|Saybrook Breakwater (Saybrook Outer), CT|
Description: Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse is located at the mouth of the mighty Connecticut River near the picturesque town of Old Saybrook. The first lighthouse in the area was established in 1803 at Lynde Point on the west side of the river entrance, but in 1831, a buoy was placed just offshore to mark the dangerous bar at the river mouth. In the 1870s, the river mouth was dredged to accommodate increasing ship traffic, and two granite breakwaters were built, one extending from each side of the river mouth.
Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse was one of the first of a number of cylindrical cast-iron lighthouses constructed between the 1880s and the 1920s. G. W. & F. Smith Iron Co., the name of the Boston-based manufacturer of the tower, is inscribed over the entrance door. The forty-nine-foot tower is supported by a cast-iron concrete-filled caisson sunk in seventeen feet of water. The caisson foundation has a diameter of thirty feet, a height of thirty-two feet, and its upper portion flares out to house a basement for the tower. As was customary with this type of structure, the caisson was assembled on land nearby and taken by barge to the site, where it was lowered into the water.
Both the caisson foundation and tower were painted brown until 1892, when the tower was painted white. To warn mariners away from the breakwater during periods of low visibility, the station was equipped with a fog bell struck every twenty seconds. This served until circa 1936 when a diaphragm foghorn was installed.
The tower is similar in design to Stamford Harbor Lighthouse, also built in Connecticut in the 1880s. The tower has four floors of living space for the keepers, topped by a watchroom and a twelve-sided lantern room. To prevent heavy condensation from forming on the iron walls during cold weather, the inside of the structure was lined with brick.
Despite this brick insulation, life was cold, damp, and uncomfortable at the station for the keepers. Going to shore for supplies in the twelve-foot rowboat required a hazardous journey fighting the Connecticut River’s strong currents. A walk to shore along the half-mile-long breakwater was dangerous as well, and even impossible after ice built up on it in the winter.
John Dahlman was serving as keeper of the lighthouse in 1905, when he decided to go duck hunting. Dahlman climbed down the ladder into his boat and was placing his shotgun down when it accidentally discharged and severely lacerated his left arm from wrist to elbow. Mrs. Dahlman frantically sounded a distress signal with the station’s fog bell, and the keeper at nearby Lynde Point summoned medical assistance.
Noting that the railroad watchmen were also paid more, Woods continued his complaint, “I am on duty twenty-four hours out of twenty-four hours and the only relief I get is when my wife begs of me to rest while she stands watch.” Woods’ request was not granted. Rather, he was assigned to a new station, but a few years later, the position of assistant keeper was added to Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse.
The lighthouse almost didn’t survive the legendary hurricane that hit New England on September 21, 1938. The short bridge from the tower to the breakwater and the station’s twelve-foot rowboat did get blown away, along with two large oil tanks and much of the battery house, but the two keepers on duty at the time were terrified that the entire tower would be washed away. Although a window near the base of the tower shattered and seawater flooded the lower levels of the station, the main structure managed to stay intact through the storm.
The following day, Keeper Sidney Gross recorded in the station’s log, “Everything swept away by the hurricane except the tower.”
On May 17, 1939, Keeper Gross sent a letter to his district’s superintendent that included the following account of assistance he had rendered:
Early Sunday morning, on the 14th of this month, Mr. Gerard Authier…while fishing on the breakwater, accidentally fell overboard. With the aid of some of his friends he managed to get back on to the breakwater. I was attracted by the excitement, went out to see if anyone was hurt or needed help. I found Mr. Authier suffering from immersion and shock and cuts and bruises.
In a letter of appreciation to the district superintendent, Mr. Authier wrote: “I am greatly indebted to this man by the name of Sidney Gross; the purpose of my letter is merely to commend the ability and integrity of this lighthouse keeper. I was insulted when, after receiving necessary care from this man, he refused to accept the small sum of $1.00 as a mark of appreciation. You have a very capable man in charge at this point in Saybrook, Conn; and I am sure that you could not find a better man than Mr. Sidney Gross on the entire Atlantic Seaboard.”
Saybrook Breakwater Light was automated in 1959, and the Coast Guard began occupying the station only in bad weather, letting personnel at nearby Lynde Point Lighthouse guard the river mouth the rest of the time. The tower received a major face-lift in 1996, when a $64,000 project covered the repainting of the tower, the installation of new handrails, and the removal of a generator and 500-gallon fuel tank used as a backup power source in blackouts.
The lighthouse currently exhibits a flashing green light, guiding throngs of summer sailors and year-round commercial ship traffic.
After Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse was placed on the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Program for 2007, Selectman Michael Pace of the Town of Old Saybrook vocalized concerns over navigational safety and public access should divestiture of the lighthouse occur. On January 30, 2008, a meeting arranged by Congressman Joe Courtney was held so that Selectman Pace could air his concerns with representatives of the Coast Guard and the General Services Administration.
The outcome of the meeting was not highly publicized, but in June of 2008, a Notice of Availability was released making the lighthouse “available at no cost to eligible entities defined as Federal Agencies, state and local agencies, non-profit corporations, educational agencies, or community development organizations, for education, park, recreation, cultural, or historic preservation purposes.” The Notice of Availability clearly states that the lighthouse can only be reached by boat and that access is via a ladder affixed to the base of the tower. Riprap around the tower forms a small protective harbor for boat access. Two non-profit organizations reportedly submitted a letter of interest by the August 27, 2008 deadline.
Transfer to an eligible entity did not occur, and on May 15, 2013, the General Services Administration opened an on-line auction for the lighthouse. Eight bidders participated in the auction, which ended on August 10, 2013 with a winning bid of $340,000. The lighthouse’s new owner was Kelly K. Navarro, wife of Benjamin W. Navarro, founder of the debt-collection firm Sherman Financial Group. The Navarros also own two waterfront homes that have a view of the lighthouse in Fenwick, where Katharine Hepburn lived.
When she was unable to sign a lease agreement due to the failure of the state legislature to pass a bill in 2014 authorizing bottom-land leases, Navarro asked for her deposit back. Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse was placed back on the auction block on July 15, 2015, and this time the new owner should have a much easier time securing a lease thanks to legislation passed by the state in June 2015 that clears the way for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to enter into lease agreements for sumberged land.
The 2015 auction for the lighthouse attracted seven bidders and closed on September 1 with a high bid of $290,000. The winning bidder was later identified as Frank J. Sciame, Jr., who purchased Katherine Hepburn’s shoreline estate in 2004 and subsequently renovated the property. “I've been looking at it for over 10 years since I’ve lived at the house,” Sciame said. “It something that everyone sees if you buy a property in the borough of Fenwick. It’s an important part of the seascape.” Sciame, a New York builder, planned to restore the outside of the lighthouse and transform the inside into a liveable space, but then in 2016, he placed the lighthouse on the market as part of the former Hepburn estate.
Located at the end of the breakwater on the west side of the entrance to the Connecticut River. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
These pictures of Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse were taken in July 2003, just two weeks after the passing of famed actress Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn’s house is located at the far left of the center picture, and just to the right of the tower in the lower picture. According to her will, a 4.17-acre parcel of land to the east of her driveway is to be donated to an "environmental or conservation organization" to "protect the lot from development ... for the benefit of the general public." Don’t let this announcement get your hopes up that the public will finally be able to get a decent view of Lynde Point and Saybrook Lighthouses from land, as it is more than likely that Old Saybrook’s exclusive Fenwick area will remain off-limits to the lighthouse enthusiast.
See our List of Lighthouses in Connecticut
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.