Congress passed an act on April 6, 1802 that provided $8,000 for the Secretary of the Treasury “to cause proper light-houses to be built and buoys to be placed in the situations necessary for the navigation of sound between Long Island” and the mainland. Surveyors visiting Little Gull Island in 1803 found that the island had about one acre of land above the high-tide mark. Rocky reefs surrounding the island ensured that erosion would not be a problem, but almost all building materials would need to be brought to the island by ship, apart from some rocks that could be used for the foundation. The construction contract was awarded to New London resident Abisha Woodward, who had recently built Pequot Lighthouse in New London Harbor.
The tower of the new lighthouse rose fifty-three feet above sea level and was built of smooth-hammered freestone laid in courses. A wooden spiral staircase led to the lantern room, where an array of lamps and reflectors was mounted. The one-and-a-half-story wooden keeper’s dwelling had two rooms on the ground floor and a one-room loft upstairs, and was separate from the tower.
The station went into operation in 1805, and was later described in the American Coast Pilot as being “the key of the Sound.” Although the area was often covered with dense fog or haze, there would be no fog signal at the station for fifty-one more years.
The first keeper of Little Gull Island Lighthouse was Israel Rogers, who along with his wife Serviah and children, had to share the small dwelling with an assistant keeper and his wife and children in a location where they were sometimes isolated for up to two months at a time. This level of hardship and lack of privacy was typical for lighthouse personnel and their families. The next keeper was Giles Holt, Israel’s son-in-law, who served an ultimatum to the local Superintendent of Lighthouses that the womenfolk would not put up with the housing arrangement any longer. If an additional two bedrooms were not built, Holt threatened to resign his post. Holt may have got his way as the dwelling was later described as a seven-room structure.
The War of 1812 began with a Declaration of War by the U.S. Congress, but communications were so slow in those times (it took four days for the news to reach Boston), and lighthouses so remote, that Giles Holt may have not even noticed there was a war on, if the war hadn’t suddenly come to him. On July 28, 1813, a small British force landed at Little Gull Island and removed all of the lamps and reflectors, putting the station out of service for the duration of the conflict.
Holt and his family were once again forced to leave the station, this time for several months while repairs were made. Holt then returned, this time without his family, but resigned the following summer, apparently having had enough. Keeping it in the family, his replacement was John Rogers II – his nephew, and grandson of the first keeper, Israel Rogers. John Rogers kept the position for ten years before he was fired for repeatedly letting the light go out. This serious neglect resulted from a combination of boredom and alcoholism.
A circular stone wall with a diameter of 100 feet was built around the station during the summer months of 1817, using $30,000 that had been appropriated by Congress on April 27, 1816 for the “construction of works deemed necessary for the preservation of Little Gull Island.” Henry Thomas Dering, son of the local collector of customs, worked on the project and provided the following specifications for the work: “The foundation sunk on a level with low water mark seven feet thick at the bottom and 3 ˝ at the top. The outside course of stone laid in mortar and bolted with two copper bolts; the height of the wall 22 feet. On top of the wall a railing four feet high.”
The station’s first beacon was a multi-lamp/reflector combination powered by whale oil as was common in lighthouses of the day. Although that light was considered inadequate from the beginning, its replacement in 1838 by a similar apparatus with fifteen lamps and larger reflectors was not much better. The original tower finally did receive a Fresnel lens of the third-order in 1858, two years after a fog bell was established at the station, but not too long after plans were made for a new lighthouse on Little Gull Island capable of housing a second-order lens.
A steam fog signal, fed with water from a cistern built in the cellar of the old keeper’s dwelling, was established at the same time as the new lighthouse. The station’s fog bell was retained as a backup until a duplicate steam fog signal was completed in 1872. The entire circular pier on which the tower and dwelling stood was covered with concrete to form a catchment basin to collect rainfall for operating the fog signals. The steam siren was typically in operation for around 500 hours annually, but in 1885, the Lighthouse Board noted it had been in operation for 1,054 hours during the previous year. A perplexing aberration in the audibility of the fog signal was observed off Little Gull Island, and though scientists were brought in to investigate it, they failed to determine why there was a dead zone where the signal was inaudible.
In 1900, a second-class siren, consisting of two, thirteen-horsepower oil engines, two air tanks, and two sirens, replaced the steam siren. On May 15, 1928, a radiobeacon was established on Little Gull Island as part of network to guide mariners through Long Island Sound.
William J. Murray served as head keeper at Little Gull Island from 1909 to 1918, after having served at Latimer Reef and Cold Spring Harbor, and he would later be in charge of the lighthouse at Hudson and on North Brother Island. During his years on Little Gull Island, Keeper Murray was recognized for having towed an adrift sailboat, owned by C.E. Beach, to the lighthouse and for transferring mail from the shore to the outer end of the damaged wharf at Fort Michie on Great Gull Island so it could be picked up, but his greatest service outside his normal duty came in February 1918, when he and his assistants noticed a man adrift on a cake of ice about a mile from the lighthouse. Ice floes had formed twenty and thirty-foot-high mountains around the lighthouse, but the keepers set off with their fourteen foot boat, dragging it over the ice and rowing it through the open patches. After struggling for over an hour, the keepers managed to reach the individual and get him into the boat. The nearly unconscious man turned out to be Thuri Timi, a seaman from the South Sea Islands, who after being intimidated by officials aboard a Sound steamship escaped over the edge of the ship onto a large ice cake. Timi was turned over to Captain Edward at Fort Michie who promised to investigate the incident while Timi recovered in the fort’s hospital.
John Collins served as an assistant keeper under Keeper Murray for a few years, and during this time, a soldier from the south, who was stationed at Forty Terry on nearby Plum Island, gifted Collins a possum. Collins named the possum Jacob, and the two were constantly in each other’s company on the small island. During Collin’s annual leave in 1916, Jacob pined for his owner, and according to a newspaper account, the possum “committed suicide by strangulation between the bars of his cage.”
The legendary great hurricane of 1938 blew a number of the station’s outbuildings into the Sound, swept the boat tracks away, and sent waves crashing against the keeper’s dwelling, some reaching as high as the second floor. Telephone lines to the mainland were cut off, leaving relatives of the keepers to worry about their condition for days. The keepers managed to survive the storm fine, but an existing crack in the dwelling was opened up considerably.
A fire in 1944 destroyed much of the keeper’s house and spread into the lighthouse tower. The lens was undamaged, but the tower had to be refurbished, and the keeper’s house was replaced by a nondescript one-story building, which was used for housing and equipment storage. This building was removed by the Coast Guard in 2002, leaving the tower perched alone atop the old stone wall built in 1817 that now makes up a fair portion of the island.
The station was automated in 1978, ending 172 years of keepers on the island. Though the Fresnel lens was removed from the tower in 1995 and placed on display at East End Seaport Maritime Museum, Little Gull Island Light is still an active aid to navigation, casting a flashing white light over the area.
In 2009, Little Gull Island Lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was offered at no cost to eligible entities, including federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, and educational organizations under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. When no qualified organization was found to assume ownership, the lighthouse was placed on the auction block on May 1, 2012, with a starting bid of $50,000. Eight bidders participated in the auction, which closed on October 17, 2012 with a winning bid of $381,000.
Fred Plumb, a Connecticut businessman, is the new owner of Little Gull Island Lighthouse, and he has stated that he wants the lighthouse restored, preserved, and made accessible to the public.