The 17.2-acre island is located 1.5 miles off the coast of Greenwich. It's actually located at the "mouth" of the approach to the East River in New York. Not only does it serve as a directional marker, but it also warns vessels of small islands, ledges, shoals and other marine hazards. The waters around the island and Greenwich Harbor are strewn with glacial erratics, or rocks, some called "chickens and hens". There have been several ship wrecks around the islands in Long Island Sound. Some are marked with buoys. The lighthouse on Great Captain's Island reminds sailors to watch out for navigational obstacles in the Sound, and directs the boats to Manhattan.
Great Captain's Island was given to John Anderson by King George III in 1763. The Bush family also had a claim to the island, and when Anderson cut down a tree on the island, the Bush family appealed to the courts. Both New York and Connecticut lay claim to the island. Ownership was challenged over 50 years. The island was eventually turned over to Connecticut. There have been many owners over the years.
The original lighthouse was built in 1829 after Captain Stephen Waring made a request to Congressman David Plant of Stratford. It was built on 3.5 acres on Great Captain's Island, which was purchased for $300 in 1829. The structure was made of stone, and was rather rickety. It cost $3,000. The light rose 30-feet above the ground. There were a total of 10 lamps and reflectors, which sent light out 360-degrees.
Through the years, subsequent inspections indicated the structure was gradually falling into disrepair. In 1868, a new structure was built out of granite. It consisted of a lighthouse and keeper's house. A cast-iron tower for the light was attached to a beautiful stone dwelling. The tower rises 51-feet above the ground. A fourth order Fresnal light was moved to the new tower.
The keeper and his family raised chickens and cows, and vegetables in a garden. The rest of the island was used for camping, fishing, swimming, and hunting. In 1890, a coal-fired, steam-driven fog whistle was added. Then, in 1905, the horn was upgraded to noisy siren powered by two 13-hp oil engines, which residents found annoying. This device was adjusted to solve the problem.
Law enforcement officials were alerted by the Lighthouse Keeper to the fact that "bootleggers" were using the island as a drop-off point in 1925. This was at the height of Prohibition. Ironically, the Lighthouse Keeper was suspected of being involved, and was questioned before being released!
In 1926, the island was sold to a developer, who wanted to build a club. There were other plans to build a private country club, casino and vacation resort. By 1930 an exclusive club was opened, but due to the Depression, there weren't many members. The club eventually went bankrupt. In 1944, the Town took over the island for non-payment of taxes. The island was then sold to a Port-Green Corp, which tried to develop it as an amusement area. However, two fires destroyed a clubhouse, and in 1955 the Aerotech Corporation bought the land and renamed tit "Huckleberry Island". Cabanas were built so that employees could stay overnight on the island. In 1966, the town purchased most of the island for $90,000.
Something happened in 1970 that would change the island forever. A 30-foot iron skeleton tower was built by the Coast Guard to support an automatic beacon. The lighthouse lamp was extinguished. In 1973, the Town purchased the remaining 2.6 acres and the lighthouse for $42, 500. A married couple moved in 3-years later to discourage vandalism. Then, in 1985, Otto Laudersdorf became the Island Keeper, and moved in with his family and stayed there for 20 years. During that time, he experienced hurricanes, medical emergencies and vandalism. He spent his spare time gardening, building model airplanes and reading.
As the new Millennium began, the Chamber of Commerce and the Indian Harbor Yacht Club partnered to raise funds to renovate the lighthouse. The non-profit fund was named "Return the Light". It set a goal of $250,000 to supplement federal funds. By early 2001, half the funds had been raised. Unfortunately, the nation was stunned by the events of 9-11 and the subsequent financial turmoil. As a result, the upgrade had to be put on hold. In 2003, the keeper's quarters were so dilapidated that the family had to leave! In 2006, the lighthouse project was "side tracked" because of the need to build a public safety complex, install new athletic fields, remove mold from Hamilton Avenue School and renovate the Western Greenwich Civic Center.
There was also a controversy associated with renovating the lighthouse. Environmentalists thought the increase in visitors would scare nesting birds away. It so happened that the island was a "stopover" for several migrating bird species.
There was also a controversy over a September 11th memorial that was proposed for the island. Part of the renovation involved the installation of a plaque to honor 23 people who lived in Greenwich, or had a connection to the town, who died on 9-11. Most had died at the World Trade Center, while 2 others died in the planes. There was some debate as to whether everyone's name should be included. Sixteen people had lived in town, while some were relatives or had another connection. This held up the commemoration. Eventually, a plaque with all 23 names was installed as a memorial at the site in 2010. In addition, a memorial walkway and garden were built as part of the project..
Fortunately, the non-profit was able to raise $305,000, and with Federal Funds, $1.13 million was obtained for the project. Fundraisers wanted to relight the lighthouse beacon since it had not been lit for four decades. On February 13, 2012, a 4-second flashing green light was installed in the lighthouse. It was not meant to be a navigational aid, but a tribute to the lighthouses and lighthouse keepers who were dedicated to saving lives on the Sound. ( Keeper Adam Kohlman was credited with rescuing two small boys while he was stationed at the lighthouse in 1929.)
Lighthouses light the way all along Long Island Sound as well as the rest of the New England coast. They are symbols of our (maritime) history. Most have been replaced by automated beacons; but many have been preserved. The citizens of Greenwich joined together to preserve the light on Great Captain's Island. We are fortunate to have a monument to the brave men and women who manned the lighthouses to protect sailors on the Sound.