Standing on a bluff, some 70 feet above sea level, the Montauk Point Lighthouse has traditionally served as a navigational aid for ships headed for New York and Long Island Sound. Established in 1797, President George Washington is said to have predicted that the Connecticut red sandstone tower would stand for 200 years – it has continued to do so for almost another quarter century!
The original eighty-foot tall structure was nine feet thick at its base, tapering to the width of three feet at the top. The structure was surmounted by a ten-foot high iron lantern. It was capped with a ball-like copper ventilator that turned by means of a weather vane. This allowed its built-in opening to always point to the leeward side. In 1860, two levels were added to the tower to accommodate its new beacon, a 12-feet high, 6 feet wide, first-order Fresnel lens. The tower now reached a height of 110.6 feet. Along with other improvements to the structure, its wooden spiral stairs were replaced by a 137-step iron stairway.
In planning for placement of the lighthouse, the project surveyor warned that though the land itself easily supported the structure, the bluff would gradually erode from action of the sea. He thus recommended that the lighthouse be “set a distance back for safety.” It was thus erected at the far west end of what was then called the Turkey Hill plateau.
When it became operational in 1797, the tower stood 300 feet from the bluff. By the early 1990s however, erosion had taken away some 200 feet of the sand bank. In 1946, a 700-feet long stone seawall was constructed along the toe of the bluff; it was not effective. Over the next two decades, various other structures were put in place; they also had little effect. It wasn’t until terracing projects in the 1970s and 1980s and revetments that put in place in 1990 and 1992 that some protection was provided for the bluff. The work helped the sand bank withstand Hurricane Sandy, but it continues to need further protection. Relocating the lighthouse farther from the bank’s edge has been considered. However, if carried out, the structure would no longer be able to function as a navigational aid; a steel towed would have to be erected in its place.
Montauk gets its name from native Americans, the Montaukett Algonquian nation, that once occupied the east end of Long Island. During our War of Independence, the British Navy kept a huge bonfire burning from Montauk Point’s bluff. It served its ships blockading Long Island Sound. In 1898, the site functioned as a natural observation post for our military during the Spanish-American War.
Following the four-month long conflict, a 5,000-acre military-medical facility was set up at Montauk. Named after Colonel Charles Wikoff who lost his life at San Juan Hill, wounded Rough Riders and those exposed or having contracted yellow fever, malaria or other tropical diseases were held in quarantine at the Camp Wikoff. For a time, Teddy Roosevelt joined his men at the camp. Of the nearly 30,000 men that passed through the camp, 257 died there of their wounds or disease. The last group housed there, left the camp on October 28, 1898.
During World War 1, a 33-acre Naval Air base was set up at Montauk. Its dirigibles and seaplanes surveilled the coast for German U-boats. With the onset of World War ll, U-boats again threatened our coastline. Just south of the lighthouse, the Army set up coastal artillery emplacements (16-inch guns) in fortified concrete bunkers. Also included in the facility called Fort Hero, were docks, seaplane hangars, barracks and a torpedo testing plant.
Fort Hero was eventually equipped with a large radar tower. It was part of the Cold War early warning system that included Texas Tower radar facilities on the eastern seaboard and the Pinetree Line, a series of radar stations located across the northern United States and southern Canada. Decommissioned it 1981, the Fort Hero radar is an important visitor landmark at the Camp Hero State Park.
On September 12, 1986, the U.S. Coast Guard transferred the Montauk Point Lighthouse to the Montauk Historical Society. In February of the following year, the 190-year old sentinel was automated using DCB-224 high-power spotlights; the museum opened to the public in May of that year. The station’s 3 1/2 Order Bivalve Fresnel lens was removed from the tower and placed on display at the site’s museum, the former Keeper’s house. The exhibits also include historical photographs and documents regarding the lighthouse, one signed by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and the other by George Washington. There are many other displays, but the possibly the best is the view from the top of the lighthouse. It provides an unparalleled panoramic seascape - Gardiners Bay, Block Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.
Montauk Point Lighthouse was designated a National Historic Landmark on March 2, 2012. During the summer months, it is opened daily and on a varying schedule throughout the year. For more information, go to the museum’s website https://montauklighthouse.com/.