Digest>Archives> January 2002

A 200th Birthday Present: Faulkner’s Island Lighthouse Removed from Doomsday List

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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Faulkners Island Light Station from an antique ...

Faulkner’s Island Lighthouse, built in 1802, is the eighth oldest standing lighthouse tower in the United States. It’s also the second oldest tower in Connecticut, outranked by a single year by New London Harbor Lighthouse. A dedicated group of preservationists has helped the lighthouse come a long way back in its tenacious battle against the forces of nature.

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Faulkners Island Lighthouse in 1976 after fire ...

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 octagonal stone lighthouse in 1802. The lighthouse is notable for the unusual outside staircase on its upper section leading to the gallery deck.

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Taken in April 2001, shortly after Phase 1 of the ...

One of the island’s most interesting historical periods was the tenure of Keeper Oliver N. Brooks, who served from 1851 to 1882. Over one hundred vessels were wrecked in the vicinity during this time, 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.

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The restoration finished in 1999 left Faulkner’s ...

Keeper Brooks was known as a man of many interests. He played the violin, studied ornithology and taxidermy, and conducted experiments with sound and light. He often practiced his taxidermy skills on unfortunate birds that had collided with the lighthouse lantern and died, and the keeper’s house became kind of a natural history museum. One of the keeper’s daughters reportedly also shot a number of birds to add to the collection. Another daughter studied marine botany and painted watercolors. 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.”

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 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.

Over the decades, erosion continually ate away at the bluff the lighthouse stands on at a rate of at least six inches per year, until the tower stood only 37 feet from the brink by 1991. In January of that year, a ten-member group calling themselves the “Friends of Faulkner’s” met at the Guilford Free Library and began to think of ways to save the island and its lighthouse. In addition to the erosion problem, the tower had begun to fall into disrepair after the light was automated.

Joel Helander, a Guilford historian, realized that immediate action was needed. He believed that the effort had to begin with awareness and appreciation, so he wrote a definitive account of the island’s history in 1988. The result was the book The Island Called Faulkner’s. In August 1989, Helander coordinated an open house on the island. The open house grew into a popular annual event.

The seeds were planted for a grassroots rescue of the lighthouse. During 1990 the new Faulkner’s Light Brigade became a commission of the Guilford Preservation Alliance.

The Town of Guilford joined forces with Faulkner’s Light Brigade as a municipal partner. The town applied through the Connecticut Department of Transportation for Intermodel Surface Transportation Act (ISTEA) funding.

In 1997, the Lighthouse Restoration Committee selected architect Walter Sedovic to prepare design plans, and later that year named International Chimney to perform the restoration work. Sedovic and International Chimney had previously worked together on the move of Block Island’s Southeast Lighthouse. The town entered into a five-year license agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard to become the new lighthouse steward.

Restoration was completed in late 1999. The work included a new ventilation system, the application of an all-white breathable coating to make the tower weathertight, painting of the lantern gallery inside and out, a new lightning protection system, installation of a stainless steel door, new 12-pane casement windows in the face of the west wall, restoration of the original weathervane and the scraping and painting of the interior handrail. Another major addition was a 75-square foot entry deck, made of Pau lope, a dense tropical hardwood resistant to insects and decay.

Erosion continued to be a prime concern. Partnerships were formed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Coast Guard, and what started as a campaign to save a lighthouse soon became a campaign to save both an endangered historic landmark and an endangered species, the roseate tern. The island is home to one of the world’s largest breeding colonies of this seabird.

With help from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Congress in September 1996 appropriated part of the erosion control funds. The balance of the $4.5 million was appropriated in 1998. By 2000 the lighthouse stood just 34 feet from the brink.

In September 2000, an armada of heavy construction equipment arrived on the island under the direction of Zenone, Inc., of Franklin, Massachusetts. The contract required that work could not take place during the nesting cycle of the roseate tern, which runs from May through August. As work progressed in early October, high winds and seas battered the floating wharf installed by Zenone. Weeks were lost while the landing barges were moved to make them less vulnerable to westerly winds.

On December 12 a southwesterly storm again ripped into the barges. Icy gale-force winds of over 60 miles per hour, combined with seven-foot waves to throw both barges onto the island’s shore. One of the barges was severely damaged and the roadway access was washed out. Despite the setbacks, Phase 1 of the erosion control work was finished in early 2001, providing protection from the island’s north tip to a point 250 feet south of the lighthouse.

A massive stone wall nearly 20 feet high and 50 feet wide was installed along the east embankment, with an outer armor 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. Between phases there will be an evaluation of the impact on the tern colony.

According to Joel Helander, the members of Faulkner’s Light Brigade can now “reflect on where we are, how far we’ve come and what lies ahead. Our accomplishments have been many and our rewards great — all possible because of the chain of partnerships forged with tireless volunteers and supporting members as well as local, state and federal agencies, clubs, businesses and corporations.” Helander cautions against the tendency to become complacent after so much has been accomplished, reminding everyone that much work remains.

The year 2002 marks the 200th birthday of Faulkner’s Island Light, and there will be a year-long exhibit on the lighthouse opening in March at the Whitfield State Historical Museum in Guilford. The 1639 building is New England’s oldest stone house.

For more information or to donate contact the Faulkner’s Light Brigade, P.O. Box 199, Guilford, Connecticut 06437. Phone: (203) 453-8400 Website: www.lighthouse.cc/FLB/

If you would like more information on the exhibit on 200 years of Faulkner’s Island Light history you can contact The Henry Whitfield State Museum, P.O. Box 210, 248 Old Whitfield St., Guilford, CT 06437. Or call (203) 453-2457. Website: www.hbgraphics.com/whitfieldmuseum

This story appeared in the January 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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