Five Mile Point Light, New Haven, Connecticut

The Five Mile Point Light at the entrance to New Haven Harbor, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2020:

New Haven Harbor has been marked by a lighthouse since 1805, when the first one was constructed here on this site at the southeast edge of the harbor. It was commonly known as Five Mile Point Light, because of its distance from downtown New Haven. The original tower was 30 feet tall and built of wood, but by the late 1830s both it and the keeper’s house were badly deteriorated. Both buildings were replaced in 1847, and the new lighthouse was substantially larger than the older one. As shown in these two photos, it is octagonal in shape and constructed of local brownstone, and it stands 80 feet above the ground. Its design is very similar to many of the other early 19th century lighthouses in Connecticut, including New London Harbor Light, Lynde Point Light, Black Rock Harbor Light, and Falkner Island Light.

The new lighthouse was constructed by local builder Marcus Bassett, and the work evidently progressed quickly. Congress appropriated funds for it on March 3, 1847, and it was nearly completed by September, when an article appeared in the New Haven Journal, praising the new lighthouse:

New-Haven harbor during easterly storms, is the refuge of an immense number of craft, but its entrance from the east has always been difficult, if not dangerous, because the light-house cannot be seen until near the rocks upon which it stands. The government erected a new house for the keeper recently, but the new light-house, which is nearly ready for use, is the object of special admiration. Standing but a few rods from the old one, it rises in towering majesty by its side, and now may be seen in every direction where the other was wholly concealed. It will be of immense benefit to New-Haven harbor and also add to the security of the navigation of the Sound.

As was the case with most other American lighthouses of the era, Five Mile Point Light was maintained by a keeper who resided here on the property. Lighthouse keepers were primarily responsible for lighting and extinguishing the lantern, but other routine duties included maintenance and repairs to the buildings and equipment. However, because of their locations at hazardous points along shipping routes, keepers were also occasionally called upon to assist sailors in distress. Here at Five Mile Point, keeper Merritt Thompson, who served from 1853 to 1860, was often involved in such rescues, with his 1884 obituary noting that “when he was keeper of the lighthouse it was his good fortune to be instrumental in saving lives on a number of occasions when boats would be upset in the harbor,” and that “many stories are told of his daring and humanity in emergencies calling for personal risk and quick action.” 

The 1860 census shows Thompson living here at the lighthouse with his wife Julia and their six children, who ranged in age from 11 months to 14 years. However, he was subsequently dismissed from the post, and went on to work as a harbor pilot here in New Haven. An 1861 letter to the editor, published in the Columbian Register, suggested that this was a political move, and that he was replaced by a Republican partisan because of Abraham Lincoln’s electoral victory in 1860. The writer questioned the qualifications of any replacement, and observed that “the removal has caused a burst of indignation among all our citizens,” and concluded the letter with some sarcasm, saying “I trust none of our citizens will allow themselves to be capsized in the vicinity of the light house, for the next four years.”

The new lighthouse keeper was Elizur Thompson, who was not related to his predecessor. Despite this anonymous writer’s doubts about his abilities, he go on to serve here for many years, first as a keeper and later as an employee of the United States Signal Service. His family also helped maintain the lighthouse, including his wife Elizabeth and two of their sons, each of whom received assistant keeper salaries at various times over the years. He was dismissed in 1867 by the Andrew Johnson administration, for reasons that were evidently as political as his initial appointment had been, but he was subsequently reappointed in 1869, after Republican Ulysses S. Grant became president.

During the 1870 census, Elizur and Elizabeth were 61 and 59 respectively, and they lived here at the lighthouse with their 24-year-old son George and their 18-year-old daughter Ella. However, Elizabeth died a year later, and in 1877 Elizur remarried to Ellen Pierce, a widow who was about 30 years younger than him. She had a son, Burton, from her first marriage, and he was 13 years old and living with them during the 1880 census.

In the meantime, in 1873 the federal government began construction of Southwest Ledge Light, located on a rocky ledge about a mile offshore from here. Because this new lighthouse was much closer to the main shipping channel, it rendered Five Mile Point Light obsolete, and the light was deactivated after Southwest Ledge was completed in 1877. Elizur Thompson was then appointed as the first keeper of the new lighthouse, and his son Henry became the assistant keeper. He remained there for four more years, until his retirement in 1881, and Henry then became the main keeper of Southwest Ledge.

Following his retirement, Elizur and Ellen returned to the old Five Mile Point Light, where he was allowed to live, rent-free, for the rest of his life. During this time, he worked for the United States Signal Service, displaying flags from the old lighthouse to provide weather reports for passing merchant vessels. Both Elizur and Ellen faced health scars in the mid-1880s, beginning with a head injury that the elderly Elizur suffered in 1884, when he slipped and hit the back of his head on a rock while trying to launch a boat here on the beach. Then, in June 1885 Ellen underwent major surgery in New York to remove a large tumor. Newspaper reports described her as being in critical condition and doubted whether she would survive, but she ultimately recovered and returned to New Haven in early August.

Elizur carried out his duties here at the lighthouse until his death in 1897, when he was 87 years old. Ellen had taken over these responsibilities during his final illness, and after his death she was formally appointed as his successor. As described in the Morning Journal and Courier following her appointment, the signal station “has been a great boon to the sailors, since it has warned them of impending storms and furnished them the opportunity to come within the shelter of the harbor.” The article described how the weather reports arrived in downtown New Haven and were then telephoned to the lighthouse, where Ellen would hoist the appropriate flags. The article then concluded by remarking that “the task is anything but an easy one for a woman, especially in stormy weather.” She would retain this post until her death in 1901, at the age of 60.

The first photo was taken around 1900. Assuming this date is accurate, Ellen Thompson would have still been living and working here, and the tall pole atop the lighthouse was likely where she hoisted the flags. The photo also shows the keeper’s house on the right side, connected to the lighthouse by an enclosed wooden walkway. On the other side of the lighthouse, in the center of the photo, are four Civil War-era Rodman cannons that were installed here during the Spanish-American War in 1898. These obsolete guns were evidently more for show than anything else, and were likely more effective at reassuring locals than at dissuading Spanish warships. In any case, these guns were never tested in combat during the short-lived war, and within a few years they were removed and incorporated into several different local Civil War memorials.

No longer necessary for either navigational aids or civil defense measures, this area around the old lighthouse subsequently became an amusement park, known as Lighthouse Point Park. Like many other early 20th century amusement parks, it was developed by a local trolley company as a way of increasing ridership on otherwise quiet weekend trolleys. The park featured attractions such as a carousel, along with a beach and fields for athletic events. Even prominent baseball stars such as Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb made appearances here at Lighthouse Point and participated in exhibition games.

The amusement park was subsequently acquired by the city, but it began to decline after the 1920s, and most of the park buildings were demolished by the mid-20th century. The site has continued to be used as a public park, though, and it continues to be a popular destination for its beach and for other recreational activities, including its restored carousel. However, the most prominent landmark here at the park continues to be the historic lighthouse. Despite not having been used as a lighthouse for nearly 150 years, both the tower and the keeper’s house are still standing, with few major changes since the first photo was taken, aside from the loss of the covered walkway.

Lost New England Goes West: Alcatraz Island, San Francisco (2)

Another view of Alcatraz Island, taken around 1900. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

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The view in 2015:

The first photo here was taken around the same time as the one in the previous post, showing Alcatraz Island when it was being used as a military prison. At the time, the island’s inmate population was rapidly growing, and within a few years many of the Civil War-era buildings in this scene would be demolished to build modern facilities. Building 64, the large building along the water in the present-day scene, was built in 1905 to house the officers who were stationed here. In 1909, the current lighthouse was built to replace the original 1854 structure, which had been damaged in the 1906 earthquake. Around the same time, the old Alcatraz Citadel, barely visible at the top of the hill, was demolished to build the main prison building. Completed in 1912, it was later converted from a military prison into a federal civilian prison, and still stands at the top of the island today.

The only building left from the first photo is the Guardhouse on the far right. Built around 1857, it is the oldest remaining structure on the island, dating back to the time when the island was used as a defensive fortification to protect San Francisco Bay. It was also used as the island’s first prison building in the 19th century, before the island’s role as a prison was expanded and purpose-built prison structures were added. Today, more than 50 years after the last prisoner left Alcatraz, the Guardhouse and the rest of the historic buildings on the  island are administered by the National Park Service, and the island is open to the public as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

This post is part of a series of photos that I took in California this past winter. Click here to see the other posts in the “Lost New England Goes West” series.

Lost New England Goes West: Alcatraz Island, San Francisco

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, around 1902-1905. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

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Alcatraz in 2015:

Alcatraz Island is located at a strategic point just inside the entrance to San Francisco Bay. The United States acquired California in 1848, and within ten years this small island had been fortified to protect the bay from any potential threats. Known as the Alcatraz Citadel, it was finished just in time for the Civil War, and although it never saw any combat during the war, its isolated location made it an ideal place to house Confederate prisoners.

After the war, the focus on Alcatraz shifted from defense to incarceration, and from 1868 to 1933 it functioned as a military prison. The first photo was taken during this era, showing a number of buildings on the island that were used to house either the inmates or the military personnel stationed there. At the top of the hill in the first photo is the Alcatraz Citadel, which was demolished a few years later to build the main prison building that stands there today. Most of the other buildings from the first photo have since been demolished, including those along the water, which were replaced by Building 64 in 1905. This large building, which was originally used to house military officers and their families, is still standing today just to the right of the center of the photo.

When the military prison closed in 1933, the property was transferred to the Department of Justice, and in 1934 it reopened as a civilian prison for the nation’s most difficult prisoners. Considered essentially escape-proof, there were never any confirmed successful escapes, although three inmates did disappear in the famous 1962 attempt. Alcatraz was expensive to maintain, though, and it closed in 1963. After the closure, the island was occupied by Native Americans for 19 months in 1969-1971, during which time several of the buildings were burned. Later, the island was acquired by the National Park Service, and is now open to the public as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

This post is part of a series of photos that I took in California this past winter. Click here to see the other posts in the “Lost New England Goes West” series.

Portland Head Light, Cape Elizabeth, Maine (3)

Another view of Portland Head Light, probably taken around the 1870s. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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The lighthouse in 2015:

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The first photo here was probably taken around 10-20 years before the ones in the previous two posts here and here, and it shows the tower as it appeared following its 1865 height change.  As mentioned in more detail in the first post, the lighthouse was built in 1791, but was reduced in height by 20 feet in 1812, to the spot below the lantern where a horizontal band runs around the tower.  Those 20 feet were restored in 1865, as seen in the first photo, but the tower was trimmed down again in 1883.  Just two years later, though, enough sailors complained that it was raised 20 feet yet again, with changes such as a larger lantern room at the top and  a second gallery below it.  Since 1885, it hasn’t seen very many changes, and it remains an active lighthouse as well as a popular tourist destination along the southern coast of Maine.

Portland Head Light, Cape Elizabeth, Maine (2)

Another view of Portland Head Light, taken from the north side probably around 1890. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The lighthouse in 2015:

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The angle here isn’t exact; the first photo was taken from the water, a little to the left of where the 2015 photo was taken.  The previous post explains more about the history of the lighthouse, which was built in 1791 on a rocky outcropping at the entrance to Portland Harbor.  The first view was presumably taken around the same time as the one on the other post, because it shows the old 1816 keeper’s house, which was replaced by the current one in 1891.

Being surrounded by water on three sides and facing the open ocean provides some dramatic views for visitors and photographers, and it probably also provided the inspiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Lighthouse.”  Longfellow grew up in Portland, and the certainly seemed to be describing this lighthouse, writing in the first two stanzas:

The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
And on its outer point, some miles away,
The Lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.

Even at this distance I can see the tides,
Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
In the white lip and tremor of the face.

The lighthouse would have looked a little different when Longfellow wrote the poem, though.  The keeper’s house would have been the same as the one in the first photo, but as mentioned in the previous post, its height was periodically changed throughout the 19th century, and did not assume its present-day appearance until 1885, three years after Longfellow’s death.  Today, with the old keeper’s house gone, the only thing left from Longfellow’s childhood visits is the section of the tower below the horizontal band a little below the lantern.

Portland Head Light, Cape Elizabeth, Maine (1)

The view of Portland Head Light, possibly around 1890. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The lighthouse in 2015:

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Aside from perhaps lobsters and pine trees, Portland Head Light is one of Maine’s most recognizable symbols.  The iconic lighthouse is among the most famous in the world, and in the past few years it has been featured in lists such as USA Today’s “10 best lighthouses around the USA“, The Weather Channel’s “11 Amazing Lighthouses of the World“, and Mental Floss’s “10 of the Most Beautiful Lighthouses in the World.”  However, this is not a recent phenomenon; the picturesque lighthouse overlooking Portland’s Casco Bay has attracted generations of photographers, as seen in the photo from the Detroit Publishing Company over a hundred years earlier.

The lighthouse was completed in 1791, in what was at the time part of Massachusetts.  As its name suggests, Portland was, and still is, one of New England’s major commercial ports, so a lighthouse was needed to mark the southern edge of the main shipping channel into the harbor. It was the first lighthouse to be built by the United States government (all earlier lighthouses were built prior to the Revolution or prior to the federal government assuming control over lighthouses), and it was also the first of many lighthouses in present-day Maine.

As built, Portland Head Light looked very different from today.  It was only 72 feet tall, but poor construction of both the tower and the keeper’s house became evident within 20 years.  The leaking lighthouse was lowered by 20 feet in 1812, and the keeper’s house was replaced in 1816 by the one seen in the first photo.  This website provides more details, along with a few historic photos of the lighthouse, including one from 1859 that is barely recognizable compared to the two views shown above.

The tower’s height continued to fluctuate throughout the 19th century.  In response to a deadly 1864 shipwreck, it was raised 20 feet for better visibility, only to be reduced again in 1883.  Two years later, though, the third and final height change gave the tower its present appearance.  This is still noticeable today; the ring around the upper section of the tower separates the 1885 addition from the original 1791 structure.

The only obvious difference between the two photos above is the keeper’s house to the left, and this is where there is somewhat of a discrepancy with the date of the photo.  The Library of Congress estimates that the first photo was taken around 1902. However, the records indicate that the present-day keeper’s house was built in 1891, and assuming this is correct, it would make that the earliest that this photo could have been taken.  This is far earlier than most of the other photos in the Detroit Publishing Company collection, though, so the exact date seems to be questionable.

Date questions aside, the lighthouse is still an active aid to navigation for one of the busiest ports on the east coast, although the keeper’s house is no longer used as a residence.  The light was automated in 1989, eliminating the need for a full-time lighthouse keeper. so today the house is owned by the town of Cape Elizabeth, and is operated as a maritime museum as part of Fort Williams Park.