An En”light”ening New Year
By David Wright
With 385 years of recorded history, Stratford has amassed traditions and legends for every holiday. New Year’s Eve and Day are no exceptions. The story of how a lighthouse came to be built at Stratford Point is founded upon such a legend.
According to Stratford’s first official Town Historian, William Howard Wilcoxson, “The mouth of the Housatonic, always treacherous and dangerous because of its shifting sand bars and swift currents, were ever a menace to navigation. This made necessary some sort of a signal to guide vessels entering the harbor, particularly at night. There is no written evidence of the methods used, but tradition has it that a man was stationed at the point where the present lighthouse stands to keep a bonfire burning during the flood tides when a vessel was expected, and on particular foggy nights. Later a pole was erected, to which was attached an iron basket in which wood was kept burning.
In 1821, the first lighthouse was built, it being the third to be erected on Long Island Sound by the United States Government, and occupies a four acre tract of land purchased from Betsey Walker.”
A much more “enlightening” version of the origin of Stratford Point lighthouse was published in The Bridgeport Telegram, January 15, 1928. Stratford Point was generally avoided by sea captains prior to 1821 due to the Point’s reputation for rough water, large rocks, and very poor lighting in stormy weather. On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1799, one hundred revelers had boarded a large brig in order to sail to Boston to celebrate New Year’s with family and friends. The weather was “dull, raw … tinged with stinging snow and sleet, and chilled with icy cold spray whipped up by the gale that wrenched the white caps from the tossing waves.”
It was a “stark, bleak night; while the blackness was rendered more terrifying by reason of the fierce squalls of driving sleet and ice that swept the Sound, obliterating the shore in its vehemence. No lights were visible, and what primitive beacons there were became obscured in the whirl of spume and flying scud that almost blinded the vessel’s look out man and the navigators on the brig’s reeling poop.”
The brig’s captain could see nothing as he approached the notorious Stratford Point, and he was certain his vessel would soon be scuttled. Just as the captain had given up all hope, “a long, lambent tongue of flame … lit up the scene with a lurid glare. In the sudden glow that this strange phenomenon produced, the skipper was able to make out the low rocky shore of Stratford Point, with the surf screaming in thunderous roar round the jagged rocks.”
The brig and its passengers were saved. “… from that day a beacon was placed on the Point….at first a crude brazier of glowing coals, then a whale oil burner and a parafin [sic] lamp until today the brilliant revolving light, that glows steadily every night the year round.”
Stratford Point’s lighthouse subsequently saved many lives over the ensuing years, and stands today as a reminder of a “dark and stormy night” many New Year’s Eve’s ago.