Southwest Ledge Lighthouse (1877)

December 22nd, 2009 Posted in Lighthouses, New Haven, Second Empire


Southwest Ledge Light (also known as New Haven Ledge Light) was built in 1877. Southwest Ledge, on the east entrance to New Haven Harbor, is a dangerous rock formation blocking the main channel into the Harbor. The construction of a lighthouse on the Ledge was considered in 1845, but was too expensive a project to undertake, due to the site’s isolated location. Instead, a new tower was built at that time at Five Mile Point. By 1873, technology had developed to the point that building a lighthouse on the Ledge was feasible and construction could begin. That year a storm disrupted the preparations to lay the foundation, which had to be restarted the following year. The Lighthouse, designed by Major George H. Elliott, has a cylindrical foundation, made of iron and filled with concrete. It was designed to allow winter ice to float around instead of building up and damaging the structure. The lighthouse was designed with Second Empire style details, including a Mansard roof. The superstructure, built for Southwest Ledge in a Baltimore shipyard, was considered such an impressive feat of engineering that it was put on display at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, with an actual lighthouse keeper residing inside. In the end, this structure was not sent to New Haven but was sent to Delaware Bay and became the Ship John Shoal Light. Instead, an identical superstructure was sent to Southwest Ledge, although, according to some sites, it was Southwest Ledge which received the original superstructure initially intended for Ship John Shoal, while the Delaware Bay lighthouse instead received the second structure, after its stay in Philadelphia.

Put in place in 1876, Southwest Ledge Light was first lit in 1877. A new breakwall was soon built, ending at the new lighthouse. The living conditions for the lighthouse keepers remained bad for many years due leaking, dampness, bad drinking water and numerous cockroaches. In these rough conditions, Assistant Keeper Nils Nilson went into a violent rage and chased Keeper Jorgen Jonnensen around the tower with a fire axe. Jonnensen was able to lock himself in a storage room and Nilson left in a rowboat. Soon after, in January 1908, Nilson committed suicide. Despite this incident, the lives of many people were saved over the years by the keepers of Southwest Ledge Light. The Light was automated in 1953 and continues as an active aid to navigation.

  1. One Response to “Southwest Ledge Lighthouse (1877)”

  2. By Joe Rosadio on Jan 17, 2014

    Did nils nilson paint or was he an artist?
    I have a painting by him .
    Please contact me.

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