Anyone looking to experience coastal New England wants to see two things:
- An island only accessible by ferry, preferably with a small town on it
- A lighthouse
And while the Gold Coast of Connecticut is very much a part of New England, the area has its unique flair.
All that is to say, you can find the above on this stretch of Long Island Sound. You just have to head to Norwalk to experience it at the Sheffield Island Lighthouse.
This coastal lighthouse has seen the growth and development of the area, and remains a historic attraction to this day.
But without question, its most unique feature makes Thursdays from June to September the best time to visit the island.
Read on for more.
Map design by Stanton House Inn
Overview of Sheffield Island lighthouse history
As a history nerd, I have to share what I know about the history of the Sheffield Island lighthouse.
Skip ahead if this isn’t your jam, no hard feelings.
Why did they build the Sheffield Island lighthouse?
Native Americans were the ones to introduce English settlers to a strange seafood delicacy: raw oysters.
Norwalk became a significant oyster-producing hub by the nineteenth century. At that time, it was one of the world’s largest oyster suppliers, with one of the highest concentrations of oyster beds. Even to this day, it’s still one of the largest suppliers of oysters in the world.
The first Sheffield Island lighthouse was built in 1826 to warn of the dangerous ledges at the harbor’s entrance.
The first light keeper: Gershom Smith
In 1804, when the island was still known as “White Island,” war veteran Captain Robert Sheffield purchased the land and started a family there.
22 years later, Sheffield’s son-in-law, Gershom Smith, sold 4 acres of the island to the United States government for the purpose of building a lighthouse.
Gershom Smith was also the island’s first lightkeeper. He tended crops and built a barn for farm animals on the island. During low tide, the cows would travel to nearby islands and get stranded, forcing Smith to row to those islands just to milk the cows.
Smith lost his position as Keeper in 1845 for his opposition to newly elected President John Tyler. Political ties determined lighthouse keeps back then, like ambassador appointments today.
One of the worst maritime disasters in recorded history
On January 13th, 1840, the Lexington Steamship passed Eaton’s Neck Lighthouse. It was on its way to Sheffield Island Lighthouse at full clip.
Cotton bales loaded near a smokestack caught fire, preventing the crew from shutting down the boilers. As such, the ship couldn’t stop. When the lifeboats launched, they capsized, plunging everyone inside into the chilly waves.
Only four people survived the ordeal, using cotton bales as improvised rafts.
Modern history at Sheffield Island
After several years of changes, the final version of the lighthouse was completed in 1857, where it lit the way for many ships for nearly 45 years. A nearby lighthouse (Green Ledge) replaced the Sheffield Island lighthouse in 1902.
Since 1986, the Norwalk Seaport Association has:
- And maintained the Sheffield Island lighthouse
It has the distinction of being the official Friend of the US Fish & Wildlife Service for the Norwalk Harbor Islands.
Is the Sheffield Island Lighthouse Haunted?
Although reports of ghost sightings on the island are extremely rare, a paranormal investigation in 2006 revealed that the lighthouse may be occupied by a few spirits.
Christine Kaczynski, founder of the Connecticut Paranormal Research and Investigations, made a visit to the lighthouse at night along with 18 other researchers. Their equipment designed to pick up any ghostly presence found three friendly spirits, including a young girl named Abby, who are trapped on the island for unknown reasons.
This does make it on the list of the most haunted places in Connecticut.
How to get to Sheffield Island
As its name describes, there’s only one way to get to the Sheffield Island Lighthouse from Norwalk, Connecticut: via a boat ride.
Though it’s a delightful trip!
From May to September, board the 45-foot C.J. Toth Catamaran operated by the Seaport Association for a harbor tour. The trip culminates in a one-hour stop at Sheffield Island.
Your journey begins with a narrated tour of Norwalk Harbor, from the town’s founding and on. Along the way, you can see many migratory birds and their nests, as well as the other islands that dot the harbor. As you leave the inner harbor, you’ll pass three Norwalk lighthouses:
- Greens Ledge Light, built in 1902
- Peck Ledge Light, built in 1906
- And finally, the beautiful, historic Sheffield Island Lighthouse, built in 1868
All three lighthouses are owned and operated by the Norwalk Seaport Association.
This three-hour tour includes a one-hour stop at Sheffield Island Lighthouse.
The Sheffield Island Lighthouse dock is at the intersection of North Water Street and Washington Street. Parking is available at both the Norwalk Maritime Center Garage and the dock in South Norwalk, CT.
Times and the number of ferry visits vary throughout the season. Be sure to check the ferry schedule (and buy tickets) before heading to the dock on Water Street.
Unless the Norwalk Seaport Association cancels the tour, tickets are non-refundable and non-transferable. Not to worry, though, the association typically only cancels due to severe weather.
You wouldn’t want to be out there then, anyway.
What to do on Sheffield Island
As the Sheffield island ferry makes its dramatic approach to the island docks, start planning your hour visit.
Be sure to visit the keeper’s quarters and the 147-year-old lighthouse and decide whether to take a guided tour or explore on your own.
The Sheffield Island Lighthouse
Visit the ten rooms filled with antique furniture to get a feel for the simple and sometimes bleak life of a New England lightkeeper. Climb to the top of the lighthouse for a panoramic view of the island and water while breathing in the sea air.
Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge
Explore the nature trails through the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. This CT park is made up of ten sections that stretch across 70 miles of Connecticut’s coastline. The government created this park to protect coastal wildlife, migratory birds especially. Sheffield Island is just one of those sections.
The Sheffield Island stretch includes a tidal saltwater pond and is home to belted kingfishers and egrets.
Picnic lunch on the Lighthouse lawn
End your visit to the island by shelling on the beach and relaxing on the lighthouse lawn with a delicious picnic lunch you packed.
There’s also a quaint little concession stand on the island, for the unprepared.
Thursday clambakes in the summer months
Discover a one-of-a-kind experience from the Seaport Association. Their clambakes happen every Thursday from June to September.
These summertime culinary events provide an opportunity to:
- Socialize with friends
- Enjoy a picturesque beachside atmosphere
- And indulge in the freshest seafood available
A traditional clambake, from Native American cuisine, involves a unique cooking method. Common shellfish mainstays for a clambake include:
- And lobsters
Add corn and potatoes, then steam it all together in a pit dug in the sand.
The enticing aroma of cooking seaweed and the magic of the coastal breeze combine to create a gastronomic adventure.
The event is BYOB, so be sure to bring your own beer or wine.
And lots of bug spray.
So, mark your calendars and join in the celebration of this coastal New England tradition.
Find even more things to do in Norwalk, CT, after Sheffield Island lighthouse
The rough and tumble (for the Gold Coast) charm of Norwalk, Connecticut can draw you in a couple of different ways.
Fans of maritime history and coastal life should add a visit to the Maritime Aquarium. It sits next door to the Sheffield Island lighthouse dock.
If you’re interested in celebrating the glory of raw oysters, be sure to visit Norwalk during the Norwalk Oyster Festival.
If 19th-century history intrigues you, then visit:
Both are in South Norwalk, CT.
Or continue your coastal day with a visit to one of the best beaches in Connecticut. One, Calf Pasture Beach, is in Norwalk, while Sherwood Island State Park and Greenwich Point Park are nearby.
If you insist on seeing a New England island with a community, then you’ll have to head up the coast to the Thimble Islands. They’re a summer day trip in their own right.
But be sure to read the full guide to attractions, activities, and things to do in Norwalk, CT, before you decide to skip this city entirely!