The Damned Story: Maybe it’s because they are located in dangerous places that are often linked to tragedy, or that their keepers are subjected to lengthy periods of solitude, but many lighthouses are reputed to be haunted. Whatever the reason, Penfield Reef Lighthouse, located in Long Island Sound off the coast of Bridgeport, is one of these, and enjoys an interesting, ghost-filled history.
After decades of ships wrecking on the rocks of the shoal that extends from Fairfield Beach, it was decided that a lighthouse was needed to safeguard the area, and in 1874, the Penfield Reef lighthouse was completed. The main two-story granite-brick-and-wood structure was designed to accommodate a full-time keeper and assistant keeper, while the light tower — which rose more than 50 feet above the high-tide line — originally featured a revolving cast-iron lantern mechanism that had to be hand-wound. As with any lighthouse worth its (sea) salt, it also had a fog horn.
Ironically, the treacherous waters of Penfield Reef that necessitated the need for a lighthouse in the first place also make getting to and from the structure a dangerous exercise. Often keepers would experience serious difficulty making the relatively short trip in bad weather, and it was one keeper’s ill-fated journey that is believed to be at the source of the alleged haunting.
On December 22, 1916, keeper Fred A. Jordan decided that despite dangerous wintry conditions, he wanted to get home to his family to celebrate Christmas, and set out for the mainland shortly after noon. He didn’t get too far before the strong winds and rough seas capsized his rowboat, and he was tossed into the dangerously icy waters. He clung onto his small vessel and signaled for help.
Assistant keeper Rudolph Iten had seen the incident and immediately launched another boat to rescue Jordan. Unfortunately, the sea was angry that day (like an old man trying to return a bowl of soup) and the conditions were just too fierce. After a valiant effort, Iten had to abandon his rescue attempt. He continued to send distress signals to ships in the nearby area, yet it was to no avail. Jordan’s body was found three months later.
The old keeper was laid to rest, but Rudolph Iten reported that it was not the last he would hear from his former boss. On a dark and stormy night (because there are no other ones in lighthouse ghost stories, right?), Iten reported:
“Some days later on what was one of the worst nights in the history of Penfield, and the waves were dashing over the lantern, I was awakened – I was off duty – by a strange feeling that someone was in my room. Sitting up I distinctly saw a gray, phosphorescent figure emerging from the room formerly occupied by Fred Jordan. It hovered at the top of the stairs, and then disappeared in the darkness below. Thinking it was the assistant keeper I called to know if anything was the matter, but he answered me from the lens room that all was well.
Much puzzled, I went downstairs and to my consternation I saw lying on the table the log-book of the lighthouse, with the page recording the drowning of Poor Jordan staring me in the face!”
Iten and subsequent keepers claimed to have seen the same misty figure on numerous occasions. Other keepers reported that they heard phantom footsteps or experienced other paranormal activity that they attributed to the “ghost” of the lighthouse.
The former keeper apparently also continued to safeguard others beyond the lighthouse well after his death. One account tells of a yacht that ran into trouble around the reef but was guided to safety by a rowboat manned by “a strange man who appeared amid the surf.” Another tale involves two boys who were thrown into the Sound when their canoe capsized, only to be saved by “a mysterious man who appeared from the rocks,” and who they couldn’t find any trace of after their rescue.
Like many other lighthouses, Penfield Reef Lighthouse was eventually automated in 1971, so reports of paranormal experiences have greatly dwindled. In the ensuing years, the U.S. Coast Guard replaced the original Fresnal lens and has made other upgrades to the structure so that it continues to be fully operational without the oversight of a keeper.
Then again, just because the Penfield Reef Lighthouse doesn’t need an operator any more, it doesn’t mean that the ghost of the former keeper isn’t still standing watch, maintaining his silent vigil and staying ready to come to the aid of those in danger.
Our Damned Experience: We haven’t been to the lighthouse, nor have we been saved by any mysterious strangers … yet. Maybe someone out there can shine some more light on this subject!
If You Go: The Penfield Reef Lighthouse can be seen from various spots along the Connecticut coast, in particular the Black Rock section of Bridgeport and Fairfield Beach. At low tide, it’s possible to walk on the rocks part of the way out to it.
Obviously, the lighthouse is best viewed from the Sound itself, although remember that the reason it was built in the first place is that it’s a treacherous area for watercraft. No need to add to the legend!