Stratford Shoal Lighthouse, Stratford Connecticut

Date added: October 30, 2022 Categories: Connecticut Lighthouse
South (tower) and west elevations (1989)

Stratford Shoals Lighthouse is significant for its important place in the aids to navigation system in Long Island Sound, standing in the middle of the Sound as its other name, "Middle Ground," implies. The middle ground shoal had long been a hazard to shipping.

Stratford Shoal Lighthouse replaced several earlier efforts to mark the hazard. In 1831 Congress appropriated $1,000.00 to erect a beacon on "the middle ground between Stratford and Crane Neck in Long Island Sound." A lightship was commissioned from a New York shipbuilder in 1837 for $8,500.00, to be positioned over the shoal; it had to be removed in 1866 and was replaced in 1868 with a new lightship. Ice floes were a formidable problem. The uncertainty of the lightship's mooring and its wavering beam during heavy weather finally made an investment of the magnitude of a masonry wave-washed tower justifiable to Congress in 1873.

During March 1873, a major development in lighthouse design and construction was introduced to the Lighthouse Board: "the tubular foundation for reefs and shoals in bays and rivers subject to the flow of ice". One of the sites considered for this innovation was Stratford Shoal. However, the original plan for a granite, riprap and concrete foundation for the Stratford Shoal site, which had been presented by the Third District Engineer in 1872, was adopted. As such, Stratford Shoal represents a late example of the masonry foundations which was under construction contemporaneously with the earliest tubular cast-iron foundations being fabricated and installed at Southwest Ledge near New Haven, Ct., and Ship John Shoal in the Delaware River Bay.

At Stratford Shoal a riprap ring was built up from the shoal to protect the construction site. Within the center of the rings the gravel shoal surface was removed and concrete laid to provide a bed for the circular cut-stone foundation, 55 feet in diameter at the bases diminishing to 46 feet in diameter at the top.

Construction of the foundation, composed of huge blocks of granite backed with concrete, was completed with great difficulty by D. V. Howell in 1874-1876. The cut stone for the lighthouse was supplied by M. K. Chase and the metalwork by Atlantic Steam Engine Works. A temporary wharf for materials was constructed, and the cut stone for the lighthouse was shipped from the quarries and stockpiled nearby. During 1877 and 1878 the building was erected. Work continued in spite of a major setback, the sinking of the construction schooner Mignonette, which broke from her moorings in a storm. The men and supplies were saved, the men housed in the nearly completed buildings, and work resumed. On December 15, 1878, the light was exhibited for the first time.

The design of Stratford Shoal Lighthouse represents the house-with-attached light tower classification, which had been used in American lighthouse since the 1830s. For wave-washed sites this design provided a more comfortable alternative to the tall, conical tower, and emphasized the domestic side of its function, combining the light tower and separate keeper's dwelling of on-shore sites. Both masonry and frame construction were used for the house-with-tower design, incorporating architectural details of the popular revival styles of American architecture.

In the 1870s, the masonry model of the keeper's-house-with-tower as developed for Hudson River sites in the 1860s had been adopted in Long Island Sound and elsewhere. The same design was often used repeatedly: Race Rock Lighthouse, New York closely resembles Stratford Shoal and was under construction at the same time. While Race Rock and Stratford Shoal share a basic similarity, differences between the two include: l)variation in stone finishing; 2)different window arches and 3)different roof shape.

Stratford Shoal exhibits some Gothic Revival details, such as pointed windows on the third story of the tower. These details point to the cultural lag of federal design. The Gothic detail and tall tower lend an institutional air to the lighthouse, saved from an ecclesiastical reference by the tower's position on the facade rather than at the gable end.

Improvements in technology were reflected in the lighting and fog-signal apparatus at Stratford Shoals, which played a vital role in guiding ships away from its hazardous base and supplying information about location for major shipping lanes in the Sound. The second class Daboll fog-trumpet and caloric engine of 1880 was followed by an 1897 installation of two Hornsby Akroyd 3 and 1/2 hp. engines and a Clayton air compressor for the improved trumpet. In 1915 a first-class air siren was installed. New fog signal engines were added in 1923. Automation came in 1970.

The lighting apparatus originally installed at Stratford Shoal exhibited a light that flashed every 30 seconds; this was improved in 1879 to exhibit 15-second flashes, and the following year, changed again to 10-second intervals. A new lens was installed in 1894, to be replaced in 1905 by a new fourth order flashing light. The 600,000 candlepower light beacon in place at Stratford Shoal in 1970 was visible for 13 miles. It was automated the same year and converted to battery power in 1978.

Operating Lighthouses in Connecticut
Falkner Island Lighthouse (1802) Falkner's Island
Lynde Point Lighthouse (1838) Old Saybrook
New London Harbor Lighthouse (1801) New London
New London Ledge Light Station (1906) New London
Penfield Reef Lighthouse (1874) Bridgeport
Stratford Point Lighthouse (1881) Stratford
Stratford Shoal Lighthouse (1878)
Tongue Point Lighthouse (1894) Bridgeport
Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse (1886)
Southwest Ledge Lighthouse (1876) New Haven
Greens Ledge Lighthouse (1902)
Peck Ledge Lighthouse (1906) Norwalk

Map of Lighthouses in Connecticut

Building Description

Stratford Shoal Lighthouse (Light List #962), established in 1877, marks a gravel shoal in the middle of Long Island Sound seven miles south of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped breakwater of riprap, it consists of a grey granite, gable-roofed dwelling resting on a circular foundation of granite ashlar with a lantern tower projecting from its central south facade. Except for a two-stage concrete landing, there are no other structures on the site. This lighthouse replaced a lightship that formerly warned mariners of shallow waters in the middle of the shipping lane.

Immense blocks of rough=faced granite form the outer rings of the structure's foundation. Laid on a leveled site in five feet of water the lower eight rings are arranged in stepped courses of diminishing diameter, while the upper three courses are arranged as a cylinder. The upper-most course is finished with a beveled lower edge. Its stones are connected by large iron staples set in lead. The foundation measures fifty-five feet in diameter at the base, forty-six feet at the top, and rises eighteen feet, six inches above the high water line. Within the concrete-filled interior is a brick-lined cellar, and below it, two cisterns. Edging the top surface of the foundation is a triple railing supported on metal stanchions.

In plan, the dwelling is a square twenty-eight feet on a side. Skilled workmanship is evident in the dressing and laying of the smooth-faced ashlar blocks of which it is composed. The walls measure eighteen inches in depth at the water table and fourteen inches in depth at the top of the tower. The tower, three stories in height, projects outwardly five feet from the south facade and measures ten feet, four inches across at the base. Above the second story level, the tower assumes an octagonal plan seven feet in diameter.

Bricks laid fn header bond form a lining wall for the tower. A cast-iron spiral stair with checkered tread rises in the center of the tower from the first story to the lantern. This stair furnishes the only access to upper stories of the lighthouse from landings on the second and third story level. Openings on the three levels contain double-leaf metal doors connecting the tower and dwelling. Above the door on the first story is a curved stone plaque carved to read: "Stratford Shoals/Lighthouse/AD 1877/Lat. 41° 3' North/Long. 73° 6' West." The tower contains five windows: one on each story of the south facade, as well as one on the east and west facades of the third story. Each of the third-story windows in the tower interior has a pointed arch surround. Flanking each of the south windows are two circular channels in the brick lining for the weight drops. On the east wall of the first story of the tower is a niche with a granite lintel, designed for storage of oil tanks.

The center bay of the north facade, nine feet in width, projects three feet beyond the wall plane and is capped by a gabled roof. This bay contains the principal entrance, marked by double-leaved doors, set above three granite steps. The doors open into a center hall seven feet, four inches in width. Above the entrance is a pointed-arched window. Other window openings in the dwelling are flat-topped, featuring rusticated projecting sills and lintels with dressed borders, a keystone detail, and eared or dropped corners. Four such window openings appear on the east and west facades, two flank the north entrance, and two appear on the first story of the south facade flanking the tower. The tower contains one on the south facade at both the first and second story levels. Although most originals are removed or covered over, the original wood sash was two-over-two lights. The cornice is notable for its molded wood bargeboards. A new copper standing seam roof and lead-coated copper gutters were installed in 1985.

At the top of the octagonal third story of the tower, cast-{ron brackets with scrolls and drops support a projecting octagonal cast-iron deck which forms a gallery around the octagonal cast-iron lantern. The gallery is edged with a triple rail of flat section, supported on round stanchions topped with brass spheres. The lantern contains eight large glass panes in the upper half of its walls and cast-iron plates in the lower half. A cast-iron frieze above the glass panes is ornamented with alternating panels of an embossed motif of foliage, and a motif of repeated circles and double lines. Centered above each foliage motif panel is a classically-derived, cast-iron boss which covers a molded cornice and joins the frieze to a ribbed, bell-shaped and copper-sheathed roof. Metal ladders lead from the lantern deck to modern lighting apparatus mounted on the roof above, as well as to the roof of the dwelling below. Presently, the lantern is empty, and the spherical ventilator and platinum-tipped lightning rod designated in the original drawings are missing from the roof.

Unoccupied since 1970, the lighthouse has lost much interior detailing. The little which remains demonstrates an attention to detail that matches that of the carefully designed stonework and lantern. For example, the woodwork in the southeast room on the first story, designated a workroom in the plans, exhibits false graining where later layers of paint have been removed. This finish also may be hidden in other rooms. The original floorings encaustic tile with a checkered red and yellow pattern remains on the first story of the tower. Complex molded wood trim survives in some rooms around doorways and windows, although moisture damage has prompted plain replacements in many locations. Wall surfaces of plaster and some beaded board wainscoting also remain. The odd, triangular shape of a closet space opening off the northeast room of the first story was shown on the original plans to have been intended for cellar stairs. Instead, this stairway was installed in a space across the center hallways and the proportions of the hall itself altered, probably at the time of construction.