The History of Faulkner’s Island Lighthouse
Compiled by Jeremy D’Entremont, with special thanks to Joel Helander for his assistance.
Connecticut’s second oldest lighthouse tower, Faulkner’s Island Light is the only active light station on an island in the state. Faulkner’s Island is about three and one half miles offshore from Guilford, Connecticut. Many vessels negotiating Long Island Sound were wrecked on the rocks around the three-acre island, prompting the Lighthouse Establishment to erect a 40-foot stone lighthouse in 1802. The beacon was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, and the island was purchased from Medad Stone for $325.
The steamer Winooski near Faulkner’s Island in an 1866 engraving
Like Connecticut’s oldest lighthouse tower, New London Harbor Light, Faulkner’s Island Light was built by stonemason Abisha Woodward. The lighthouse is notable for the unusual outside staircase on its upper section, leading to the gallery deck.
During the War of 1812 British troops stopped at Faulkner’s Island. They did no harm to the tower or Keeper Solomon Stone and his family, realizing the importance of the lighthouse to their own safety.
President James Monroe appointed Guilford native Eli Kimberly keeper in 1818 at a salary of $350 per year. Kimberly moved to the island with his pregnant wife Polly and their two children. The family remained on Faulkner’s Island for 33 years, raising 12 children. The Kimberlys kept livestock and raised vegetables on the island, and the children were taught by a tutor who boarded with the family. Visitors were common during the Kimberlys’ years on the island, often as many as 100 people on a summer day.
Faulkner Island Light c. 1900
Faulkner Island Light’s original lantern was replaced in 1840. The old lighting system, consisting of twelve whale-oil lamps with parabolic reflectors, was replaced by a a system of nine lamps and reflectors. A fourth order Fresnel lens was installed in 1856. It’s believed that the present lantern was installed about 1870. The original keeper’s house had fallen into disrepair and was rebuilt in 1858.
Oliver N. Brooks served as keeper from 1851 to 1882. Over one hundred vessels were wrecked in the vicinity during his tenure, through no fault of the light or its keeper. In November 1858 Keeper Brooks rescued five people from the grounded schooner Moses F. Webb. He received a gold medal from the New York Life Saving Society for his heroism, and his salary was soon raised to $500 per year. The entire Brooks family played musical instruments, and visitors were sometimes treated to impromptu concerts. According to an 1888 newspaper article, the Brooks family “made a paradise out of that little island.”
George Zuius was the last keeper for the U.S. Lighthouse Service, leaving Faulkner’s Island in 1941 when the Coast Guard took over. Keeper Juius was on Faulkner’s Island when the Hurricane of 1938 hit. He managed to keep the light going throughout the storm, but the boathouse was destroyed. Zuius’ daughter, Barbara, still remembers playing on the island with a pet chicken and her dog Rexie.
In March 1976, a fire broke out in the keeper’s quarters while two Coast Guardsmen were on duty. Fire fighters couldn’t arrive in time, and when the smoke cleared the 1871 keeper’s house was gone and the tower was scorched. “By the time we got there the island was an inferno,” said one firefighter. “we didn’t stand a chance, but we did what we could.”
Two years later the light was repaired and automated, with the fourth order Fresnel lens being replaced by a modern optic. Vandals had done further damage after the fire, so the windows were bricked up and a new steel door installed. In 1988 the light was converted to solar power.
Like many New England lighthouses, Faulkner’s Island Light has been waging a war with nature. Erosion has been eating away at the bluff the lighthouse stands on at a rate of at least six inches per year, so that the tower now stands about 35 feet from the brink. In 1991, local resident and historian Joel Helander founded the nonprofit Faulkner’s Light Brigade, a commission of the Guilford Preservation Alliance, to try to save the venerable structure. Helander said, “The lighthouse has been the salvation of so many mariners. Now it’s our turn to return the favor by saving it.” The Faulkner’s Light Brigade now has about 1,000 members.
A restoration of the lighthouse costing over $200,000 was completed in late 1999. Most of the funding came from the Federal Government through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Enhancement Act (ISTEA). Walter Sedovic Architects of Irvington, New York, were chosen to oversee the restoration project. Sedovic has said, “Historic buildings have a layering of time and events that’s irreplaceable… I think it’s remarkable to be working on a lighthouse that Jefferson commissioned and represents that period so well.” Sedovic chose to restore the tower to the 1871 period.
International Chimney Corporation of Buffalo, New York — the same company that moved two Cape Cod lighthouses, among others — was chosen to implement the restoration of the lighthouse.
Erosion control measures have been implemented by the Army Corps of Engineers. In September 2000, an armada of heavy construction equipment arrived on the island under the direction of Zenone, Inc., of Franklin, Massachusetts. A massive stone wall nearly 20 feet high and 50 feet wide was installed along the east embankment, with an outer layer consisting of stones weighing as much as three tons each. The upper face of the embankment was cut back to a slope of about 30-40 degrees, and hardy vegetation was planted to help buffer wind and rain. Next to the lighthouse for 300 feet, additional stability was created by the placement of six-inch high “geo cells,” a system of plastic fabric with holes, covered with earth and planted with vegetation. In all, 600 linear feet of the east embankment were stabilized under Phase 1 of the erosion control project. Phase 2 of the project will include the construction of another 600-foot revetment “wrapping” the south end of the island.
More than 150 species of birds use Faulkner’s Island, which is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, as a migratory rest stop. The island has one of the northeast’s largest breeding colonies of roseate terns, an endangered species. Access to the island is restricted during nesting season from May to August.
The rescue of Faulkner’s Island Light is well underway, but the Faulkner’s Light Brigade stll needs your support. Says supporter and boater Ken McKenzie, “Without the lighthouse, the island would sure seem like a strange place to me.”
KEEPERS OF FAULKNER’S ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE:
Joseph Griffing (1802-1812); Solomon Stone, Jr. (1812-1818); Eli Kimberly (1818-1851); Oliver N. Brooks (1851-1882); William Jones (1882-c. 1890); Frank Parmelee (assistant, c. 1884-?); Ernest Hermann (1890-1901); Howard Poe (1901-1909); James Boyce (assistant, c. 1905); William J. Hannighan (assistant, 1906); Conrad Hawk (assistant, c. 1909); Elmer T. Rathbun (1909-1911); Frederick R. Campbell (assistant, 1912-1913); Arthur Jensen (1911-1916); Edward M. Grant (assistant, 1914); Herbert L. Greenwood (1916-1919); Leonard Fuller (1919-1924); William Hartwick (assistant, c. 1920); Samuel Fuller (1924-?); Robert L. Howard (c. 1927-1928); Arthur J. Minzner (assistant, c. 1928); George Zuius (1935-1941); Harold Burbine (Coast Guard, c. 1940s), Stephen Talgo (Coast Guard, c. 1940s); William Parker (Coast Guard asst. 1945-1946); Robert Baranksi (Coast Guard 1957-1958); Jim Marshall (Coast Guard, 1958-1962); James Overton (Coast Guard officer in charge c. late 1960s); Robert Ewing (Coast Guard, c. 1965); Steve Martin (Coast Guard 1966-1970); Tony Fox (Coast Guard, c. 1973); John Von Ogden (Coast Guard, 1975-1976); Mark Robinson (Coast Guard Officer in Charge 1975-1976)
This history was compiled by Jeremy D’Entremont, with special thanks to Joel Helander for his assistance.