Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2013

Race Rock Lighthouse Gets New Owner

By Bill Bleyer


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Race Rock Lighthouse in Long Island Sound.
Photo by: Ken Bowden

The federal government has handed over the historic and remote Race Rock Lighthouse in New York to a new keeper. It’s the second beacon transfer to the New London Maritime Society, which three years ago got the deed to the New London Harbor Light.

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This 1872 sketch was an artist’s depiction of ...

This past June 27th the General Services Administration transferred ownership of Race Rock, first lit in 1879 to mark treacherous waters southwest of Fishers Island. It was the latest turnover under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act to nonprofit groups or local governments. The Coast Guard will continue to maintain the lighting apparatus in the tower.

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Aerial view of Race Rock Lighthouse from a 1928 ...

“It’s very exciting,” said Susan Tamulevich, director of the Society and its Custom House Maritime Museum. “We’ve had many offers of help. We’re ready to forge ahead.”

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This undated rare image of Race Rock Lighthouse ...

After previous attempts by groups on the North Fork of Long Island and Fishers Island to adopt the Gothic Revival-style lighthouse fizzled, the New London group is planning restoration and educational efforts and ultimately hopes to provide public tours. That last goal is not easy to accomplish because the lighthouse is located at the edge of The Race, a channel with swift currents that bedeviled the contractor who built the lighthouse by sweeping away foundation boulders.

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Race Rock Lighthouse as it appeared in 1965 when ...

Race Rock Light is located between Fishers Island and other islands at the northeastern end of Long Island Sound, half a mile southwest of Race Point on Fishers Island. Because the current routinely runs 4 knots, and sometimes more, it took renowned engineer Francis Hopkinson Smith from 1871 to 1878 to construct the foundation and the two-and-one-half story Gothic Revival style granite masonry keeper’s dwelling with an integral three-and-one-half story tower to house the lantern.

Tamulevich said her group applied for ownership of the New London Harbor Light in 2002 and was given the deed in the fall of 2010. For Race Rock, “it all happened very quickly” after the group applied last October.

“Race Rock is a difficult place to get to,” she said, even more so because one of the two legs of a breakwater that forms a protective cove to allow access to a boarding ladder has been destroyed by storms. So in the short term, the public access will not be at the lighthouse but virtually through exhibits, as allowed by National Park Service guidelines. Tamulevich said her group has been working with the Ferguson Museum on Fishers Island for an exhibit on the lighthouse that will be on display for a year before moving to the society’s museum in New London.

The society is raising money to repaint the New London Harbor Light, an octagon-shaped tower that is 98 feet tall and the oldest and tallest lighthouse on Long Island Sound. Local construction unions have offered to help with that project and also may be able to help restore the missing arm of the breakwater at Race Rock, she said. That might expedite starting tours from Fishers Island out to the lighthouse. She said there have also been discussions with the Coast Guard Academy, located in New London, about having cadets do volunteer work to restore the lighthouse as well.

“The building and the foundation are really solid,” Tamulevich said, and the Coast Guard recently installed a new roof. But the concrete apron around the lighthouse has cracked and the iron fencing around the apron is rusting. Inside, plaster and paint have deteriorated. And when the lighthouse was automated by the Coast Guard in 1978, all of the utilities and plumbing were removed.

She said her group has not estimated the cost of the repairs yet. “Lighthouses are an important part of national and regional heritage,” said Robert Zarnetske, GSA regional administrator for New England, before the deed transfer. “Working with stewards like the New London Maritime Society helps us ensure that these architectural treasures are preserved without burdening taxpayers. . . . We are committed to preserving our important heritage sites for future generations,” Tamulevich said. “There is no more thrilling a site nor compelling story than that of this lighthouse.”

Before construction of the Race Rock Light, eight vessels ran aground on the shoal during an eight-year period in the early 1800s.

In 1852, the Lighthouse Board called Race Rock “one of the most dangerous obstructions to navigation on the coast” and that various efforts had “been made, and numerous appropriations expended, in endeavoring to place an efficient and permanent mark” there. Buoys would be swept away by the current and metal supports, driven 18 inches into the rock, would be gone after ice broke up in the spring.

A day 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 completed in 1856. But officials felt a light was necessary.

So on July 28, 1866, $90,000 was allocated for a granite tower on Race Rock and a keeper’s dwelling on Fishers Island. But when soundings showed that the bottom consisted of not one large rock but a group of boulders, the Lighthouse Board changed the plan to a granite pier topped by a granite keeper’s dwelling and a lantern at a price of $200,000.

Because it took time to get an appropriation of that size from Congress, Smith, whose other work included the foundation for the Statue of Liberty, had to wait. But a riprap foundation, consisting of 10,000 tons of boulders weighing from three to five tons, was completed in November, 1871. The next spring workers noticed that some of the giant outer rocks had disappeared. Smith convinced the Lighthouse Board that a concrete foundation was needed instead.

So, 1,000 tons of previously placed rock was removed in the spring of 1873. Circular iron bands were set in place so that a slab of concrete 69 feet in diameter and three feet thick could be poured. Then three more layers were poured to bring the foundation up to nine feet. With the top of the foundation eight inches above low water, a conical pier 30-feet high with a diameter of 57 feet was erected. By the end of 1877, the pier was complete. After seven years to finish the foundation and pier, the lighthouse went up in one working season in 1878. During the construction, one of the boats carrying 200 pounds of blasting powder exploded, killing several workers.

The light was activated January 1, 1879, with a fourth-order revolving Fresnel lens displayed at a height of 68.5 feet. Neil Martin was the first keeper. The first fog signal was added in October 1896.

Race Rock was automated in 1978. In June of 2011, it was declared excess. In January, 2013, the National Park Service received two applications and the New London Maritime Society’s was selected. The deed transfer ceremony was held at the Custom House Maritime Museum.

Since 2000, the GSA has been administering the historic lights program with its partners the National Park Service and the United States Coast Guard. So far, 96 lights been conveyed out of federal ownership: 63 at no cost to preservationists, and 33 sold by auction to the public.

To learn more about Race Rock Lighthouse, you can refer to the story “Painter, Author and Lighthouse Builder” that appeared in the November, 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest. That story can also be found in the On-Line Archives at www.LighthouseDigest.com

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2013 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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