Standing mid-Long Island Sound, about five miles from coastal Connecticut and New York, Stratford Shoal Light has warned sailors of the dangerous shallows extending out north and south of the beacon for nearly one and a half centuries.
Sailing the Sound in 1614, Dutch explorer Adrian Block charted two islands where the lighthouse now stands. Over time, tides and wave action eroded away the low-lying lands. On that same voyage, he mapped Block Island, naming it after himself.
As early as 1820, spar buoys were placed north and south of the shoal, but it would be another 18 years until the Light House Board established a lightship to mark the maritime hazard. Built in Norfolk, Virginia, the one-hundred-ton vessel, designated LV-15, was manned by two officers and four crewmen. It showed a light from both of its masts. Held in place by a single 1,200-pound anchor, the vessel was driven off station just eight days after becoming operational! Though eventually equipped with two anchors, storm-driven wind and waves continued to carry LV-15 off station several more times. In February of 1875, it was dragged from its mooring by pack ice. It then drifted all the way to Orient Point where it went aground. The following February was no better. Parting its mooring once more, it was later located some twenty-three miles to the northeast, just off Faulkner Island.
It had become obvious that a lightship was not appropriate at the Middle Ground. Funds were appropriated and construction of a lighthouse began in 1874. Several tons of rip-rap stones were laid in the form of a ring within which a foundation was to be laid. However, winter storms caused enough damage that an additional 5000 tons of rock had to be put in place before construction could proceed. It was not until December 15, 1877, that the structure was completed, and the lighthouse became operational. Its beacon showed a flashing white light. William McGloin, who had served aboard LV-15, was appointed head keeper of the light. But just one month before its establishment, yet another severe winter storm had driven the construction schooner Mignonette into the lighthouse rocks. It sank a short distance from the light.
Standing in open water, at the mercy of severe storms, any similarly exposed lighthouse had to be a difficult experience for its keepers. Keeper Edward Burge, then keeper of West Bank Light (New York Harbor) once reported that during nor’easters, the lighthouse seemed to shiver from the pounding of wind and waves. “Particles of wind-driven ice sounded like machine-gun fire against the tower.”
At land-based lighthouses, keepers generally occupied the property with their families. The grounds surrounding the station served to grow vegetables and fruit. In addition, they often had a few farm animals. Stratford Shoal Light and other isolated lights could, for some keepers, be a lonely existence. Lighthouses usually had at least two individuals stationed at the facility. Those manned by a single keeper required that person to work all through the night and into the day. To help them through their isolation, some kept a pet at the facility. Keeper Edward B. Burge had a fox terrier who was his constant companion. When the keeper headed to shore for supplies, he brought the puppy along with him. Once ashore, the dog would run down to the water’s edge, stare out toward the light and whine. “If the light dimmed at night, or the fog signal stopped, he would bark and tear around.” When keeper Burge was transferred to Elm Tree Light, a land-based station, the puppy simply could not adapt. Burge then brought his canine companion back to the West Bank Light and left him with its new keeper.
While manning their light, many of the light keepers also became heroes. While going to the aid of sailors in distress, they frequently did so at great personal risk. Katie Walker, solo-keeper at Robbin’s Reef Light (2 miles SW of the Statue of Liberty) is said to have rescued more than fifty sailors during her twenty-nine-year at the light. Another woman keeper, Ida Lewis, also a solo keeper, served at Lime Rock Light, Rhode Island. She became famous for her rescues. While her father was the keeper, she performed her first rescue when she was just 12 years old! In 1857, at age 18, she took over all of a keeper’s duties after her dad suffered a disabling stroke. She was later officially appointed keeper. In 1869, following the daring rescue of two soldiers from their overturned skiff, she was awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal from the U.S. government.
On the evening of February 10, 1933, a powerful storm struck Long Island Sound. The auxiliary cruiser Saugatuck was at anchor off Cockenoe Island. Three of her crew had disembarked to search the island for a youth that had gone missing on the Sound. As the storm intensified, the cruiser suddenly lost anchorage and its tiller broke. Unable to call for help, the wind-driven ship drifted in an easterly direction. Two days later, Stratford Shoal’s keeper Lewis Allen and his assistant spotted the Saugatuck, a long distance from the lighthouse. A crewman aboard the vessel had signaled distress. The light keepers first had to chop away thick ice to launch their boat. Once free, they set out to the cruiser and took on its ten remaining crewmen. The men reported that they had been without food or heat for 62 hours! They were housed and fed at the lighthouse. On the following day, an oyster boat approached the light and then transported the crewmen back to shore. The three crewmen on the island had managed to get ashore and the youth had made it to nearby Pecks Ledge Light, where he had spent the night.
The isolation of an offshore or very remote lighthouse could be overwhelming for some keepers, especially if that person was alone at the light. From the time it was first established in 1877 until 1962, twenty head keepers served at Stratford Shoal Light. There was even a longer list of first assistant and second assistant keepers assigned to the station. With that number of personnel, there was a regular rotation to shore. But for second assistant Julius Koster, assigned to the light in 1904, a hidden pathology may have emerged from his isolation. In May of 1905, the Head keeper went ashore, leaving assistant keeper Morrell Hulse in charge. Hulse soon began to notice that Koster had become unusually moody and uncommunicative. On the following day, Koster became violent and charged another assistant with a razor lashed to the end of a pole. He then made his way up to the top of the tower, locked himself in, and stopped the rotation of the light. Finally coaxed back out of the tower, the disturbed keeper attempted to take his own life. Luckily, however, Hulse calmed things down and a few days later, Koster was taken to shore.
Stratford Shoal Light was automated on July 1, 1970. Its crew of four U.S. Coastguardsmen was reassigned. In May 2014, the lighthouse was deemed excess by the Coast Guard. It was then put up for sale under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. Nick Korstad, a dedicated lover of lighthouses, already owned and restored the Borden Flats Light (Massachusetts) and the Spectacle Reef Light (Lake Huron). He purchased Stratford Shoal Light in 2016. He stated he intends to restore the light to museum quality and once completed, allow overnight stays at the facility.
The lighthouse, also known as Middle Ground Light, comes into full view while crossing the Sound aboard the Bridgeport- Port Jefferson ferry. Surrounded by rock reefs, it is a favorite spot for catching bluefish and bass, especially from August through November.