Penfield Reef, named after an early prominent Fairfield family, has for centuries been a dreaded hazard to mariners sailing Long Island Sound.
Even as late as the middle of the nineteenth century, only a pair of buoys marked the reef, and ships were regularly hitting the rocks. The steamer Rip Van Winkle, loaded with passengers, ran aground on the reef in 1864, but miraculously disaster was narrowly avoided. Incidents like this led local mariners and merchants to protest loudly for a lighthouse to be placed on the reef.
Penfield Reef Light, in New Fairfield, Connecticut, looks ghostly on a pile of rocks.
It began serving mariners on January 16, 1874, and it was one of the last offshore masonry lights constructed in the United States before the U.S. Lighthouse Board switched to cast-iron materials in the 1870s.
Its Second Empire design reflected the national enthusiasm for revival architectural styles. Penfield Reef Lighthouse is also significant in the history of navigational aids in Long Island Sound as part of the federal program to accommodate post-Civil War shipping in Bridgeport Harbor.
Penfield Reef has been called one of the most treacherous areas of western Long Island Sound, and the lighthouse is about 1.1 miles (1.8 km) off Fairfield Beach, on one end of the reef.
On December 22, 1916, just three days before Christmas, Lighthouse Keeper Frederick A. Jordan had to make a trip to the mainland, and left his assistant keeper, Rudolph Iten, in charge while he was gone. He anxiously climbed into a small boat and began rowing towards shore to spend the holiday with his family, whom he had not seen for several weeks as a series of storms had kept him trapped at the lighthouse. But the sea was rough, and about 140 m northwest of the lighthouse, the boat capsized in the icy waters.
He managed to cling to his boat and signal for help. Iten witnessed this and immediately took the lifeboat to try to rescue him, but he said he was unable to launch a boat against a strong wind and an outgoing tide, and so he could only witness Jordan’s disappearance into the water.
Jordan’s body was found three months later.
Iten was made head keeper and two weeks later saw Jordan’s ghost for the first time, gliding down the stairs and disappearing. One time he saw a hazy presence coming out of the dead keeper’s former room.
Iten then reported in the keeper’s log that the light had been “behaving strangely”. One night, in the midst of a very fierce storm, he awoke and saw a “phosphorescent” presence in the hallway outside his room. He followed it down the stairs and found the log open to the day of Jordan’s death.
After ten years of service following the death of keeper Jordan, Iten said, “I have seen the semblance of the figure several times… and so have the others [two assistant keepers], and we are all prepared to make an affidavit to that effect. Something comes here, of that we are positive.”
Many keepers have since seen Jordan’s spirit, especially just before a storm or a disaster, floating in the tower or on the rocks beside the lighthouse. Iten asked everyone who saw the ghost to sign an affidavit, not wanting to be accused of inventing ghost stories.
According to one tale, it seems that in 1942 two boys were fishing near the light when their boat capsized. According to them, a pale-faced man pulled them to the rocks. The boys went to thank the keeper, but realized he wasn’t the one who had rescued them and they couldn’t find him when they went to the lighthouse to thank him. They later saw a photo of Jordan and recognized him as their savior.
More recently a couple in their boat lost in the fog near the lighthouse was guided to safety by a man in a dory, who then disappeared.
Is Keeper Jordan still standing guard over the safety of those mariners who come too close to the reef and guiding them to safety?
Ghosts apart, in 1969, the Coast Guard announced it would replace the lighthouse with a steel tower, but a public outcry led by then U.S. Reps. Lowell Weicker and Stewart B. McKinney persuaded the agency to back off. Two years later the light was automated and, after 97 years, no longer needed a keeper.
The lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places as Penfield Reef Lighthouse in 1990.
Although it is possible to walk to the lighthouse during low tide, legend says that an incoming tide swept away one family attempting the crossing. In any case, it’s not considered advisable, and the safest way to get a close-up view is with a boat, possibly with a captain familiar with the area. There is a sign warns mariners of rocks near the lighthouse, and apparently a number of boaters have hit the rocks while trying to get close enough to read the sign.
Even in more modern times, when the beacon occasionally behaves erratically, longtime locals say it is the ghost of Keeper Jordan having a little fun….
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Images from web.