According to the Coast Guard from the top of New London Harbor Light, which is 90 feet tall, one can see more lighthouses than from any other place on earth. New London Harbor Light is on the west side of the New London harbor entrance and is the nation’s seventh oldest lighthouse. It is the oldest and the tallest lighthouse in Connecticut and on Long Island Sound. The light is visible for fifteen miles and consists of three seconds of white light every six seconds.
In 1646 John Winthrop founded the first English settlement in the Colony of Connecticut on the Thames River. He named the river after the Thames River in England and the settlement of New London after London, England. He chose the location because it had the best deep natural harbor between Boston and New York.
New London’s first beacon was established in the 1730s during the French and Indian War, located at Harris Point where the Thames River meets Long Island Sound. The beacon was just a bonfire that was occasionally lit to provide warning against the approach by the French fleet.
The first harbor lighthouse was constructed in 1761 at a cost of £715 and was the first lighthouse built on Long Island Sound. It was constructed with hammer-dressed stone and was sixty-four feet tall. The tower, with a wooden lantern, was first lit on the night of November 7, 1761.
By 1800 the lighthouse had developed a ten-foot crack beneath the lantern and the lamp’s low focal point left it indistinguishable from lights in nearby farmhouses. Congress appropriated $15,700 to build a new lighthouse and architect Abisha Woodward of New London was hired to design it. The construction was completed in 1801with an 89-foot high tapered octagonal tower. The stone tower had 19-inch thick walls at the base. Originally the tower was left unpainted but was whitewashed sometime in the mid-nineteenth century
By 1833 New London had become the leading whaling port on Long Island Sound with over 30 ships and 900 men employed in the whaling industry. Because of the harbor’s importance, the US Government built New London’s US Customs House. The Custom House was designed by Robert Mills and today houses the Custom House Maritime Museum. Lt. George M. Bache, U.S.N., reports on the light: “It is of great importance as a leading light for vessels going in and out of the harbor of New London, which, on account of its security, is much resorted to during the heavy gales of winter.”
The light was upgraded in 1855 with a fourth-order Fresnel lens replacing the original 11 lamps with 13-inch reflectors. Illumination was converted from whale oil to oil-vapor lamps in 1909 and to acetylene in 1912. The light was electrified in 1930. In addition to the lighthouse, the station includes a keeper’s house. The house is a two-and-a-half-story brick residence that was built in 1863 and was enlarged in 1900. The property once included a barn, an oil house, and an engine room which have all been removed.
The New London Harbor Light was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. It is currently owned and maintained by the nonprofit Custom House Maritime Museum/New London Maritime Society as part of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act program. The Custom House Maritime Museum is located in downtown New London and is open year-round, Wednesday-Sunday, 1-5 PM.