by Andy Piascik
The waters near Bridgeport were long served by lighthouses that helped to guide ships to their destinations. One that is still in use is the Penfield, which opened in 1874 and is located a mile from shore. A little more than a mile to the east is the Fayerweather, constructed in 1808 and long out of use though a popular part of Bridgeport history. (1)
Guiding Ships Into Bridgeport Harbor
Approximately two miles to the east of Fayerweather at the entrance to Bridgeport Harbor was another lighthouse, called simply the Bridgeport Harbor Lighthouse, that stood for just over a century. Situated about three-quarters of a mile from shore on landfill covering a much smaller area than the natural land under Fayerweather, the Bridgeport Harbor Lighthouse was constructed in 1851. There was no accompanying house at first and for two decades the keepers apparently rowed to work from shore whenever they were scheduled to be on duty.
1871: A New Lighthouse
With Bridgeport and its harbor booming, it was determined in 1871 that a new lighthouse and a full-time, live-in keeper were needed. The new Bridgeport Harbor Lighthouse was constructed on iron screw-piles that looked almost like a set of stilts. Unlike Fayerweather, the residence and lighthouse was all one structure, with the light tower attached to the front roof of the dwelling. Also unlike Fayerweather, the new structure was made of wood (the original Fayerweather was made of wood but was replaced by a stone structure in 1823).
On especially cold days, large stretches of water in the area of the Bridgeport Harbor Lighthouse would freeze. While this was undoubtedly a novelty and a thrill for Bridgeporters who were able to walk on frozen sections of Long Island Sound, it complicated matters for the lighthouse keeper. It was, for example, much more difficult if not impossible to navigate by boat to any vessel in distress. (2)
Bridgeport Harbor Lighthouse had a number of keepers over the years and there were a number of incidents over the decades which tested both the nautical skills and bravery of some of them. In 1920, while William Hardwick was keeper, a ship named the Calvin Tompkins got caught in a severe storm, began taking on water and eventually sank, with the crew escaping in two rowboats. Hardwick launched his boat and rescued seven of the men when one of the rowboats also began to sink. Three other men on the Calvin Tompkins drowned in Long Island Sound while others survived by holding fast to a raft and were rescued by other vessels the following day.
For his role that day, Hardwick received a letter of commendation from Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce and later President of the United States. Hardwick left his post at the Bridgeport Harbor Lighthouse not long after and later worked as keeper at Penfield. (3)
The Last Civilian Keeper
Daniel McCoart succeeded Hardwick and was the last civilian keeper at the Bridgeport Harbor Lighthouse, serving from 1921 until 1945. He married Marion Murray shortly after taking the post, the couple had a son, Dan, Jr., in 1922, and the three of them lived in the lighthouse residence for the next two decades. When Dan, Jr., began attending school, Dan, Sr., took him ashore by rowboat each morning where he climbed over rocks and made his way one mile along Park Avenue to Sacred Heart Grammar School (currently the site of the Mercy Learning Center).
A family with a young boy living in a lighthouse was an appealing story and there was at least one feature article in a local newspaper in which Dan, Jr., was referred to as “The Lighthouse Boy.” (4) The story mentioned that the family had a pet dog (a gift from a grateful family member after Dan, Sr., rescued a young child) and that the isolated enclave was conducive to Dan, Jr., always getting his homework done. (5)
The summer of 1930 was an eventful one for Dan McCoart, Sr., as he was involved in two rescues in a span of two months. The first occurred in June when he towed a boat with three people aboard into Bridgeport Harbor. The boat had lost its rudder in rough seas. The second, on August 15, involved two boys whose boat capsized not far from the lighthouse. McCoart guided his boat to the boys and pulled them to safety.
The End of the Lighthouse
The McCoarts moved from their lighthouse residence in 1942, though Dan, Sr., continued as keeper until 1945 when those duties were taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1953, the physical condition of the lighthouse and the residence had deteriorated to a point that a decision was made to remove it. The Fairfield Dock Company purchased the structure with the plan of relocating it but the building caught fire during the process and was destroyed. Today, the entrance to Bridgeport Harbor is served by a light atop a 57-foot skeleton tower situated in approximately the same location as the old lighthouse.
The Penfield Lighthouse has had no keeper since 1971 when, like the Bridgeport Harbor Lighthouse 18 years before, those duties were assumed by the Coast Guard. The Fayerweather Lighthouse was discontinued in 1933 but it still stands and remains a popular destination for visitors to Seaside Park who can access it by a long rock breaker wall that also serves as a walking path.
After leaving the Bridgeport Harbor Lighthouse, Daniel McCoart, Sr., worked at the Lordship Lighthouse in Stratford until 1963. He died in 1968 at the age of 71.
According to the obituary published in the Bridgeport Post at the time of his death, Dan, Jr., served in the U.S. Navy with distinction during the Second World War and worked for more than 30 years for United Illuminating. He married Elsie Toth in 1946 and the couple had five children. Daniel McCoart, Jr., the boy who grew up in a lighthouse, died in Stratford in 2004 at the age of 82. (6)
- See, for example, Mary Witkowski’s article Kathleen Moore at the Bridgeport Public Library website: http://bportlibrary.org/hc/featured/katherine-moore/
- In addition to being important, the life and work of a lighthouse keeper could also be dangerous, as indicated by the death of Fred Jordan, a keeper at Penfield. Jordan died in 1916 when the small boat he was travelling in from Penfield to shore overturned
- There’s a great deal of information about the Bridgeport Harbor Lighthouse at a website dedicated to documenting and preserving the history of area lighthouses:
http://www.newenglandlighthouses.net/. While the site is a great source for information about lighthouses, it also includes errors. Regarding the McCoart family, for example, it states that Daniel, Sr., was married to Elsie Toth; she was actually Dan, Jr.’s wife. Dan, Sr.’s wife was Marion Murray McCoart.
- My mother attended Sacred Heart at the same time as Dan, Jr., and we heard stories growing up about “The Boy Who Lived in a Lighthouse” – a little more exotic-sounding perhaps than “The Lighthouse Boy.”