New Haven, Connecticut, is famous as the home of Yale University, but the maritime history of the “Elm City” is long and illustrious. The city’s spacious harbor helped it develop into a major center of commerce and manufacturing. Three lighthouses were established in the outer harbor between 1805 and 1900, and two of them survive today. Five Mile Point Lighthouse is a centerpiece of the city’s popular Lighthouse Point Park, and Southwest Ledge Lighthouse can be easily seen offshore. The third lighthouse in the outer harbor, the New Haven Outer Breakwater Light, or “Sperry Light” as it was popularly known, was dismantled in 1933.
There was another important aid to navigation in New Haven that’s often omitted from the history books. A simple iron post light was established at Long Wharf in the inner harbor in 1854. The wharf had grown in fits and starts since the 1730s, and by the 1850s, it was nearly 4,000 feet long.
The wharf became not only the focal point of the city’s maritime trade, but also a popular place for locals to meet and stroll. New Haven boys would await the arrival of incoming vessels, armed with tin pails. If they were lucky, the boys went home with bucketfuls of molasses, and sometimes, tropical fruit that was too ripe to go to the market.
In 1900, a new skeletal tower was established on the wharf, with a fixed red light 45 1/2 feet above the water, along with a fog bell. The Lighthouse Board’s annual report of 1901 reported that the optic consisted of a “locomotive headlight lantern.”
New Haven Long Wharf Light never had a resident keeper. A caretaker from the local area was employed to tend the light. The fact that no keepers lived on the site led to problems with vandalism over the years. In July 1912, a fire did a tremendous amount of damage to storage buildings near the light.
Thomas Wilson, born in New Haven in 1856, became keeper of the light at Long Wharf in February 1895. Wilson had worked for a clerk for years in a chandlery on Long Wharf. He also worked as a stevedore, loading and unloading vessels. He was said to know all the local captains and to have an encyclopedic knowledge of all things nautical. Wilson would often sail his yawl around the harbor, buying up spare equipment from tugs and other vessels that he would later resell.
In 1909, Tom Wilson’s pay was $365 yearly, and an inspector rated the quality of his work as “excellent.” It was said that Wilson often waved a friendly hand as vessels passed Long Wharf. He became such a fixture that locals knew the light simply as “Tom’s Light.”
In the early evening of September 26, 1910, Captain Edgar Hardy of the steamer Richard Peck was heading for New York when he noticed that the light at Long Wharf was dark. The light had been so reliable under Tom Wilson’s care that it was obvious something was wrong.
After docking, Hardy telephoned Wilson’s home. His son, John, and brother, William, hurried to Long Wharf. Their investigation revealed that the 58-year-old Wilson had died of a hemorrhage on a landing inside the tower just as he was about to light the beacon for the night. Wilson was survived by his wife, two sons, and a small daughter. His funeral was well attended by members of the New Haven maritime community.
A simple skeletal tower with an automatic light continues in operation today at
Long Wharf. Special thanks go to Tom Wilson’s grandson, Bob Shanley of Bristol, Connecticut, for sharing much of the information contained here, as well as photos of his grandfather and “Tom’s Light.” Bob is justifiably proud of his grandfather’s important role in New Haven’s history.
This story appeared in the
July 2005 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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