In 1760, the colonial legislature of Connecticut passed an act creating a committee to pursue the funding, construction, and staffing of a new lighthouse for the harbor entrance at New London. The following year, thousands of lottery tickets were sold to raise £500 for the lighthouse (a popular method of raising funds for construction projects in those days). The lighthouse, a sixty-four-foot-tall stone tower with a wooden lantern at the top, was finished that same year at the west side of the harbor entrance. The construction cost came to £715, and the construction committee, who had paid for the overrun out of their own pockets, was reimbursed using the colony’s public treasury. The lighthouse was the first one in the harbor and only the fourth to be built in the American colonies.
Nathaniel Shaw sold the land for the lighthouse to the government and also served as the first keeper of the light. Visitors to New London today can tour the Shaw Mansion, where one of the 1760 lottery tickets for building the lighthouse is on display. Led by Benedict Arnold, British forces raided New London on September 6, 1781 and burned most of the town to the ground in an attempt to destroy the Revolutionary privateer fleet and naval stores warehoused there. Being built of stone, both Shaw’s mansion and the lighthouse survived the attack.
New London Harbor Lighthouse was ceded to the Federal Government in May 1790, after an act was passed the previous year stipulating that the Federal Government would pay for keepers and supplies necessary to run the country’s lighthouses.
By 1799, the lighthouse had developed a crack extending ten feet down from the lantern. In addition, the light was so dim as to often be indistinguishable from the lights of the surrounding homes, and from the west the beacon was completely obscured by a point of land. Congress allocated $15,700 for a replacement lighthouse on May 7, 1800, and later that year, a New Londoner by the name of Abisha Woodward began construction on the current octagonal, tapered, eighty-foot-tall tower. Sitting on a foundation of a mixture of granite, brownstone, and native stone, the tower was built of freestone, hammered smooth and laid in courses. The tower’s thick stone walls are lined with brick, and a wooden spiral staircase originally led up to the lantern room. Since construction of the tower, various renovations have been affected such as installing a new lantern with a copper dome, repainting the exterior walls with hydraulic cement and whitewash, and replacing the interior stairway with a metal one.
When the new station opened in 1801, its flashing light was produced by oil lamps and an eclipser. This apparatus was replaced in 1834 by eleven lamps with thirteen-inch reflectors. Finally, a fourth-order Fresnel lens, which remains in the lighthouse today, was installed in 1857. The first keeper’s house deteriorated quickly and was replaced in 1818 by a five-room, frame dwelling. The current gable-roofed, two-and-a-half-story keeper’s residence was built in 1863, and in 1900 it was expanded to provide quarters for the assistant keeper.
During the War of 1812, New London Harbor Lighthouse was extinguished. The British did not attack the station during the conflict, as it was guarded by colonial troops, but instead invaded the undefended Little Gull Island Light, taking all of its lamps and reflectors.
New London was not the first town where landlubbers found themselves at odds with the maritime community. In 1903, the thorn in the town residents’ side was the fog siren newly installed at the lighthouse. The sizable number of seasonal summer residents was especially dismayed after arriving for their annual period of rest and recuperation from big-city stresses only to have the new fog signal prevent any possibility of a good night’s sleep. While city residents complained about the “horrible groaning and shrieking,” local ship captains found the sound of the long-requested signal to be sweet music to their ears when attempting to navigate the harbor through a pea-soup fog.
A fog signal was first installed at the lighthouse around 1857 in the form of a steam whistle. This was later upgraded to a Daboll trumpet, which was the type of signal that had been in operation for many years before a new fog signal house was built and the troubling fog siren was placed in operation during the summer of 1903. The problem was finally resolved on February 1, 1906, when the maligned fog siren was replaced by a Daboll trumpet. The whole issue became mute in 1911 when New London Ledge Lighthouse was activated, and the harbor light’s fog signal was turned off for good. The harbor lighthouse was automated in 1912, and the property, which had been divided in half by the construction of Pequot Avenue in 1868, was auctioned off as two separate parcels.
Alice Bunner purchased the keeper’s dwelling adjacent to the lighthouse for $21,100 in 1928, and in 1971, Laurence H. Bunner, Alice’s son, was the sole occupant of the nine-room residence. The dwelling is reportedly still owned by members of the Bunner family.
New London Harbor Lighthouse is not the easiest lighthouse to visit, as the keeper’s house and surrounding ground is privately owned. Limited views are available from the sidewalk on Pequot Avenue, but the best views are from the water. In October 2009, the New London Maritime Society became the new legal steward of New London Harbor Lighthouse, after the Coast Guard excessed the tower through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. A formal transfer ceremony was held at the lighthouse on October 13 of the following year, wherein the deed for the lighthouse was presented to the New London Maritime Society. The tower and surrounding land, however, remains off-limits to the public except during special tours offered by the society.
In 2014, volunteers from the local carpenters union erected scaffolding around the lighthouse so that volunteers from Painters Local 1122 could clean, repoint, and paint the historic tower. The Maritime Society had raised $150,000 for the restoration project, and besides paying for needed materials, some of the funds were used to construct new retaining walls at the base of the tower to replace those washed out by Superstorm Sandy.