Feature Image: By Beyond My Ken – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=120094877
It was Thanksgiving Eve and the Steamship Atlantic was heading toward the open waters of the Long Island Sound with her valuable cargo. The trip to the New York port should have been uneventful, with only a few minor ” rough” spots. But Mother Nature had other plans on that particular Wednesday.
The weather had taken a nasty turn and the winds had accelerated to just under a gale. Captain Isaac Dustan had great faith in the solid construction of his ship. He decided to continue the voyage even though some of her passengers had chosen to wait out the impending storm. Nor’easters were common on the coasts of New England and nothing suggested this storm would be any worse than normal. On this night leaving shortly after midnight snow squalls and freezing wind made the trek a little more dangerous.
Visibility was at a minimum, but with his experience and confidence in the engineering of the Atlantic, Captain Dustan pushed forward. The trip to New London went as planned and the Captain and his crew steamed out of the mouth of the Thames River and into the Sound. The ferociousness of the Race Rock water-way was, unfortunately, severely underestimated.
The winds seemed to have significantly intensified and travel was much harder than originally expected. The Atlantic took most of it in stride and slowly lumbered deeper into the Sound. The uneasiness was apparent among crew and passengers. All quickly realized the twenty-five foot seas were going to be a serious force to endure. Passing a light boat anchored near New London, without warning the ship was hit with not one, but two mountainous walls of water. The pressure from the waves ruptured the main steam pipe and the Atlantic was now at the mercy of the storm.
The environment turned even more treacherous. A shifting wind at nearly hurricane strength the vulnerable ship was heading directly for Fishers Island and its notorious reef. By mid-morning on Thanksgiving Day, the Atlantic was anchored in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt at seeking stability under impossible conditions.
Her passengers and crew found no solace in the daylight and the ship remained tossed and battered by the relentless storm with the deadly Race Point Reef lurking dangerously close. Dressed in life jackets, all had resigned to the fate that lay before them. By dusk the worst had happened. Torn to pieces, the remains of the steamship and fifty-seven of her charges lay on the beaches of Fishers Island.
According to a reporter for The Westerly Tribune, “Some of the victims were found with limbs gone, caused by the breaking timbers of the boat. Arms and legs were picked up on the shores that had been the appendages of persons not recognizable. When the boat first struck the shore, so powerful was the shock, one of the great boilers broke from its fastenings and went high and dry beyond the seas; and, strange as it may seem, a little boy was found in it and alive.”
Out of the Darkness Comes Light
This tragedy in 1846 sparked the attention for the necessity of a permanent lighthouse on Race Point Reef. However, this was no small engineering feat. Congress appropriated an initial $3,000 to build the lighthouse. That minuscule sum proved to be nowhere near the proper allocation. The federal government hired F. Hopkinson Smith, a well known construction engineer, for the task. Smith was also responsible for the building of the foundation for Lady Liberty herself as well as the sea wall at Governor’s Island.
Smith acquired Thomas Scott, a former sea captain and professional diver. The two men set out on one of the most difficult endeavors of construction for that time. They literally had to build an island of stone in open, turbulent and deadly waters. The first attempt of depositing huge boulders of stone was unsuccessful. The 10,000 tons were swept away by the currents as quickly as they could be placed.
The duo had to resort to a more expensive and time consuming process of having divers lay cement on the sea floor. Finally after two long years in the making, the foundation which was 9 feet thick and 69 feet in diameter stood its ground. A stone pier jetting up almost 30 feet above high tide was a triumphant result. Finished, the two story granite lighthouse that was built upon this amazing foundation housed a red light that flashed approximately 67 feet above the Long Island Sound. Today it alternates between red and white lights and can be seen from a distance of 14 miles.
Legends, Fish Stories and Haunts
Of course with every lighthouse there are stories of shipwrecks, bootlegging and yes, even haunts. In 2004 the United States Coast Guard requested that the Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS as made famous by the hit television series) investigate unexplained phenomena occurring at the light. Some officers of the USCG reported hearing whispers, disembodied laughing and footsteps. Some even reported being poked or pushed by unseen forces. Others were nervous and apprehensive about going to the site. Some boaters have claimed, that at night, while no one is stationed at the lighthouse, a shadowy figure can be seen in the tower as the light passses.
Still, some others have reported hearing the eerie and solemn bell of the wrecked Atlantic. The Race Rock Lighthouse was featured in episode four during the first season of the show. It was a hit since cameras actually caught a chair moving a few inches in an empty room. As a result of the investigation, TAPS informed a disappointed officer that the lighthouse indeed seemed to be haunted.
The Present Day Race
It has been estimated that there have been at least 100 notable shipwrecks in the Long Island Sound. The Race Rock Lighthouse can best be seen by boat. Keep in mind the angry currents of “The Race” or “Plum Gut” as it is referred to locally. The meager 4 mile wide narrow waterway is known for its torrents. The current has a speed of 6 mph due to millions of gallons of water being forced through a very shallow and very narrow passage. It can be viewed from the shores of Watch Hill, Rhode Island as well as many points along the Connecticut Coast. Ferries operating between Connecticut and Orient Point give equally rewarding snapshots of the excellent example of Gothic Revival architecture.