Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2019

In Memoriam

A Wintery Death at Race Rocks Light: Thomas S. Carroll (1832 – 1886)


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On January 16, 1886 the Hartford Courant reported that two days earlier, “Captain Thomas S. Carroll, first assistant keeper at the Race Rocks Light [New York], set out on Thursday morning from Noank [Connecticut] in an open boat to return to the light. He had been kept on shore for several days by the weather, but at that time there was only a moderate wind and the sea was comparatively smooth. About 10:30 the keeper of the North Hummuck light saw the boat capsize.”

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The 4th order revolving light at Race Rocks ...

Another newspaper, the Norwich Bulletin, continued the story stating that, “At 11 o’clock Captain Crossman, who carries the mail between the Noank and Fisher’s Island, discovered the boat bottom up but found no trace of the unfortunate keeper. The boat was towed to Noank and righted. It was seen that the sail- a sprit- was set and the sheet made fast. The conditions of the weather and sea forbade the theory that the accident was caused by a sudden squall and it is the general opinion that Captain Carroll saw something about the sail that needed attention and went forward to fix it; that he slipped on the ice-covered planks and in trying to rescue himself caught hold of the mast and brought the boat over with him.

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This wedding portrait, taken in 1858, shows ...

“The temperature about that time was down towards zero and it would be impossible for a man to live but a very short time in it. Carroll was an experienced sailor and a steady reliable official. He leaves a wife and a family of six children living in Noank. He was about fifty years old and had followed the sea for over a quarter of a century.”

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Thomas S. Carroll is buried in Noank Valley ...

Thomas S. Carroll was born on January 28, 1832 in Dublin, Ireland. He was a young teenager when the Great Irish Famine hit in the late 1840s, caused by a potato blight. It is estimated that a million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, mostly to America, to escape their desperate circumstances.

Thomas Carroll was one of these. However, he came as a stowaway on a vessel bound for Noank, CT at the age of 16. According to the family, he was accepted and looked after by the townspeople of Noank when he arrived.

It was there that he met his future wife, Esther Ann Merritt. She was the granddaughter of William H. Potter, who was the first keeper at Stonington Harbor Lighthouse in Connecticut from 1824 until his death in 1842. When William died, his widow, Patty, took over as keeper for the next 12 years until 1854.

Esther would have been familiar with lighthouse life and what it entailed because of her family’s experiences. She married Thomas on September 14, 1858. The couple stayed in Noank and Thomas worked as a fisherman until he went off to fight in the Civil War. He enlisted as a corporal in Company K, Connecticut 26th Infantry Regiment, in November of 1862. He mustered out only nine months later after having been wounded at the Battle of Port Hudson in Louisiana that took place from May to July, 1863.

Following the war, Thomas went back to being a fisherman for a period of time through the 1870s, but by 1880, his occupation was listed as a “ship keeper.” He entered lighthouse service in February of 1881 as second assistant keeper at Race Rock Lighthouse in New York, which was the closest lighthouse to his home, some five miles offshore from Noank and about a half mile off the southwest end of Fisher’s Island at the entrance to Long Island Sound. Within a year, Thomas was promoted to first assistant, which position he held until that fateful day in January of 1886 when he tragically lost his life at age 54.

Following his drowning, search efforts were launched to recover his body. On January 18, 1886 the New London Day reported that, “there were over 1000 hooks dragging for his body on Saturday and a cannon was frequently fired in hopes of raising it, but all so far has been unavailing.” The article also included details on how Thomas could be identified by the loss of part of his index finger from the wound he had received at the Battle of Port Hudson during the war, and also by his initials that were tattooed on one arm.

However, this information didn’t help very much when four months later on May 20, fishermen came across a headless and armless body floating in the sound near Race Rocks Light. They presumed it was Thomas due to his winter dress and rubber boots. He is buried in Noank Valley Cemetery, CT with his wife, Esther, and four of their six children.

Like other lighthouse keepers who died in the line of duty, Thomas is greatly remembered and honored by his descendants for his ultimate sacrifice and the dedicated service he gave as a U.S. Lighthouse Service keeper.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2019 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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