Christmas Spirit of the Penfield Reef Lighthouse Dec 24, 2017 18:19:35 GMT -5 Kate and kitty like this
Post by Graveyardbride on Dec 24, 2017 18:19:35 GMT -5
Christmas Spirit of the Penfield Reef Lighthouse
The storms had begun in late October, and Frederick A. Jordan, keeper of Penfield Reef Lighthouse, hadn’t seen his family in several weeks. Now, it was almost Christmas, and after convincing himself conditions had improved somewhat, Jordan decided to risk a trip to the mainland to spend a little time with his wife and children. At 12:20 p.m., Friday, December 22, 1916, Jordan launched the dory and set out at low tide. But the veteran keeper – perhaps overly anxious to see his family – miscalculated the ferocity of the seas and approximately 150 yards northwest of the lighthouse, the boat overturned. The assistant keeper attempted to save his boss, but heavy currents from the northeast made it impossible to launch the station boat without help. Jordan died in the icy, unforgiving waters of Long Island Sound.
From July through Labor Day, residents of nearby Fairfield, Connecticut, often see small boats sitting high and dry on the bar that comprises part of Penfield Reef, driven there by deep, swift, conflicting currents. Still, on warm summer days when cloudless blue skies tint the waters of Long Island Sound a deep sapphire, it is difficult to imagine the seemingly inconsequential jetty is one of the most dangerous areas for maritime traffic on the eastern seaboard.
At low tide, it is possible to walk almost the entire length of the reef which juts out a mile into Long Island Sound like the arm of some gigantic monster. And at the far end, nestled in a bed of granite, stands Penfield Reef Lighthouse, a lovely two-story masonry structure with a mansard roof and Second Empire detailing, constructed in 1874. A 35-foot black-tipped octagonal tower sprouts from one side of the building, soaring 51 feet above sea level. Its flashing red 1,000-candlepower light is visible for miles. The deserted keeper’s quarters originally consisted of a sitting room, kitchen and oil room on the first floor, and four bedrooms on the second. For more than 125 years, this now-forsaken sentinel has saved innumerable lives by warning sea traffic away from sawtooth rocks that can rip holes in the bottoms of even the sturdiest ships.
At dusk, tiny lights begin to flicker along the shores of Connecticut and Long Island, illuminating the night. From Penfield Reef, the lights resemble a galaxy of stars in the distance. However, for those in peril in this deadly part of the Sound, those relatively nearby signs of life are of no more consequence than the stars above.
But just as the final rays of sunlight disappear beyond the horizon, a red light flashes from the tower of Penfield Reef Lighthouse, repeating every six seconds until daybreak. On good nights, the light can be seen for a distance of up to 12 miles. On nights that aren’t so good, when the fog rolls in, obscuring everything in its path, the light loses intensity. At such times, vessels unlucky enough to be plying the waters of Long Island Sound, must depend upon the mournful bellows of the station’s powerful fog signal to identify the reef of death.
Hundreds of vessels have been battered and torn apart on the sharp, jagged stones of granite. Lost in dense fog, or thrown against the monstrous teeth by furious seas, ships and crews do not stand a chance, particularly in winter. To this day, not a year passes that a craft isn’t lost by veering too close to the dangerous rocks.
But it was the year 1916 that has gone down in history as the deadliest of all at Penfield Reef. From mid-fall through December, the coast was pounded by a series of unusually ferocious storms. During the month of November alone, nine vessels belonging to New York’s Blue Line Company were wrecked on the treacherous jetty, and seaman began referring to the location as “Blue Line Graveyard.”
There were a few short respites, but almost every morning during that early winter, Jordan and his assistant looked out upon skies low and dark from their tiny vantage point, cut off from the world by a bubbling cauldron of angry, grey seas. It was in this setting of hopeless desolation that Keeper Jordan made the decision that cost him his life.
When Jordan’s body washed ashore shortly after he drowned or, more likely, succumbed to hypothermia – the logbook indicates he held onto the capsized boat for some time – a note was discovered in the dead man’s pocket. It read: “Complete the entries in the keeper’s log for I did not have a chance to enter them before leaving.” Some say the note was intended for Capt. Rudolph Iten, the assistant keeper, but others are convinced the note was to remind Jordan himself to complete the logbook entries.
Shortly after Christmas, Capt. Jordan was laid to rest and the night following his funeral, out on Penfield Reef, Keeper Iten observed what he described as “a ghostly figure gliding down the tower’s stairs, disappearing from view.” He then discovered the station’s logbook on the sitting room table, mysteriously open to the entry for December 22, 1916, the day of Jordan’s death. Iten couldn’t help wondering if the dedicated keeper had somehow returned to complete the log entries.
After serving 10 years (1916 to 1926) at Penfield Reef, Iten admitted, “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.” It was a blustery, overcast day and Iten paused to look out at the bleak waters of Long Island Sound. Then, in a half whisper, almost as though he were talking to himself, the retired keeper enigmatically added, “There is an old saying, ‘What the Reef takes, the Reef will give back.’”
Penfield Reef Light was a lonely assignment for lighthouse personnel and some went stir-crazy. Others, unable to cope with the fierce seas and winds of winter that made life at the station next to impossible, left the Lighthouse Service rather than continue serving at the isolated duty station. But a few brave souls continued to man “The Reef” and those unlucky enough to be stranded at the lighthouse on December 24, told unsettling tales.
In the early 1930s, an assistant keeper, missing his wife and children, was having trouble getting to sleep one Christmas Eve night and later claimed he saw “a man dressed all in white glide down the stair to the duty room.” The following morning, he and his companion keeper discovered an old logbook lying on a table. Again, it was the logbook from 1916, open to the page recounting Jordan’s death.
Similar reports continued until the light was automated in 1971. Clark Ellison, the Coast Guard Officer who served at Penfield Reef from 1969 until September 1971, insisted he did not believe in ghosts until a series of unnerving incidents at Penfield Reef changed his mind. During his first Christmas at the lighthouse, Clark recalled he and Stanley Blake were alone at the forsaken station. After going to bed, they were both awakened by someone climbing the stairs. “You could hear each step creak, one at a time, like they always did when someone came up,” he said.
Automating a lighthouse is usually a routine procedure, but not so with Penfield Reef. The crew assigned the task encountered numerous, inexplicable problems. The light flashed erratically, or not at all, and the fog signal seemed to have a mind of its own, starting up on bright, sunny days for no apparent reason. In a Coast Guard logbook from December 1972, the officer of the day recorded, “. . . the light [Penfield Reef] was not flashing at maximum intensity.” Despite repeated inspections and careful monitoring, no logical explanation for the malfunctions was ever discovered. Finally, repairmen began attributing the many problems to “atmospheric conditions,” despite the fact other Long Island Sound lighthouses, subject to the same atmospheric conditions, were functioning normally.
But the problems finally corrected themselves and the light and fog signal are now operating efficiently. And as the seas rage and the wind lashes the sepulchral granite walls of the keeper’s quarters – where brave men once cringed in fear – they are heard only by the specter of a keeper, dead for a hundred years.
There have been many strange events associated with the old lighthouse and its Christmas spirit and though the stories have not, and cannot, be verified, those who related them claimed they were true.
The Christmas Eve Cruise. One Christmas Eve in the 1950s (some say the 1970s), 30 or so merrymakers were invited for a nighttime cruise aboard their host’s sleek, newly-purchased yacht. Unfortunately, the gentleman in question had given his crew time off for Christmas and was not an experienced sailor himself. Nevertheless, all went well at first, but after a few hours and much alcohol, the craft became hopelessly lost in fog someone later described “as thick as a Frozen Daiquiri.”
The boat was bouncing about as the seas became more turbulent. Many on board were getting seasick and one drunken wag was holding onto the bar’s brass railing, belting out, “Nearer My God to Thee!” (According to tradition, the band on the Titanic played “Nearer My God to Thee” as the great ship went down.)
Suddenly, a tall, ramrod-straight gentleman strode forward, took the wheel and expertly maneuvered the craft to safety. Turning to thank the man, whom he assumed was one of his guests, the embarrassed would-be captain discovered the strangely-attired individual was no longer there.
The party boat was escorted to New Haven by the Coast Guard where both skipper and passengers were sternly lectured for exercising poor judgment. One woman, more aware – or perhaps less inebriated – than her companions, recalled that at one point, while the vessel was lost, she noticed a flashing red light just to the left. “What was that?” she inquired.
“You don’t know how lucky you are, Lady,” the thoroughly disgusted Coast Guard officer barked. “That was Penfield Reef Lighthouse! A few more feet and you’d have hit Penfield Reef and that would have been the end for you and everybody else on that boat!”
It was several days before a member of the party suggested they might have been rescued by a ghost. Unfortunately, no one was clearheaded enough to say with absolute certainty what transpired that foggy Christmas Eve.
The Young Fishermen. On a mild Christmas Eve afternoon in the late 1960s, two boys, ages 13 and 15 – one a Fairfield resident and the other a visiting cousin – were fishing near Penfield Reef when their boat capsized a few yards from the lighthouse. Realizing they could survive only a short time in the icy water, they began frantically swimming toward the rock pile.
Later, one of the teens vaguely recalled he had almost passed out from the cold when a man in an old-fashioned oil slicker grabbed him by the collar of his goose down jacket. After reviving sufficiently to realize he and his companion were at the door of the lighthouse, the pair entered the frigid tomblike edifice. It was empty, of course, but there was wood, coal, a box of old kitchen matches, blankets and some bottled water in the abandoned keeper’s quarters. In the meantime, worried relatives had notified the Coast Guard and just before sundown, a Coast Guard cutter docked at Penfield Reef after someone on the mainland reported smoke coming from the light station chimney.
Though fearing ridicule, the boys related how they were rescued by a strange old man who, somehow, deposited them at the lighthouse, then vanished into thin air. Ordinarily, the officer taking their statements would have laughed, but it was December 24 and everybody knew old Capt. Jordan returned to Penfield Reef Light every Christmas Eve.
Sources: Robert Ellis Cahill; Lolita C. Baldor, “Memories Haunt Penfield Lighthouse,” The Fairfield Citizen-News, July 22, 1983; Lights & Legends by Harlan Hamilton; Lighthouses & Keepers by Dennis L. Noble; and “Penfield Reef Lighthouse,” National Registration of Historic Places - Nomination Form, Oct. 22, 1985.