The Haunting of Ledge Light

The story of Ernie the lightkeeper and the historic lighthouse he is said to inhabit off the coast of Connecticut. By Malerie Yolen-Cohen

New London Ledge Lighthouse sits alone in the ocean at the entrance to the Thames River. The austere, brick-and-granite structure is spooky enough in appearance, but according to civilian and Coast Guard lightkeepers who have lived in the building, a mischievous entity, nicknamed “Ernie,” has haunted the place for decades.

By now, the legend of Ernie is well known, though not well documented. Over the years he has accrued “lighthouse mascot” status without much of a paper trail to fill in the blanks. Strange occurrences are attributed to a possible, short-lived (and thus unrecorded) lightkeeper named John “Ernie” Randolph, who purportedly was stationed for a few months at “Ledge Light” (as the light is nicknamed) in the 1920’s or ‘30’s with a girlfriend or wife half his age. As the story goes, the young lass took off with a ferry boat captain, and Ernie, in his grief, climbed to the light tower and either slit his own throat and fell, or launched himself, onto the submerged rocks below.

One room of the lighthouse is devoted to “Ernie”, and includes a life-sized mannikin of the supposed former lightkeeper.

Sturdy Sentinel

New London Ledge Light sits about a mile off Avery Point. It was built as an aid to navigation in 1908 under the direction of Capt. Thomas A. Scott, and placed in operation in 1909 to augment New London Harbor Light inside the harbor. The unique three-story, 11-room Second Empire- style structure was unlike other, cheaper lighthouses being built at the dawn of the 20th Century, designed specifically to suit wealthy townspeople who wished it to be in keeping with their own manors lining the New London waterfront.

Initially, Ledge Light’s fourth-order Fresnel lens (now on display at the New London Customs House Museum, home to the New London Maritime Society) flashed three white lights followed by one red light every 30 seconds. In 1911, a foghorn was added, and in 1959 Ledge Light saw its very last civilian keeper, as those duties were taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard until the light’s automation in 1987.

Coast Guardsmen catch rays on the base of the lighthouse, 1959.

Ghost of a Host

Over the years, Ledge Light has withstood extreme weather and storms, including the terrifying Hurricane of 1938, when waves breached the second floor and keepers had to hole up in the lantern tower. Not so terrifying, but certainly unsettling, are the stories of Ernie, who, according to those who have experienced his hijinks, was “more an inconvenience than an agitator or threat.”

In the mid-1980’s, when plans were in the works to automate the light, Ernie’s activities ramped up. A reporter for the New London Day newspaper interviewed the Coast Guardsmen on lighthouse duty in a November 10, 1985, article. Several went on record to describe some strange events that had recently occurred at the light. Petty Officer 3rd Class Paul Noke, stated that his bed shifted around so much that he chose to sleep downstairs in the living room. Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Kerr mentioned that his desk moved whenever he went to get coffee. There were reports of the foghorn activating on clear days, heavy doors left open in the morning when a keeper swore he had closed them at night, the smell of fish inside the building as if someone had walked through with his catch, boats being untied—that sort of thing.

A young Coast Guard ensign spends some down time playing records, 1958.

Haunted Happenings

Even men who didn’t believe in ghosts would change their tune once they spent a night in the light. Ed Gladue, a field foreman overseeing aids to navigation who once tended the lighthouse and local buoys, is one such person. He would ferry USCG crews back and forth to Ledge Light. “One kid assigned to lighthouse duty thought people who talked about Ernie were crazy,” said Gladue. “That was, until he got out there.” Gladue felt that just the reverberation of the foghorn inside the building, especially when not anticipated, would “of course get anyone uptight and anxious.”

Those who experienced paranormal encounters in the late 1980’s surmised that Ernie was acting up to a greater degree because he was opposed to automation of the lighthouse. In other words, Ernie craved company.

Susan Tamulevich, Executive Director of the New London Maritime Society, has another possible explanation for the unexplained phenomena. “Doug Allen, a former lighthouse keeper on Long Island Sound, used to talk to the students here at the Customs House and tell them ‘Ernie’ stories. But he always ended by confessing that the more experienced keepers liked to scare the newbies—that they played tricks on them to make them think there was a ghost.”

The light’s considerable foghorn could be heard many miles out to sea.

Visits with Ernie

While the Coast Guard still maintains the light itself, in 2015 ownership of the building was transferred to the New London Maritime Society, which leases it to the all-volunteer-run Ledge Light Foundation. The Foundation restores and cares for the structure, offering public tours of the light, which now serves as a museum containing historical exhibits. One room is completely devoted to Ernie, complete with a manikin dressed to look like an old lightkeeper—although no one knows what the real Ernie, if there even was such a person, looked like.

Does Ernie actually “exist”? Todd Gipstein, President of the Ledge Light Foundation, had this to say: “I have spent the night [in the lighthouse], and Ernie left me alone. But one time, another volunteer and I were about to move an exhibit panel about Ernie when a light switch—an old one that takes serious pressure to move—suddenly clacked off. Very eerie. That was my sole ‘Ernie moment.’ So far. But given some of the problems we have out there, I have come to believe the place is indeed haunted. Or at least jinxed.”

 

Todd Gipstein of the Ledge Light Foundation leads a tour of the lighthouse.

 

VISITING NEW LONDON LEDGE LIGHT

Seasonal tours of Ledge Light are offered by the New London Maritime Society and the Ledge Light Foundation. For more information, contact ledgelighthouse.org or

nlmaritimesociety.org; (860) 447-2501.

 

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