The two and a quarter nautical miles span between Race Rock Light and the buoy marking Valiant Rock, is the open ocean gateway to Long Island Sound and its harbors. Through this waterway, with depths of up to 250+ feet, safely pass Coast Guard, Navy, commercial and recreational vessels. However, with the combination of strong onshore winds and the site’s peak currents of 5 knots at ebb tide, its waters can boil in erratic peaks, making it potentially hazardous for small boats.
A British warship in 1671, is one of the earliest recorded shipwrecks on the gateway’s rock reefs. During the early 1800s, there was hardly a summer month during which a sailing vessel did not meet the same fate, sometimes with the loss of life. Recognized by Lighthouse Board as “one of the most dangerous obstructions to navigation on the coast,” a buoy was deployed in 1847 to mark the reef. It didn’t make it through the season. In 1857, the publication American Coast Pilot indicated that the rock reef was marked by an iron spindle, while Valiant Rock had a nun buoy with red and black stripes. Eventually however, they also failed to survive winter storms and floating ice fields. The captain of the revenue cutter Wolcott had recommended in 1837 that a second light be erected on nearby Little Gull Island to alert mariners of flood and ebb tides. The suggestion was never acted upon.
In 1866, Congress appropriated $90,000 for the construction of a lighthouse on Race Rock. It had been assumed that the rock below the surface on which the lighthouse was to be built was flat. More accurate soundings however, revealed that the bottom was covered by small boulders. It made the use of a cofferdam in its construction impracticable. A new proposal was then made for a granite pier surmounted by a keeper’s dwelling; its estimated cost was $200,000.
Some of the construction was begun in 1870 with the eventual placement of 10,000 tons of stones. By the following spring, the pile of boulders were above water. To create a level foundation, the workmen then had to dynamite the rocks. When a fuse was lit, they rowed away as quickly as they could in a small boat. But during one of the operations, a work vessel loaded with some 200 pounds of gun powder blew up, killing all of the men aboard.
After having leveled base, the contractor found that the foundation was not stable. Underwater inspection by a hard-hat diver revealed that outer rocks around the base, had slipped down the slope. The contractor then decided to remove some 1,000 tons of rock from the center of the site. Divers fitted boulders with slings which were lifted out using derricks. After having removed the stones, a 69 feet in diameter steel ban was installed and filled with concrete.
In December of 1876, construction workers on Race Rock nearly froze to death. The derricks on the site were described as resembling “towers of crystal” (NYT Dec. 15, 1876). The six laborers took shelter in the construction’s small wood shack and signaled shore for assistance. Arriving at Race Rock, Captain Thomas Scott found “every inch covered with ice.” Though it had been rumored that the shack had been carried away by the wind and waves, it was still intact – though it had shifted slightly. The icy swells however, had soaked the men inside the shack and floated their beds off the floor. But despite the difficulties, they apparently remained there to continue working.
Construction of the lighthouse was completed in late 1878. On January 1, 1879, Keeper Neil Martin lit the station’s beacon for the first time. Its 4th order Fresnel lens showed an alternating red and white light, every 30 seconds. The fog signal was a bell struck by machinery. The station’s dwelling was built to accommodate a keeper and two assistants. Its foundation incorporated a 24,000-gallon cistern. The cellar had a large pantry and a cool closet. The first floor had two separate kitchens, dining rooms and sitting rooms. The second floor had five bedrooms and a central post supporting a spiral staircase that led to the lantern room. The final cost of Race Rock Lighthouse was $275,000 – well above its original estimates.
Race Rock Lighthouse was automated in 1978. In 2013, the Coast Guard turned over the station for preservation to the New London Maritime Society. Three years earlier, the non-profit society had taken over New London’s Harbor Lighthouse, and in 2014, it was awarded the New London Ledge Light in partnership with the Ledge Light Foundation. From its Custom House Maritime Museum, 150 Bank Street in New London, the Society offers lighthouse tours, boat trips and special events.