Keeper Oliver Brooks and His Famous Rescues By Faulkner’s Island Lighthouse in Connecticut
Keeper Oliver N. Brooks served as keeper at Faulkner’s Island lighthouse from 1851 to 1882, and was known to be one of the most experienced, colorful and talented keepers in New England. He was an expert at handling small boats in all kinds of weather and frequently used a small 18-foot boat with a sail and long oars. He is credited with assisting in 71 rescues during his tenure. Two of his most famous different rescues involve the wreck of the Moses F Webb and years later the E. A. Woodward
The Rescue of the Moses F Webb
One of the most famous rescues of the Connecticut region occurred during his tenure at the lighthouse and challenged his skills as an expert boatman. On November 27, 1858 the Moses F Webb was anchored at about 5 p.m., between Bruce Island and Faulkner’s Island for shelter for the night. She was coming up from Brunswick, New Jersey with a load of coal heading for Hartford, Connecticut.
By morning the gale force winds continued to worsen and the Moses F Webb started to drag her anchor along the bottom. The raging waves pounded and thrashed the vessel and forced the anchor chains to break apart. The vessel was now floundering in the heavy seas heading towards Bruce Island, about a mile away from Faulkner’s Island.
Keeper Brooks was on the lookout all night and saw the perilous incident that morning while looking through his spyglass. He could see the panic on board the Moses F Webb and everyone trying to climb and attach themselves to the rigging through the mountainous waves and piercing winds.
One of the survivors he saw was a woman (the captain’s wife). He watched as a toddler was given to a sailor, who tried to hold on to the little girl as best he could, but as the ship pitched and rolled from the raging seas, he watched in horror as the agonized sailor lost his grip of her when a huge wave washed over the deck of the ship. The little girl was washed into the freezing waters and did not survive.
Brooks knew he had to do something and he also knew that he probably wouldn’t survive the attempted rescue with his tiny boat in such turbulent seas. He told his young assistant keeper, Al Schofield, that he may not make it back and that if he should perish, to keep the light burning until someone could make it to the island to relieve him. He also told him to keep a close watch on the children as his wife had gone ashore the day before the storm to get supplies. He gathered woolen blankets and provisions and set out in his small 18-foot boat.
As soon as he launched the boat and started battling the heaving waves, the winds shifted and continued to get stronger. As he continued to row, the effort was daunting and many times he felt it would be an impossible task. It took quite some time, but he finally was able to make it to the stranded vessel where he found five people clinging to the rigging for dear life. As the wreck was located closer to Bruce Island than Faulkner’s Island, he decided to bring the survivors to Bruce Island first.
One by one Brooks transported each survivor to Bruce Island, put warm blankets around them, and made them as comfortable as he could. A few hours later, when they had regained strength, and the winds had started to subside, he brought each survivor through the still unsettling seas and wind gusts to Faulkner’s Island, where his children waited for him and helped the survivors into their warm dwelling. He learned that the little girl he had watched drown was the captain’s daughter and that his wife was unaware of the incident.
At the keeper’s house, Brooks and his family nursed the survivors back to health and he became a local and national hero, as all the newspapers carried his story. He received a coveted Gold Lifesaving Medal from the New York Life Saving Society. The medal has an engraving on the back of the Moses F Webb being rescued by Brooks in his tiny craft.
The Rescue of the Paddlewheel Steamer E. A. Woodward
Many years later, one other famous rescue that also serves as a testament to his valor and uncompromising character involves an incident near Thanksgiving in 1875. He was much older and so sick he was bedridden which many believe was the flu. The paddlewheel steamer E. A. Woodward was making her way near the island in gale force winds, when the captain, thinking he was going around a buoy, hit an exposed rocky ledge and broke the propeller. The family saw and heard the vessel in distress and blew horns to indicate they were nearby. The vessel was getting caught in the high winds and waves and was being tossed about heading towards the rocky shoreline of Faulkner’s island.
Against all the family’s wishes, the exhausted Brooks grabbed some clothes, and went out into the gale to try to put together a line to help those stranded on the craft. The lifeline was too short, so with quick thinking, he decided to run back to the house and stripped the beds of the cords that created bed boards under the mattresses and was able to splice enough cordage to get the line to the stranded crew. One by one he was able to bring them safely to shore. With the efforts successful, instead of going right back to his warm bed, he helped with his family to create a thanksgiving dinner to his grateful guests.
Exploring Faulkner’s Island
Today the lighthouse is protected by the Faulkner’s Light Brigade organization. Faulkner’s Island is part of the Stewart B McKinney Wildlife Refuge as a protected bird sanctuary. In August, there is an annual open house for the public to explore certain selected areas of the grounds and lighthouse, promoted with transportation provided by the Faulkner’s Light Brigade out of Guilford Harbor. It is a great opportunity to not only visit the tower, but to also learn about the protected birds there from the naturalists who work there.
Here are some photos I’ve taken of Faulker’s Island lighthouse.
For more information or to donate for restoration efforts, contact the Faulkner’s Light Brigade, P.O. Box 199, Guilford, Connecticut 06437.
Phone: (203) 453-8400
Faulkner’s Light Brigade Website
Enjoy the tour next summer!
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides special human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, like the rescues of Keeper Oliver Brooks at Faulkner’s Island light, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. These include whale watching excursions, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, special parks and museums, and lighthouses you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of haunted lighthouses. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekly and weekend explorers.