Tucked away in the southeast corner of Connecticut, at the foot of Water Street in the compact, picturesque old borough of Stonington, is a rather austere-looking stone lighthouse. Those who visit the little gem of a museum inside will encounter a warm and welcoming atmosphere, due in no small part to Louise Pittaway, who since the 1980s has been curator of the Old Lighthouse Museum.
Louise grew up in upstate New York, on the west side of the Catskills and far from water, “other than the small creek at the bottom of the hill.” As a teenager, she belonged to the local junior historical society, but the nautical world remained remote. While earning a bachelor’s degree in English and taking graduate courses in history, Louise developed an interest in the sea.
Her path led eventually to the Stonington Historical Society (SHS). The 1840 lighthouse, inactive as a navigational aid since 1889, had become the museum of the SHS in 1925. When Louise first became involved with the Old Lighthouse Museum, the building was open to the public only from July 4 to Labor Day, five hours per day, and the number of visitors was small.
Louise made it part of her mission to stretch the season and hours of public access, to the point that the museum is now open 10 to 5 from May to November, seven days a week in the peak months and by appointment in the off-season. There’s no other lighthouse on the Connecticut coast that’s open as often. “It pleases me that our lighthouse has been a leader in welcoming visitors inside and allowing them access to the tower,” she says, “unlike so many that can only be viewed from the grounds. “I think townspeople are proud of our lighthouse and its fine museum and think of it as an important local point of interest.”
Stonington boasts a rich history dating back to 1649, when it was first settled. The town grew into a thriving port known for its shipbuilding, sealing, and whaling, and even repelled five warships of a British fleet in the War of 1812. This legacy is well represented in the Old Lighthouse Museum. “There are six rooms to enjoy, “ says Louise, with “exhibits that offer a diverse and surprising quality — everything from nautical tools and scrimshaw, China trade items, pre-1835 Stonington pottery and other early pieces, ice harvesting tools and photos, a room of children’s exhibits and a large doll house, Battle of Stonington and other military items, and a changing feature exhibit each season.” Also upstairs is a fourth order Fresnel lighthouse lens, nicely exhibited in a protective case donated by the New England Lighthouse Lovers group. Visitors get to climb the stairs into the lantern room.
Newly added is a four-foot square glass panel in the museum floor, affording visitors a look at a large, round, stone cistern as they approach the climb to the upstairs exhibits. This cistern once collected rainwater for the keepers and their families, the only source of fresh water in the light’s active years. A second glass-covered opening in the floor reveals a well, but “the water is brackish — thus the need for the cistern,” explains Louise. Visitors are often unsure if it’s safe to walk on the glass over the cistern. “You can’t easily get to upstairs exhibits without walking over it,” says Louise, “which gives as much pause to the burly he-man as it does to the delicate woman. People take all sorts of broad strides to step around it, rather than cross the sturdy glass.”
Louise says she tries to stay active in the larger world of maritime museums. “Activity in museum professional groups and visits to many maritime-related museums has probably been my most useful educational tool. Keeping in touch with others in the museum field, and with lighthouse experts, means advice is within easy reach.” Her general interest in lighthouses led Louise to a place on the steering committee of the Avery Point Lighthouse Society, working to restore the Coast Guard-built tower in nearby Groton.
Louise points out the quality and diversity of the exhibits, and the chance to climb the tower. “My hope is that every visitor might feel their visit has taught them something new,” she says. But there’s also that intangible “something” about lighthouses. “I can’t imagine anyone not loving lighthouses,” she explains. “They seem to symbolize something almost spiritual. How comforting it must have been to the sailor in rough seas as they provided a path of light in the darkness, doing their best to keep him from treacherous rocks. And for myself, now that I have the smell of the sea in my nose, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
This story appeared in the
May 2004 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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