New London Lighthouse

New London Lighthouse (Stephen Dunn, sdunn@courant.com / June 6, 2014)

Seems like every time I take a trip to the shore, which is as often as I can during the summer, I can't resist buying a postcard, magnet or some other souvenir featuring the image of a lighthouse. Whenever I look at them, I'm reminded of the sea and the intriguing concept of a beacon of hope and safety shining out in the dark.

Lighthouse historian Jeremy D'Entremont says I'm not alone in my fascination with the structures.

"People are drawn to lighthouses because they're romantic, they're mysterious and they're such positive symbols," says D'Entremonet. "They also represent a unique way of life that's passed into history."

Estimates are that about 600 lighthouses remain in the United States, down from a high of about 1,500. While active light stations are now automated, there is one remaining lighthouse keeper, a woman named Sally Snowman, who acts as caretaker and historian, at Boston Light, in Massachusetts. The United States Lighthouse Society identifies the building, which will celebrate its tricentennial celebration in 2016, as the first lighthouse built in the nation, in 1716.

According to D'Entremonet's website, NewEnglandLighthouses.net, Connecticut has 22 lighthouses, (23 if you count Latimer Reef Light, which is officially in New York waters in Fisher's Island Sound, but is often listed as a Connecticut lighthouse). Structures range from the classic white octagon towers to New London Ledge Lighthouse, a distinctive three-story red brick building in the Thames River at the entrance to New London Harbor.

The state's oldest — and tallest — is New London Harbor Light, which is also the fourth oldest lighthouse in North America. It was featured in United States Postal Service's New England Coastal Lighthouses stamp series, issued in 2013. (The lighthouse, also known as "Pequot" Light, is currently undergoing renovations.)

"Many of Connecticut's lighthouses are offshore, so the best way to see them is by boat," says D'Entremonet.

New London Maritime Society's annual celebration of all things lighthouse, "Sentinels on the Sound Lighthouse Weekends," offers plenty of opportunities to do just that.The four-month event, which began in June and runs through Oct. 26, features a number of different lighthouse boat tours, including nighttime trips and visits to Ledge Light and Fishers and Plum Islands, along with special events, bed and breakfast getaway packages and other activities. (A full schedule is available on the Custom House Maritime Museum website at nlmaritimesociety.org.)

In Norwalk, the Norwalk Seaport Association offers ferry trips to Sheffield Island and tours of the island's 146-year-old lighthouse, through the end of September. Visitors can also visit the island's beaches and Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. Information: seaport.org.

Once a year, Faulkner's Light Brigade, a group formed to preserve the Faulkner's Island Lighthouse, holds an open house and gives tours of the historic lighthouse that was commissioned in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson. (Faulkner's Island Lighthouse, about three miles off the coast of Guilford, is Connecticut's second oldest lighthouse tower.) This year's trips take place on Sept. 2, 3 and 4, at 5 p.m. each day; weather permitting. Participants, who must be able to climb numerous steps and a steep ladder, are taken to the island via U.S. Fish & Wildlife landing craft. Space is limited and reservations are required. There is no charge, but donations are accepted. Information will be posted at faulknerslight.org.

Private companies also offer lighthouse boat tours. A five-hour trip aboard the schooner "Mystic Whaler" departs from New London and features lunch and a tour of the historic Ledge Lighthouse at the mouth of the Thames River. Cost is $97. Information: mysticwhalercruises.com.

For those who prefer to approach lighthouses by land rather than by sea, D'Entremonet suggests a visit to Stonington Lighthouse. A beacon to vessels coming into the harbor until 1889, the structure has been a museum dedicated to Stonington's history since 1927. The museum, at 7 Water St., Stonington Borough, is open to visitors from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, except Wednesdays, through October. Information: stoningtonhistory.org.

New Haven Light, in Lighthouse Point Park, is another easily accessible Connecticut lighthouse. The sport is a popular place for weddings and couples often tie the knot by the lighthouse for which the park is named, then hold receptions in the nearby historic carousel pavilion. Information: cityofnewhaven.com/parks.

The United States Coast Guard Museum at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, features exhibitions about lighthouses lenses and the history of U.S. lifesaving and lighthouse services. Admission to the museum is free. Information: cga.edu.

Other New England states fete their lighthouses as well. Maine, which is known as the "Lighthouse State," holds an Open Lighthouse Day each fall. The event, on Sept. 13, is sponsored by the United States Coast Guard, the Maine Office of Tourism and the American Lighthouse Foundation, attracts about 15,000 visitors each year and offers the opportunity to visit more than a number of historic Maine lights. Information: lighthousefoundation.org/openlighthouseday.htm.

Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles offers a special "Preserve the Sound" license plate, which features a portrait of the Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse. Information: www.ct.gov/dmv.

You can find additional information on Connecticut lighthouses at Visitconnecticut.com/connecticut-lighthouses.