Penfield Reef, a mile-long rock formation near Fairfield and Bridgeport, Connecticut, is one of the most treacherous areas of western Long Island Sound. In an effort to improve navigation through the tricky area, Penfield Reef Lighthouse was constructed on a cylindrical granite pier in 1874 at a cost of $55,000. The handsome building with its mansard roof and Second Empire detailing is a familiar landmark to the many boaters and fishermen in the area. It has had structural problems in recent years, but thanks to ongoing renovation initiated by the U.S. Coast Guard, it should be around for many decades to come.
The saddest and best-known episode in the history of Penfield Reef Light occurred on December 22, 1916. The sea was rough when Keeper Frederick A. Jordan (sometimes spelled Jordon) left in a dory for the mainland intending to join his family for Christmas. About 150 yards northwest of the lighthouse, Keeper Jordan’s boat overturned. Unable to launch a boat against a strong wind and an outgoing tide, Assistant Keeper Rudolph Iten could only watch as Jordan disappeared in the waves. Iten later told a newspaper reporter, “I will pass over the futile attempts I made to rescue him beyond telling you that it was a dirty day for weather and a nasty sea was running.”
The keeper’s body was soon recovered. Iten was absolved of any blame for the keeper’s death and in fact became the next keeper at Penfield Reef.
Some nights later, during a storm that sent crashing waves over the top of the lighthouse, Keeper Iten was awakened “by a strange feeling that someone was in my room.” Sitting up, Iten saw “a gray, phosphorescent covered figure emerging from the room formerly occupied by Fred Jordan. It hovered at the top of the stairs, and then disappeared in the darkness below.” Keeper Iten called to his assistant keeper, who replied, “All is well” from above in the lantern room. Puzzled, Iten went downstairs. He found that the station’s logbook had been mysteriously moved to a table and left open to the entry for December 22, 1916 — the night of Keeper Fred Jordan’s death.
A newspaper article later quoted Keeper Iten: “I have seen the semblance of the figure several times... and so have the others [two assistant keepers], and we are all prepared to take an affidavit to that effect. Something comes here, that we are positive. There is an old saying, ‘What the Reef takes, the Reef will give back.’”
For decades after the tragedy, keepers at the lighthouse reported the light behaving strangely for no apparent reason. In 1972 it was reported that the light was “not flashing at maximum intensity and was monitored as flashing erratically.” This problem was attributed to the light’s flasher. To this day mariners off the Connecticut coast claim that, in stormy weather, the spectre of a lighthouse keeper is seen on the lantern room gallery or floating above the reef itself. One owner of a power yacht reported that in rough weather his boat was guided to safety by a mysterious figure in a rowboat who vanished once the yacht reached safety.
On another occasion two boys who were fishing near the lighthouse were in danger of drowning after their boat capsized. A man seemingly appeared from nowhere and pulled the boys to safety on the rocks by the lighthouse. As the boys came to they entered the building expecting to find the keeper who had saved them, but there was nobody in sight. Whatever the explanation for these events, the legend of the ghost of Penfield Reef rivals that of Long Island Sound’s other famous ghost, “Ernie” at New London Ledge Light.
William Hardwick, who became keeper in 1932, was born in Yorkshire, England and came to America as a boy. He spent a decade at sea followed by 23 years in the Lighthouse Service. While at Bridgeport Harbor Light, Hardwick saved the lives of seven crewmen on the Calvin Tompkins. He was at Penfield Reef in December 1935 when a fierce blizzard drove a Japanese steamer against the rocks, one of hundreds of vessels wrecked in the vicinity during the terrible storm. He was still keeper on September 21, 1938, when the worst hurricane in Long Island Sound’s recorded history struck.
Keeper Hardwick was on his way to the lighthouse in his 12-foot skiff when the great storm hit, and he soon realized that attempting to reach the station was fruitless. He made it back to the mainland where he spent the night, while an assistant weathered the storm at Penfield Reef. Three years later William Hardwick decided he had enough of lighthouse keeping. He rowed through heavy seas to Fairfield Beach and reached his wife at their onshore home, and told her simply, “Millie, I’m through with that job.”
Penfield Reef Light has also had the distinction of having two women serve as assistant keepers — assistants Pauline Jones and June Martin, who were both married to keepers. After nearly a century of resident keepers, Penfield Reef Light was automated in 1971.
The succeeding years were hard on the exposed offshore lighthouse. A couple of years ago, DC1 Andy Sweeney of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Aids to Navigation Team Long Island Sound discovered that a rotted beam had left the lantern in danger of collapsing into the structure. Temporary support beams were put into place, but much more work was badly needed.
According to Senior Chief J. J. Nolda of the Coast Guard, “During the year 2000, substantial deterioration of one of the main support beams holding the cupola was noted. As a result the cupola deck had a three-degree tilt. Emergency repairs were conducted until a permanent fix could be devised. In the summer of 2001, a contractor repaired water leaks in the roof of the cupola and raked and repointed several mortar joints. This summer we are in the contract phase to have extensive interior work completed. The deteriorated support beams will be replaced as well as the main staircase. Plans to complete minor repair to the exterior of the light are being scheduled for next summer. These repairs include replacement of deteriorated fascia and trim pieces.”
Claudio Polselli, an engineer from CEU Providence, designed the structural repairs for the lighthouse. According to DC1 Sweeney, it is possible the rest of the repair work could be finished during 2002.
From a passing boat, the exterior of the building looks to be in excellent shape. The formerly boarded-up windows now have Lexan installed along with a ventilation system, leaving the lighthouse with a “lived-in” appearance. With new coats of bright, white paint, the building now hardly looks ghostly.
This story appeared in the
October 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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