Inside Race Rock Light

by Jane Ahrens

Every neighborhood has one house that is a bit curious, inaccessible, ellusive, and perhaps mysterious. If you are familiar with Fishers Island, ‘that house’ could be Race Rock Lighthouse.

We have all stared at it, taken photos of it in every kind of weather, sailed and motored around it, fished the ledge it is mounted upon, some have climbed on it, but just a few have been inside.

So, when an opportunity presents itself to be one of the first in decades to tour the house on the rock, you jump.

August 26, 2017: Race Rock Lighthouse Visited

by Jane T. Ahrens

New London Maritime Society, Custom House Maritime Museum, has stewardship of Race Rock Lighthouse (as well as New London Harbor Light and New London Ledge). They offered two first-ever public tours inside Race Rock Light the weekend of August 26 and 27, 2017. With room for just six guest passengers per trip, with the crew and tour hosts, both tours sold out within hours of being announced.

Saturday’s ‘1st public tour ever’ began at the Custom House Maritime Museum where we met the Museum’s Director Susan Tamulevich, and our tour hosts and lighthouse experts Pam Setchell and Nick Korstad. Pam is president of Huntington Lighthouse Preservation Society, Inc. and a professional photographer. Nick owns three lighthouses including Stratford Shoal in Connecticut that is almost an exact replica of Race Rock Light. We learned a bit about their connections and dedication to several offshore lighthouses in the northeast, and their initial plans to help restore and preserve Race Rock Light in particular.

A few who had come before us…

We were an eclectic group of adventurers. Among us boarding Capt. Patrick Kennedy’s (Kennedy Diving and Marine, Inc.) buoy tender, now lighthouse tender, were Scott Eschenfelder, the great great great grandson of Captain T.A. Scott the builder of Race Rock Light, Abdoul Farouk who travelled from D.C., a lady new to New England from Seattle, lighthouse books author Elinor DeWire, one other woman, and myself, with Susan, Pam and Nick, and Pam’s fiancé Frank who used to restore historic buildings in CT as a contractor and has an offshore lighthouse also under his belt.

Passing New London Light we headed straight toward the Race, a unique intersection of water with currents colliding from the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island Sound and Fishers Island Sound – hence the need for a massive lighthouse presence at this location.

The trip was timed for our landing at slack tide. Capt. Kennedy maneuvered the tender counterclockwise around the lighthouse and into the very small landing cove that is located on the east side of the rock – the most protected from the prevailing currents and winds.

It was quite appropriate that Scott Eschenfelder was the first to step onto Race Rock, helping to secure the lines, and first to enter the lighthouse.

Photo Credit: Jane T. Ahrens 
(Click any image to see a larger photo or scroll through photo galleries.)

Constructing Race Rock Lighthouse in the turbulent waters of the Race was a feat of engineering bravery. It took New London’s Captain T.A. Scott seven years to execute the engineering design of F. Hopkinson Smith and accomplish the task. Race Rock’s lantern was lit January 1, 1879. As federal property, the lighthouse was first managed by the US Lighthouse Service and then by the US Coast Guard. The Custom House Maritime Society became owners of Race Rock in 2013 through the US Lighthouse Preservation Act. It has taken some time to seal the birds out and make an initial cleaning. National Geographic used the lighthouse briefly in the summer of 2015 as part of a documentary.
(Images below courtesy of the HLF Museum, Fishers Island, NY)

We climbed up the ladder from the tender and onto the main base of the lighthouse. The substantial exterior staircase is fairly new and you feel like you are truly being drawn up to this magnificent structure. Pam explained that even in just the last 5 years the storms with wind, ice and freezing conditions have cracked the concrete surface, baring some of the original metal structural reinforcements to the elements.

The lighthouse is composed of a two and one-half story Gothic Revival style granite masonry dwelling with an integral three and one-half story tower. Six brick-lined rooms make up the basement in the base under the actual lighthouse. There are four rooms, two on each side of the center hallway, on the main and second floor of the dwelling, each with a fireplace. The top floor is an attic with a small triangular window in each peak facing east, north, west, and south. On the west side of the structure, the tower’s spiral metal staircase begins in the basement and ends inside the octagonal turret at the top with the beacon light at its tip. There is a fire door as one enters each landing level of the stairwell from the dwelling.

Alteration Plans drawings c.1960

At last, a look inside!

The 67′ high tower has an octagonal cast iron lantern and gallery surrounded by a wrought iron railing. At the top of the interior staircase on the right is a small door about 36″ square through which one climbs out onto the tower balcony.

The Summit

We were able to spend about an hour on the rock. Taking in the sights and sounds while trying to imagine what it must have been like to be a lighthouse keeper there. Much solitude and a lonely occupation, while probably invigorating at times, the lighthouse with its lens and horn saved countless ships and crew from peril at The Race.

What’s next? Plans for future tours, volunteer work days and restoration are being considered. For now, we are just appreciating the opportunity given to take a peek inside – knowing Race Rock Light will continue to protect those who pass through the gateway it towers over.

A few favorite postcard photos of Race Rock by JTAhrens 

Featured Photo

USCG Eagle passing the Race early morning March 18, 2023 on her return from the Chesapeake Bay. Photo Credit Marlin Bloethe

A Fishers Island Community Center Program and the accompanying Fog Horn eNewsletter serve as the communications resource for the Fishers Island community. The content – news, calendar, links and photos, milestones, ads, and more create a clear image of Fishers to those on and off the island.

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