GUILFORD – For 221 years Faulkner Lighthouse has stood as a beacon of light for ships traveling through Long Island Sound, but in 1991 the 40-foot tower that resides on Faulkner Island three-and-a-half miles off the coast of Guilford was in danger of collapsing into the sea.
Since 1991, though, the Faulkner’s Light Brigade has kept watch over the lighthouse and the island it sits on to ensure that the lighthouse remains a fixture for future seafarers.
Anthony Coppola, President and Chairman of Faulkner’s Light Brigade
“The lighthouse was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802,” Anthony Coppola, president and chairman of Faulkner’s Light Brigade said. “It was a significant – and still is – nautical landmark for mariners.”
The light still shines from its tower on the three and a half acres of land, he said, aiding navigation.
When first constructed, sperm whale oil was used as the light source, and a lightkeeper lived in a house on the island. In 1939, civilian lightkeepers were replaced by members of the Coast Guard.
“In 1976, when the lightkeeper was on leave, the house caught fire and it completely burned to the ground,” Coppola said.
From that point on, the light in the lighthouse became automated without the need of a lightkeeper, he said, and it still shines on, now using a fully automated LED light that is solar powered.
But two centuries of wear and tear from erosion and abuse from storms put Faulkner Lighthouse at risk.
“An erosion study was done,” Coppola said. “The southeast end of the island, the erosion was pretty bad. They predicted the lighthouse would fall into the sea in 30 years, and that was 1991.
If we had not intervened, the lighthouse wouldn’t be there today.”
Over the next 10 years, the brigade petitioned potential donors and benefactors to raise money to save the lighthouse, raising $10,000 in 1995 to repair the entry stairway to the lighthouse, and in 1999 and 2000, raised $250,000 to repair of masonry, add new exterior coating, and repair the ventilation system and casement windows.
It was in 2000 and 2001 that the brigade was able to raise enough money to save the lighthouse, after they successfully lobbied $4.5 million from Congress.
“They were able to rebuild the island with huge boulders,” Coppola said. “Then they rebuilt the berm that goes up the island to the lighthouse. It was a huge project. The boulders were brought in to secure the island by a barge.”
Since the successful saving of the lighthouse, the brigade has maintained its mission to raise money to monitor and fund upkeep of the lighthouse.
“The lighthouse has needed regular maintenance, recoating, repainting,” Coppola said. “The inner stairway, it’s a spiral stairway, it needed some work. It was installed in the early 1900s. We facilitated that work from funding of our own, but also grants. We’re still involved in procuring grants and Congressional funds.”
The island itself is usually off limits to the public, he said, not just for the safety of the lighthouse, but because of the roseate tern, a bird that returns to the island every year to reproduce in the winter.
The island is a preserve for the tern, he said, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who own the island – the lighthouse itself is owned by the Coast Guard – manages it.
“They have done an outstanding job in keeping that population growing,” Coppola said.
Currently, the brigade is working on several projects, he said.
“One is recoating the entire lighthouse,” he said. “It’s a special coating that breathes with the bricks. The stones have to breathe to keep the paint from peeling off. The tower itself is steel and that has to be stripped and painted. Some of the glass needs to be replaced.”
In their efforts to raise money, the brigade is hosting an open house this Saturday, Sept. 2, on the island for guests to come and get a rare tour of the lighthouse from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The caveat to the open house, Coppola said, is that transportation from the mainland to the island is not provided.
The dock on Faulkner Island is very small, he said, and can’t accommodate boats, so people will have to drop anchor and take a water taxi that will be standing by to come the rest of the way in.
“People anchor their boats on the west side of the island,” Coppola said. “The boat taxi will come over and give them a ride to the dock. There’s a beach adjacent to the dock for small boats like dinghies. People have actually kayaked out there.”
While on the island, there will be tours of the lighthouse.
Brigade staff, staff from the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” will be there to provide tours and information about the island, he said.
“There will be brief discussions on the history of the island,” he said. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will talk about what they’re doing. People will be able to tour the lighthouse. It’s a small area and can only handle a few people in there at a time.”
The open house is one of the Faulkner Light Brigade’s annual fundraising events.
“We have a suggested donation of $20 per person, but people can give whatever they want,” Coppola said. “It’s to make people aware of what is needed. People will see the lighthouse and see that it needs some work.”
He said that anyone coming to Guilford to visit the lighthouse should monitor the brigade’s website for weather updates and sea conditions that could cause the open house to be canceled.
Long term issues, he said that needs attention include erosion on the south end of the island.
“We’re starting to look at that as a possible project for the future,” he said.
Coppola said he has been a Guilford resident for 30 years, and has a boat at Guilford Marina.
“That’s been our primary landmark,” he said. “When we make trips to Long Island we use it as a landmark to know where we’re going.
“I’ve always had an affection for lighthouses,” he said. “My wife and I have traveled up and down the East Coast. We lived in Europe and saw some lighthouses there. We make it a destination. I’m intrigued by the structures and what they mean to our country historically.”