Sheffield Island has a colorful history. The largest of the sixteen
Norwalk Islands, it has had many previous names: Winnipauk, Little
Longe, Longe, White's, Smith's, Norwalk, and Home. The names usually
changing to reflect the owner at the time. The earliest existing
written historical record involving the island dates from 1690, when a
Norwalk Indian chief named Winnipauk deeded the island to one Reverend
Thomas Hanford, Norwalk's first minister. After Hanford died in 1693,
the paper trail grows cold for a few years, although there is evidence
that in 1702 the island and the islands around it all became community
In 1804 a Revolutionary War veteran
named Capt. Robert Sheffield purchased what became known as Sheffield
and Tavern Islands. Sheffield married a Mayflower descendant named
Temperance Doty. They had a daughter, also named Temperance, who
married Gershom Smith, a widower with one son. Smith moved to the
island, and the couple eventually had a total of twelve children. Smith
would become the first Keeper of the Sheffield Island Lighthouse.
In 1826, agents of the US Treasury Department (which was in charge of lighthouses at that time), after surveying various sites in the Norwalk Islands, decided that the western end of Sheffield Island was the most suitable spot for a Norwalk Harbor light. By the middle of the next year, a 30-foot stone tower had been constructed. Eight people applied for the Keeper position for the new lighthouse, and Gershom Smith was chosen. Smith was by now also the owner of Sheffield Island, and he sold three acres to the government to build the new tower. After moving his family into the keeper's dwelling, Smith also built a barn and corn storage building near the lighthouse. When not occupied with station duties, he raised cows and other animals, grew crops, and collected oysters. At low tide, the cows tended to wander between islands, then get stranded when the tide came in. At milking time, Smith dutifully rowed to each island to make sure that each cow was milked.
Gershom Smith remained keeper until 1845, when he was removed soon after President John Tyler took office. Smith was not a Tyler supporter, and the job security of lighthouse keepers in those days were subject to the political winds. Apparently the one and only qualification of Smith's successor, Lewis Whitlock, was that he supported Tyler, at least according to the Norwalk Gazette: "Though a good-natured, good-for-nothing creature, [Whitlock] is about the last object, in which God's image has not been wholly obliterated, that we should have selected for an officer of the United States of America."
There had long been complaints from mariners that the lights at Sheffield Island station were not bright enough, and that the tower was too short for the light to be properly seen. With the end of the Civil War, shipping traffic in the harbor increased, and in 1867 Congress appropriated funds to build a new lighthouse and keeper's quarters.
The new structure was 2 1/2 stories tall and built out of granite blocks. At the front end of the roof, a cast-iron lantern tower rose to 46 feet. The fourth-order Fresnel lens from the old tower was moved to the new one, and the old keeper's quarters still stands behind the new tower, although the old tower was torn down and its site is now under water.
Around the beginning of the 20th century, shipping traffic in Norwalk Harbor was at a peak, led by the booming oyster industry. The harbor was dredged and other improvements made, and it was decided that Greens Ledge was a better site for a warning light. In 1902 the Sheffield Island Light was retired, although the keeper's quarters remained a shore station for keepers at Greens Ledge for a few years more.
In 1914 the Light House Service decided that the Sheffield Island Lighthouse was surplus property and put it up for sale. The highest sealed bid belonged to Thorsten O. Stabell of South Norwalk, who used it as a summer residence. The lighthouse remained the property of the Stabell family until 1986, when it was sold to the Norwalk Seaport Association for $700,000. The following year, the association hired a Norwalk math teacher named Bill Benton to live in the keeper's quarters for the summer. Benton was the first resident keeper at the station since it was decommissioned in 1914. Benton didn't have to worry about lighting the lantern; his duties mainly included greeting visitors and answering their questions.
During the late 1980s the lighthouse was refurbished, mostly by volunteers. In 1992 a major storm flooded the basement with over four feet of water and washed away ten feet of shoreline near the tower. Hurricane Fran in 1996 caused more damage. To slow erosion, beach grass and roses were planted, and wire mesh frameworks filled with rocks were strategically placed on the island.
The Norwalk Seaport Association continues to raise funds to maintain Sheffield Island Lighthouse. Each year, the Norwalk Oyster Festival, attended by tens of thousands of people, is the Seaport Association's biggest fund-raiser, with big-name entertainers such as Little Richard and the Charlie Daniels Band appearing. Seasonal caretakers live at the station during the summer, and open the lighthouse for tours. Much of Sheffield Island is now a wildlife refuge, boasting public trails and observation platforms.
For more information please goto www.seaport.org
2011 Norwalk Seaport Association Inc.