To deal with the hazards of the waters off Long Island, President George Washington approved the establishment of a lighthouse at Montauk Point at its eastern tip in 1795 after New York State provided the land. The eighty-foot octagonal tower was completed in 1797 at a cost of $22,300.
The Montauk Light could help mariners find the end of Long Island. But the most direct Great Circle Route, followed by vessels headed from Europe to New York, bypassed Montauk for a landfall farther west. Until the first Fire Island Lighthouse was constructed in 1826 and the Shinnecock Lighthouse farther east in 1857, there was no guide for ships between Montauk and New York, a distance of almost 120 miles. That proved to be too far on many occasions. One of them was November 5, 1821, when the Savannah, bound from that Georgia city to New York, wrecked off Fire Island. When the ship ran ashore and broke up off Moriches near the eastern end of Fire Island, Captain John Coles of Glen Cove and the ten other men aboard perished.
Because of wrecks like the Savannah and the ever-increasing shipping to and from New York, ship owners lobbied aggressively for a lighthouse on Fire Island. It wasn’t until 1826 that they got their wish.
Congress on March 3, 1825, appropriated $10,000 to purchase sixty-four acres at the western tip of Fire Island for construction of a lighthouse. A later appropriation of the same amount was approved to build the aid to navigation.
The tower, which had six windows and was painted white, was completed and illuminated in late 1826, but the exact date is unknown. The total cost was $9,999.65.
The specifications called for the light to be located at 89 feet, 3 inches above sea level and be visible fourteen and a half nautical miles under “ordinary atmospheric conditions.” The eighteen lamps with 15-inch reflectors designed by Winslow Lewis were much criticized. They were mounted on a chandelier that rotated once every ninety seconds. This was accomplished by a weight attached to a cable that had to be cranked by hand to the top of the tower every four hours. A governor mechanism controlled the speed of the rotation. The lighthouse would emit a flash as each lamp and reflector aligned with an observer. But the problem of the dim light fixtures was compounded by the small panes of glass around the lantern room.
The first keeper, who was not officially appointed until 1827, was a man named Isaacs; his first name does not appear in the records. He served until 1835. The keepers of the first lighthouse had to cope with problems stemming from its poor design and shoddy construction. Those shortcomings were documented in 1838 by U.S. Navy Lieutenant William D. Porter during an inspection trip. Porter wrote that the “reflectors are badly placed, and do not stand perpendicularly. The stone of which the tower is built, good; but the cement is bad, and crumbles.”
The public clamor for an improved aid to navigation at Fire Island dramatically increased in volume in 1850 with the wreck of the barque Elizabeth and the death of a famous passenger: women’s rights advocate, Transcendentalist and journalist Margaret Fuller. The five-hundred-ton ship had sailed from Livorno, Italy, in mid-May, bound for New York City with a $200,000 cargo that included oil paintings, silks, almonds and a marble statue of former vice president and secretary of state John C. Calhoun. Seven days out, as the ship was about to leave the Mediterranean, the captain died of smallpox, and first mate Henry Bangs assumed command. He was far off course when he sighted the Fire Island Light and confused it with the beacon at Cape May, New Jersey, in a July gale. About 3:30 a.m., Elizabeth drove onto a sandbar three hundred yards from the beach and about three miles from the lighthouse near Point O’ Woods. As the ship began to disintegrate under the assault of breaking waves, all of its lifeboats were smashed or washed away. A crowd gathered, but the spectators were more intent on salvage than helping those stranded on the Elizabeth. Seven of the twenty-one on Elizabeth died.
The loss of the Elizabeth and Fuller’s death made international headlines. She had been a writer for the New York Tribune, whose influential editor, Horace Greeley, wrote her obituary.
The outcry over the Elizabeth helped drive the movement to build taller lighthouses. The result was that nine brick towers more than 150 feet high would be built at Fire Island and eight other sites along the eastern coastline by the end of the decade.
The Fire Island Lighthouse was already obsolete when it was placed into service in 1826. And by the time it entered its third decade of operation, it was clear to everyone except Stephen Pleasonton, the federal official in charge of lighthouses, that it needed to be replaced.
Like other early coastal lights, the Fire Island tower was too short to be seen far enough out to sea to be effective. That problem was compounded by its poor design and shoddy workmanship, faults that were exacerbated by deterioration caused by the harsh weather. The result was that ships continued to wreck off the barrier island.
Most experts agreed the premier lenses available were those fabricated from designs by the brilliant French engineer Augustin Fresnel (1788–1827). He recognized that the existing system with the light from lamps concentrated and directed by reflectors was inherently inefficient. Even with the best possible mirror, half the light would be reflected and the other half absorbed. Fresnel realized the solution was to replace the reflectors with a lens. Instead of losing half of the light generated, a lens would only lose about one-twentieth of the illumination.
But in the United States, the primary obstacle to implementing the new technology was Pleasonton. The miserly accountant could not see why he should pay $5,000 for a lens when a traditional reflecting illumination apparatus cost less than $1,000. It required intervention by Congress before the United States even tested a Fresnel lens in 1838.
On October 9, 1852, the lawmakers placed all of the nation’s lighthouses under the jurisdiction of a new, permanent and independent U.S. Light-House Board. The board ordered that all new lighthouses be equipped with Fresnel lenses. The board recommended raising the height of the Fire Island tower and equipping it with “the most powerful lens apparatus that can be procured.” But no action was taken immediately.
The board decided first to add a lighthouse on Long Island’s South Shore to fill the long gap between Fire Island and Montauk It built the Great West Bay Lighthouse, more commonly known as the Shinnecock Lighthouse, at Ponquogue in Good Ground, which was renamed Hampton Bays in 1922. The new tower was lit on January 1, 1858.
The Fire Island upgrade was made possible when on March 3, 1857, Congress appropriated $40,000 for a 168-foot tower. The specifications called for it—as with Shinnecock—to be equipped with a huge first-order Fresnel lens that would be visible for at least twenty-one miles.
The original specifications cannot be located. But the second tower was constructed 200 feet northeast of the original lighthouse. The brick structure has walls almost 11 feet thick at the base and tapers to 2.5 at the top. There are nine landings. The design of the tower is unique in New York State. A lamp with multiple wicks was placed inside the first-order Fresnel lens, which was mounted inside a lantern, or glass enclosure, 11 feet, 4 inches wide with glass 9 feet, 9 inches high.[i]
Well before the work was completed, the board began the process of notification about the pending change in the aid to navigation. It published a “Notice to Mariners” on July 3 signed by Morton that stated the new tower would be illuminated on November 1. It added that “the first order revolving catadioptric of the system of Fresnel…will produce a brilliant flash once in every minute, which will not be material different in appearance from the existing light in the old tower at that place, except in the greater brightness of the flash and increased range of the new light.” The notice pointed out that the lighthouse would be sixty-seven and a half nautical miles from the Montauk Point Lighthouse, thirty-five miles from the beacon at Ponquoque to the east and thirty-one miles from the Sandy Hook Lightship at the entrance to New York Harbor.
The first-order Fresnel light was lit for the first time by keeper Benjamin Smith on November 1 as planned. Three days after the beacon—the tallest in New York State—was placed into service, Morton wrote to Franklin that “the light was duly exhibited on the first instant and burned excellently.”
This article is excerpted from Fire Island Lighthouse: Long Island’s Welcoming Beacon by frequent contributor Bill Bleyer. It will be published in May by The History Press.