Digest>Archives> September 2003

Lightship Wreck Named Historical Site


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Citing the historical significance of two of Connecticut’s most intriguing shipwrecks, the Connecticut Historical Commission has designated the Cornfield Point Light Vessel 51 (LV51) and the Aunt Polly as the state’s newest Archaeological Preserves. The designation provides for ongoing protection and professional management of these important cultural resources.

Launched in 1900, the Aunt Polly was the beloved yacht of renowned actor William Gillette, who entertained numerous guests on his “little palace afloat,” including such notable figures as Albert Einstein and Connecticut Governor Wilbur Cross. Best known for his archetypical stage portrayal of Sherlock Holmes during the late 19th century, Gillette actually lived for a time aboard his yacht, which was really a floating luxurious houseboat. It was more that 144 feet long and weighed more than 200 tons. In December 1932, she burned and sank at her moorings. Exposed at low tide, the remains of the Aunt Polly rests along the Connecticut River beneath Gillette Castle, which is now a state park, operated by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.

The underwater remains of Light Vessel No 51 (LV 51), a lightship called by many, “probably the finest equipped vessel of her kind” rest on the bottom of Long Island Sound. She was the first electrically lighted lightship, and the first built with an all-steel hull and fastenings. State-of-the-art with regard to her communications and fire safety systems, she was the first light-vessel with a 140-horsepower, 16-stroke compound steam engine for use when weighing anchor became a necessity during violent storms.

LV-51’s greatest claims to fame were her signal lanterns. Permanently fixed to the vessel’s two mastheads, a cluster of four gimbaled lens lanterns were fitted with 100-candlepower (cp) incandescent lamps, which gave each cluster a combined equivalent of 4,000 candle-power. In addition, a 1,000-pound hand-operated fog bell was situated on the vessel’s forecastle.

On April 24, 1919, while stationed at Cornfield Point Light Vessel Station, LV-51 was struck by the Standard Oil Company’s tug Standard. No lives were lost, but the force of the collision was so great as to sink the LV 51 in about eight minutes. Today, LV 51’s remains are owned and managed under the auspices of the United States Coast Guard.

John Shannahan, Connecticut’s State Historic Preservation Officer, said, “ This office hopes that this designation will serve to foster the continued preservation and conservation of these significant archaeological resources.” Kate Hughes Brown, the DEP Long Island Sound Fund Coordinator said, “The designation of these two shipwrecks as the first underwater State Archaeological Preserves in Connecticut and the creation of educational booklets about these vessels will provide a unique educational opportunity for the public to learn about these vessels.”

This story appeared in the September 2003 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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