An examination of Race Rock was made in 1854 to determine “its character and the proper plan to be adopted in the erection of a beacon thereon.” The rock was found to be a large boulder, about 200 feet in diameter that rested upon a rocky ledge and was covered with just five feet of water at low tide. As the rock would not permit a structure of much lateral magnitude, a “beacon” with a central shaft of iron, sunk four feet into the rock and topped with a globular iron cage at a height of twenty feet above high water, was recommended. Records indicate that this day-beacon was completed in 1856, but it was “thrown down” in 1863 and then temporarily replaced by a first-class iron buoy.
A lighted aid was deemed necessary to mark the rock, and on July 28, 1866 a sum of $90,000 was allocated for the erection of lighthouse on Race Rock or on the southwest end of Fishers Island. Plans for a granite tower for the rock were adopted by the Lighthouse Board based on soundings made with an iron rod from a vessel trying to navigate in the strong currents surrounding the rock. However, due to the difficulty of the proposed construction it was thought prudent to make a more careful examination of the site and to this end, an “apparatus” was contrived to provide more reliable soundings. The prior soundings were found to be inadequate as the new apparatus determined that the area upon which the tower was to be constructed was made up of not just one giant rock but an aggregation of boulders smaller in size than Race Rock itself, which made the use of a cofferdam to construct the foundation impractical.
The Lighthouse Board came up with a new design that called for a granite pier topped by a two-story, octagonal, granite keeper’s dwelling and a lantern. This plan had two advantages over the original. First, the pier would be of greater diameter and thus be more capable of resisting the pressure of storm waves and pack ice, and second, the keepers would always be at hand to attend to their duties and not located nearly a mile away on Fishers Island. This improved plan did come at a price, namely $200,000, which was quite the sum for that time.
Construction of the foundation for Race Rock Lighthouse began in April 1871 after Congress provided an additional $150,000 that March. Francis Hopkinson Smith, a well-known and highly regarded structural engineer, as well as a painter and author, was contracted for the project. Smith’s other work includes the foundation for the Statue of Liberty, a breakwater at Block Island, Rhode Island, a seawall at the Lighthouse Service’s depot on Staten Island, and the design of Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse in Florida.
A riprap foundation, consisting of ten thousand tons of irregular stones weighing from three to five tons, was completed in November 1871. After workers noticed that some of the giant outer rocks had disappeared, Smith donned diving gear and personally examined the foundation. His fears were realized, and he had to convince the Lighthouse Board that the foundation was not stable enough to support the proposed superstructure and that a concrete foundation was needed instead. Congress provided $40,000 in 1872 to continue construction and another $75,000 the following year to complete the lighthouse.
Work on the concrete foundation, which required the removal of 1,000 tons of previously placed rock, began in May 1873. Iron bands were put in place and a circular slab of concrete, with a diameter of sixty-nine feet and a thickness of three feet, was poured. Atop this lower layer, three concentric, stepped layers were added making the height of the foundation nine feet. The top of the concrete foundation reached eight inches above low water and on this a conical pier with a height of thirty feet and diameter of fifty-seven feet was built. The pier, made of heavy masonry backed by concrete, was home to cisterns and cellars.
A shanty was erected on the foundation and Smith lived with his workers on-site during the working months. When laying the first of the foundation stones, the top button of Smith’s coat popped off, and he swore that he would not replace it until the stones rose above the water. Later, he resolved that he would not cut his hair until a certain course of the pier was finished. As a result, his hair grew until it nearly reached his collar. Smith later penned the fictional novel “Caleb West, Master Diver,” based on his experiences constructing Race Rock Lighthouse.
By the end of 1875, the concrete foundation was finished and the second course of the pier had been laid. The pier had ten courses when work stopped for the winter in 1876, and by the end of 1877 the pier’s fourteen courses and coping were complete.
Neil Martin served as the first keeper at Race Rock and would go on to serve on the lighthouses at Stamford Harbor and Penfield Reef. To accommodate the head keeper and his two assistants, the lighthouse had two kitchens, two sitting rooms, and two dining rooms on its first floor, and five bedrooms on the second floor.
In April 1892, twenty-four-year-old Christopher Culver, recently appointed head keeper at Race Rock, left his wife and family after a short shore leave in New London to return to the station. R.M. Jerome, a retired sea captain, watched Culver closely as he put off in a twelve-foot rowboat, equipped with a sail, to make the eight-mile journey out to the lighthouse. At one point, Jerome saw the boat’s sail go down in rough seas and quickly reported that Culver had capsized. A search failed to turn up any sign of the keeper, and several newspapers reported that Culver had drowned. What really happened is that when Keeper Culver realized he couldn’t land at the lighthouse, he lowered his sail and rowed to Great Hay Harbor on Fishers Island and found food and shelter at Mr. Oakley’s farm. Amid continuing reports of his death, Culver returned to New London aboard the steamer Munnatawket, two days after his supposed drowning and much to the delight of his family and friends. At his sixty-ninth wedding anniversary, Culver reminisced about the premature death notice that was published sixty-four years earlier.
In 1895, the Lighthouse Board reported that the station at Race Rock was of great use to vessels entering and leaving Long Island Sound, but would be of much greater use if it had a powerful fog signal. An appropriation of $3,000 was requested, and a second-class siren, powered by an oil engine, began operation at the station on October 20, 1896, replacing a fog bell that had been used previously. The fog signal was changed to a third-class Daboll trumpet in 1905, and then to a first-class air siren in 1917.
During the construction of Race Rock Lighthouse, one of the boats working at the site was carrying 200 pounds of gun powder when it exploded and killed some of the workers. This incident, coupled with those who had previously perished at Race Rock when vessels had run aground there, might give some credence to the mysterious whispers and footsteps reported by Coast Guard personnel who served at Race Rock. Some keepers even reported being touched or prodded by an unseen person.
The keeper of Race Rock Lighthouse gave the following report of conditions at the station in January 1936:
In the early morning of the 23d, the seas were coming over the dock, carrying the small riprap on the dock, and freezing; also drift-wood of all kinds. By noon the motorboat was covered with ice.
I could not get down on the dock, as the seas were breaking on the main deck. I got down on the dock on the morning of the 25th. The boat was covered with ice from 8 to 10 inches on top of cover, and from 18 to 20 inches on the stern and sides. I and the first assistant worked all day of the 25th and 26th chopping out the boat and getting the ice out of the stern off the engine box.
There are a considerable number of large rocks, which were washed from the west, breakwater into the basin.
Race Rock Lighthouse was automated and its personnel removed in October 5, 1978, just three months short of the light’s 100th anniversary. A six-foot metal box loaded with electronic gear, capable of sounding the foghorn when needed and starting a backup generator if power failed, replaced the resident keepers.
In 2004, reportedly at the request of the Coast Guard whose maintenance personnel continued to report strange occurrences at the station, The Atlantic Paranormal Society visited the lighthouse. Their findings, which included a chair moving unaided across a room and an electromagnetic field that moved up and down the stairs, were shown in an episode of SyFy Channel’s Ghost Hunters.
In June 2011, Race Rock Lighthouse was declared excess to the needs of the United States Coast Guard and made available to eligible organizations under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. Qualified entities were given sixty days to submit a letter of interest and were required to obtain an agreement from the State of New York to occupy the submerged lands on which the lighthouse stands.
In January 2013, the National Park Service requested supplemental information from the two applicants it was evaluating for ownership of the lighthouse, and on June 27, 2013, a deed transfer ceremony was held at the Custom House Maritime Museum to officially turn the lighthouse over to the New London Maritime Society.
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