117086
Longitude: -73.22209

For a larger map of Penfield Reef Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: Harbor Cruises from Captain's Cove Seaport in Black Rock Harbor that pass by the Penfield Reef Lighthouse are available on weekends during the summer. A lighthouse cruise that passes this lighthouse along with several others is offered by Sound Navigation.

Distant views from land are possible by taking I-95's Exit 21 and going south on Mill Plain Road to Highway 1. Turn left on Highway 1 then right on Reef Road, which will lead to the shore from where you can see the lighthouse.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Dwelling/tower closed.

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