STONINGTON — The Old Lighthouse Museum on Stonington Point is one of the most popular destinations in the local area. The museum is accessible from the street and allows visitors to have a hands-on experience of its artifacts.
It’s surprising, however, that until recently the record of the lighthouse’s history was incomplete. The Stonington Historical Society, owner of the lighthouse since 1925, commissioned a book, “Stonington’s Old Lighthouse and Its Keepers,” from two well-known editors, James Boylan and Betsy Wade. The book will be celebrated with a party at 11 a.m., on Saturday, Aug. 24, at the lighthouse. Wayne Wheeler, president of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, is scheduled to speak. The public is invited and refreshments will be served.
Stonington Historical Society Director Mary Beth Baker said the museum is due for some maintenance and it seemed like a perfect time to investigate its history. “A lighthouse had first been put in the area of the borough in 1823, but was rebuilt in 1840 as the lighthouse we know today,” she said. “It’s an accessible lighthouse but inside it has limited mobility and it has no exterior ramps. Some things need to be addressed; for example, moisture has always been a problem.
“We have received grants from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and the Connecticut Humanities Council, so we would like to make some improvements. The grants are for planning but not for construction,” she said.
In anticipation of the work, the society contracted Boylan and Wade for the historical research. Their investigations led them to such places as the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and in Waltham, Mass.
“There were tons of records to go through,” Boylan said. “There were a number of surprises as to what the federal lighthouse system was like. Jobs went to the low bidder and as a result some of the work was badly built. The first one, built in 1823, was certainly no prize,” he said.
Their research shed light on the impact of corruption and graft in the American lighthouse establishment of the pre-Civil War era. Use of the efficient and reliable Fresnel lens, for example, was barred for years because of cronyism.
Such problems almost inevitably struck Stonington. Construction of the current lighthouse was so bad that the walls leaked from the beginning. The first keeper, William Potter — a captain of the militia that fought the British in the War of 1812 — and his wife, Patty, who became the second keeper, saw some of their children die young as a result of living in constant damp conditions.
At one point, the light was replaced by a beacon on a harbor breakwater where it stood for 50 years while the lighthouse deteriorated. When the historical society bought it and turned it into a local history museum, it was evidently the first such conversion in the country. The building has now served as a museum longer than it did as a lighthouse.
The book includes more than 80 illustrations, almost half in their original colors, and was written as an adjunct to current plans to restore the Old Lighthouse and improve access for the public.
“There weren’t as many photos as we would have liked,” Boylan said, “but since it was built in 1840, photography was still young at that time.”
The book also provides a look at Stonington’s role in an oft-forgotten part of American history.
“We learned only a few days ago that Wayne Wheeler would be there and we are thrilled,” said Wade. “He is scheduled to give a small talk. That will be great because he himself is a lighthouse historian. It’s an honor and it’s very exciting.”
Boylan and Wade previously served as editors of a book series for the historical society. They also saw to press the society’s second edition of “The Davis Homestead,” the story of a Connecticut family farm created by a royal grant. Wade was an editor and columnist for The New York Times; Boylan was a professor of history and journalism at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and was founding editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. They are also members of the historical society and town residents.