Digest>Archives> July 2000

Fayerweather Island Light Brought Back to Life

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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Fayerweather Island Lighthouse (circa 1870-80). ...

The old lighthouse tower on Bridgeport, Connecticut’s Fayerweather Island is known to some as Fayerweather (or Fairweather) Island Light, and to others as Black Rock Harbor Light. Whatever its name, the newly renovated lighthouse stands as a proud survivor of almost two centuries that have included decades of neglect and considerable vandalism. Add this one to the growing list of American lighthouses brought back to life by caring local residents.

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Fayerweather Island Light has always had a ...

Black Rock Harbor is a deep, protected harbor that developed as a trade port and shipbuilding center in the 18th century. Black Rock was once part of Fairfield, but now is a neighborhood of the city of Bridgeport. Black Rock Harbor is sheltered by Fayerweather Island, which made the island an ideal place for a lighthouse to mark the harbor entrance. Seven-acre Fayerweather Island, now attached to the mainland by a breakwater, at one time was a much larger island used mainly for the pasturing of sheep.

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This keeper’s house stood on Fayerweather Island ...

In 1807 the federal government purchased 9 1/2 acres on the island from David Fayerweather for $200, and $5000 was appropriated for the new light station. The following year the first Fayerweather Island Lighthouse, an octagonal wooden tower, was built on the south end of the island. The first keeper, John Maltbie of Fairfield, died after five months at the station. The 40-foot octagonal tower was destroyed in an 1821 hurricane, and a new tower was completed two years later.

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The interior of Fayerweather Light, CT in 1977. ...
Photo by: Jeremy D'Entremont

The builder of the second Fayerweather Island Lighthouse proclaimed in a local newspaper that the tower was “built to withstand the storm of ages.” In his American Coast Pilot, Edmund Blunt voiced another opinion: “A more contemptible Lighthouse does not disgrace Long Island Sound, most shamefully erected and badly kept.”

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Some of the people involved in the restoration of ...
Photo by: Jeremy D'Entremont

The problem, according to Blunt and others, was that the exterior of the 47-foot freestone tower was filled in with small stones and timbers. Despite its less than perfect construction, the lighthouse has survived almost 180 years.

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Fayerweather Island Light, CT, as it appeared in ...
Photo by: Jeremy DEntremont

The most remarkable personality in the long history of Fayerweather Island Light was Catherine Moore. The daughter of the light’s third keeper, Stephen Tomlinson Moore, Kate learned to trim the wicks and care for the light when she was 12 years old. She later described the importance of the light and the difficulties of maintaining the early lamps:

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Kate Moore, Keeper of Connecticut’s Fayerweather ...

“Sometimes there were more than two hundred sailing vessels in here at night, and some nights there were as many as three or four wrecks, so you may judge how essential it was that they should see our light.”

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John D. Davis, the last keeper of Fayerweather ...

“It was a miserable one to keep going, too — nothing like those in use nowadays. It consisted of eight oil lamps which took four gallons of oil each night . . . During windy nights it was impossible to keep them burning at all, and I had to stay there all night, but on other nights I slept at home, dressed in a suit of boys’ clothes, my lighted lantern hanging at my headboard and my face turned so that I could see shining on the wall the light from the tower and know if anything happened to it. Our house was forty rods (about 700 feet) from the lighthouse, and to reach it I had to walk across two planks under which on stormy nights were four feet of water, and it was not too easy to stay on those slippery, wet boards with the wind whirling and the spray blinding me.”

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Circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum donated part of ...

Keeper Stephen Moore had become disabled after an accident and Kate took over full duties at the lighthouse as a young woman. Her father remained official keeper until he died in 1871.

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Fayerweather Island’s wildlife includes large ...
Photo by: Jeremy D'Entremont

An 1850 inspection reported “everything now pertaining to the light is first-rate.” A new lantern was installed and the old lamps were replaced by a fifth order Fresnel lens in the mid-1850s. Offshore from Fayerweather Island, a privately maintained lightboat was established in the 1840s. A small lighthouse on steel pilings replaced the vessel in 1851.

Over the years Kate Moore maintained a garden and cared for a number of animals, including a flock of sheep. She also carved and sold duck decoys and had a thriving oyster business. When an outsider trespassed on her oyster beds, Moore would grab her shotgun and tell them, “I represent the United States Government and you’ve got to go.” She was matter-of-fact about her unique life:

“You see, I had done all this for so many years, and I knew no other life, so I was sort of fitted for it. I never had much of a childhood, as other children have it. That is, I never knew playmates. Mine were the chickens, ducks and lambs and my two Newfoundland dogs.”

Kate Moore was credited with 21 lives saved during her 62 years at Fayerweather Island. Frequently, here were vessels wrecked nearby in storms, and many times Kate and her father managed to pull survivors to safety in the keeper’s house. The shipwrecked men were given food and shelter, but according to Kate Moore, “The government never paid us a cent for boarding them.” She said that the worst part of the job was recovering the bodies of those who died in wrecks.

After her father’s death, Kate Moore was officially appointed keeper at the age of 76. She remained at the station for seven more years, resigning in 1878. A newspaper article described Kate Moore at the age of 94:

“Her hazel eyes are as bright and her intellect as quick as if she were thirty, but Father Time has rather outdone himself in writing his stenographic characters upon her face, having been aided in this doubtless by Brother Neptune, for, crossing and recrossing her face are the lines of ten thousand curious wrinkles. Time has, however, touched her brown hair with the utmost delicacy; it covers her head well and but few silver threads are visible. She still holds herself erect, although in her daily walk along the shore she generally carries a quaint, knotted staff... Her manner of speaking is abrupt, as though she were accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed.”

Moore lived to the age of 105, spending her last years in a cottage across from the Fayerweather Yacht Club, with a view of Fayerweather Island and Long Island Sound. When asked if she missed her island home, she replied, “Never. The sea is a treacherous friend.” Kate Moore had saved $75,000 during her life, much of it from her oyster business. In her Black Rock home she also left many paintings, including a genuine Rubens.

The Bridgeport Regional Vocational Aquacultural School has named a 56-foot research vessel with an onboard science classroom the Catherine Moore in honor of the keeper.

The house that Kate Moore and her father had lived in for many years was described as a “dilapidated old edifice” and was replaced by a new wood frame house in 1879.

Leonard Clark, a Civil War veteran and former whaling captain, was keeper for 28 years. He and his wife raised three children on the island, and one of their sons became keeper of New York’s Execution Rocks Lighthouse. In 1906 Mary Elizabeth Clark became keeper following her husband’s death. Two months later she was succeeded by John D. Davis, a veteran of the Irish Lighthouse Service. Davis remained as keeper until 1932, when the lighthouse was discontinued. It was replaced by two automatic offshore lights, and Keeper Davis was transferred to Dutch Island Light in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.

After its decommissioning, Fayerweather Island Light was given to the city of Bridgeport and became part of Seaside Park, a recreation area established in the 19th century largely through the efforts of P. T. Barnum. The historic structure soon fell prey to vandals, who gutted the interior. The 1879 keeper’s house was destroyed by fire in 1977. Luckily, the exterior of the lighthouse was never seriously damaged and the tower remained structurally sound.

In 1983 the Friends of Seaside Park and the Black Rock Community Council mounted a preservation effort. They replaced the glass and secured the door and windows. The work on the lighthouse was done by Steven Engelhart, then a graduate student in the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Vermont. Four local teenagers assisted Engelhart in the effort. The Friends of Seaside Park also cleaned Fayerweather Island of debris, planted trees and other greenery and established the island as a nature preserve.

Unfortunately, the lighthouse and island again became sad victims of neglect and vandalism. The door was forced open, and the interior of the lighthouse appeared to be a favorite spot for beer drinking parties. The future of the historic site looked bleak.

New hope arrived with a preservation effort initiated by two local residents. Black Rock artist David Grant Grimshaw and caterer Patricia Roche often wondered what could be done to save the lighthouse. When asked why she considers it essential to preserve the structure, Roche said, “The lighthouse is such an important part of the landscape, especially for people that boat in the harbor — it just IS Black Rock. You can never replace history — I can’t imagine the lighthouse not there.”

As a result of their concern, a lighthouse fund was established and the group began raising money in 1993. A Preservation Ball was initiated in 1994 by Grimshaw and became an annual event. The yearly party, which is open to the public, includes a silent auction. Local artists like Grimshaw and Mary Chandler have donated paintings to help raise funds.

The group, in association with the Black Rock Community Council, raised $25,000 in cash and in-kind services, and the City of Bridgeport’s Board of Park Commissioners matched the amount by granting $25,000.

Before the true restoration in 1998, Fairfield resident Joe Rutkosky helped out by repainting the lighthouse three times in the 1980s and ‘90s. Rutkosky, owner of J.R.’s House Painting, did the work with the help of his employees. Paint was donated by Sherwin-Williams.

The Black Rock Seaport Foundation, affiliated with the Black Rock Community Council, oversaw the 1998 restoration. Under the direction of architect and Black Rock resident David Barbour, work on the lighthouse proceeded in earnest in the spring and summer of 1998. Barbour and landscape architect Stuart Sachs provided in-kind services, and the contractor was American Building Group of Bridgeport.

Work was delayed for a few months while paint and mortar were analyzed so that the original mortar and paint color could be matched. By the end of the year the masonry was repaired, a coat of graffiti-resistant paint was applied, the lantern room was reglazed, rust on the railings was removed and new doors and windows were installed. The new windows have vandal-proof steel panes, which from the water have the appearance of glass. A protective stone seawall was also reconstructed, affording better protection for the foundation of the lighthouse.

The renovation was complete, except for one thing — the group felt the landmark should be visible at night. Two power companies, United Illuminating and Bridgeport Energy, stepped in to help.

The companies donated solar panels and lighting equipment. Workers and materials were transported to the island by Captain’s Cove Seaport and the Fayerweather Yacht Club, and the panels were installed in the top of the lighthouse away from public view. The lights illuminate the tower but aren’t meant to serve as a navigational aid.

According to an article in the Connecticut Post, the lighthouse had been temporarily — and mysteriously — relighted in April of 1996. David Grant Grimshaw arrived at the Black Rock Yacht Club on the evening of the Preservation Ball and couldn’t believe his eyes. “Across the harbor was the eerie glow of the lighthouse against the black sky,” he said. “Everyone thought I had arranged the illumination, but I hadn’t.” Attempts to find the phantom “keeper” were unsuccessful — maybe the spirit of Kate Moore had grown tired of waiting for the restoration.

Grimshaw, who has Lou Gehrig’s Disease, has not been able to see the restored lighthouse, but friends have shown him photos. All involved are pleased with the fruits of their efforts. “It was a real challenge. “It does prove that people can make a difference,” says Patricia Roche.

There’s still more work to do. David Barbour and Stuart Sachs hope that there will be public tours to Fayerweather Island and the lighthouse in the future, and historical plaques might be installed.

The lighthouse preservation fund is managed by the Burroughs Community Center in Bridgeport. For information on how you can help with the continued preservation of Fayerweather Island Lighthouse, call (203) 334-0293, or send your donations to:

Fayerweather Island Restoration Fund

c/o Burroughs Community Center

2470 Fairfield Ave.

Bridgeport, CT 06605

Also, if you have information on the whereabouts of any of Kate Moore’s letters or diaries, Edie Cassidy of the Burroughs Community Center would love to hear from you.

This story appeared in the July 2000 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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