The following is Part I of an excerpt from the upcoming History Press book Long Island and the Sea: A Maritime History by Bill Bleyer, a longtime Long Island Boating World contributor.
The newly formed Congress of the United States deemed construction of lighthouses so important to the development of the fledgling country’s economy that the ninth law it passed, in August 1789, provided that the government would build and maintain the critical aids to navigation.
Eventually twenty-one lighthouses would be built – and in some cases rebuilt – around what is now Nassau and Suffolk counties. Eighteen of them were built in Suffolk County, believed to be the most of any county in the United States. Door County in Wisconsin, with ten lighthouses, is number two. And eight of the eighteen are situated in the Town of Southold, giving it more lighthouses than any other township in the country.
They are described here – briefly because several comprehensive books have been written on the subject – in the order of their construction.
Montauk Point. The first lighthouse on Long Island was authorized by President George Washington in 1792. New York State provided the land and it was lit in 1797. It is the fourth oldest operating lighthouse in the United States. The eighty-foot octagonal tower was built by famous lighthouse architect John McComb Jr. In 1860 a major renovation that added fourteen feet in height to the tower and a larger keepers’ quarters, which is today’s museum. It first got its familiar reddish-brown stripe in 1903.
In 1987, the lighthouse was automated and leased to the Montauk Historical Society, which opened it to the public as a museum and acquired ownership in 1997. More than two-thirds of the land between the lighthouse and the tip of Montauk Point has been eroded since the 1790s and terracing and placement of boulders have been employed in recent decades to slow the process.
Eatons Neck. The octagonal sandstone tower located at the Eatons Neck Coast Guard Station was built in 1799 by John McComb Jr., the contractor for the Montauk Point Lighthouse. It was renovated in 1868. The 50-foot tower sits on a cliff that raises the light to 144 feet above Long Island Sound. It marks a rocky headland that had claimed more ships than any other location on the North Shore. The keepers’ quarters was demolished in 1969 and replaced by eleven housing units for Coast Guard personnel. Because of severe erosion of the bluff in the early 1990s that caused cracks in the structures at the station, the Coast Guard in 1996 raised the issue of relocating the operation. Boaters, local officials and residents opposed the idea and it was dropped several years later.
Little Gull Island. A fifty-foot-tall beacon was constructed in 1805 on the two-acre rocky outcrop seven miles off Orient Point at the end of the North Fork. It was first lit the following year to help mariners navigate The Race, the sluiceway that connects Long Island Sound and Block Island Sound with currents that can exceed six miles per hour. During the War of 1812, the British, who controlled the waterways off the East End, landed on Little Gull Island on January 28, 1813, and insisted that keeper Giles Holt extinguish the light because it helped Americans vessels traverse the area. When he refused, the British removed the illuminating apparatus from the top of the tower. After the Civil War, the government decided to build a new taller lighthouse. When completed in 1869, it was 81 feet tall. It is one of the last masonry lighthouses built on the East Coast. A new stone keepers’ dwelling was also built at that time.
The light station was severely damaged in the Great Hurricane of 1938. When a 1944 fire destroyed most of the keepers’ house and damaged the tower, the keeper’s dwelling was replaced by a one-story building that was removed by the Coast Guard in 2002. The light in the tower was automated in 1978. The Fresnel lens was removed in 1995 and replaced with a modern optical system. The original lens was placed on display at East End Seaport Maritime Museum in Greenport. In 2009, the federal government offered the lighthouse to other government agencies and nonprofit organizations, but there were no takers. It was then sold at auction in 2012 for $381,000 to Connecticut machine tool company owner Fred Plumb, who has said he wants to restore the beacon and make it accessible to the public. The Coast Guard continues to maintain the light and foghorn.
Sands Point. Ship captain and Revolutionary War veteran Noah Mason built the 80-foot-tall octagonal brownstone tower in 1809 and served as its first keeper. A colonial-style keeper’s house was added in 1868. Long Island’s third oldest remaining light tower was deactivated in 1922. It was replaced by a small tower at the end of a reef 325 feet offshore, which, in turn, was replaced by another tower in 1968.
Alva Belmont, a prominent figure in the women’s suffrage movement, bought the five-acre property in 1924. She combined it with the adjacent site of the former Sands Point Hotel where she had already built a French Gothic-style mansion called Beacon Towers. In 1927 she sold the properties to newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. He and his wife lived in the keepers’ quarters and used the mansion for guests until they left in 1937. The mansion was leveled in 1941 and houses built around the old lighthouse.
Old Field Point. The original lighthouse was an octagonal stone tower 30 feet from base to the lantern that was first lit in 1824. It was rebuilt in 1869 with granite blocks and a cast-iron tower of the same design as the lighthouse on Plum Island. The Coast Guard discontinued the light in 1933 and replaced it with an automated light on a skeleton tower. Two years later Congress approved the transfer of the site to the village of Old Field which uses the keepers’ quarters as a village hall. The Coast Guard reactivated the light in the tower in 1991.
Fire Island. The first lighthouse was built in 1826. It failed to prevent many shipwrecks because the light was only 74 feet above sea level and the lighting mechanism was primitive.
As New York became the nation’s busiest port, it was replaced in 1858 by the current 166-foot brick tower 200 feet to the northeast. It became the state’s tallest lighthouse, supplanting Shinnecock Bay and received its distinctive black and white stripes in 1891. The lighthouse was augmented by a series of three lightships, or floating lighthouses, stationed six miles offshore from 1896 to 1942.
The second beacon was discontinued at the end of 1973 back to you and will be guilty when he got it today I thought I got everything in fact I didn’t want to became us to come back or something I checked the well what can I tell you and the light shifted to the water tower at Robert Moses State Park. Boaters and preservationists, fearful that the lighthouse would be demolished, formed the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society in 1978. Three years later, the Coast Guard declared the structure beyond repair and announced its intention to demolish the tower, generating a public outcry. The next year the Preservation Society was incorporated to raise funds to restore the light station. Also in 1982, the Coast Guard ceded control of the property and responsibility for maintenance to the National Park Service, and in 1983 transferred ownership to that agency. The lighthouse was relighted in 1986 and the keeper’s quarters became a museum the next year after the preservation organization raised more than $1.5 million. The tower was restored and opened to visitors for the first time in 1989 after the society raised an additional $500,000. In 2007, the original first-order Fresnel lens, which had been on loan at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia since 1933, returned to Long Island. A new display building for the lens opened in 2011.
Plum Island. Built in 1827, it was reconstructed in 1870 in the same Victorian-style as the Old Field Lighthouse. The beacon was discontinued in 1978 and replaced with a light on a steel tower. The site was turned over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which eventually sealed off the deteriorating structure. The lighthouse’s 1897 Fresnel-style lens was removed and loaned to the East End Seaport Museum in Greenport in 1994. The structure was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001 after being nominated by the Long Island Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society. The organization also procured $500,000 worth of boulders to stabilize the eroding bluff below the lighthouse. The Department of Homeland Security acquired the site in 2003 and continued discussions about restoration with nonprofit organizations. But nothing has been done pending the planned sale of the island by the government when the Plum Island Animal Disease Center closes and its research is relocated to Iowa.
Cedar Island. A 35-foot-tall wooden lighthouse was built on the island north of Sag Harbor in 1839 to guide vessels in and out of Long Island’s busiest port. It was rebuilt with granite in 1868. The lighthouse was discontinued in 1934 and sold to a New York City attorney for $2,000 in 1937, changing hands several times after that. The Great Hurricane of 1938 filled in the 200-yard channel between the island and the South Fork, making the island a peninsula that is now part of Suffolk County’s Cedar Point Park in East Hampton.
Suffolk acquired the lighthouse in 1967. After an arson fire in 1974 gutted the structure, the county installed a new roof and bricked up the doors and windows. Preservationists have been working with the county ever since to restore the interior, but several projects faltered before making major progress. In the summer of 2017, an architectural firm was hired to design a renovation plan after the Suffolk County Legislature voted the previous November to appropriate $500,000 for the work. It was intended to be the first step toward converting the lighthouse into a self-sustaining bed-and-breakfast inn.
North Dumpling. A lighthouse was built on the island north of Fishers Island in 1849. It was rebuilt in 1870 and again in 1980. The destroyed the bell tower, boathouse and storehouse. The 60-foot-tall Second Empire-style lighthouse was automated in 1959 and the island was sold to a New York City businessman for $18,000. It was resold in 1980 for $95,000 to yachtsmen David Leavitt of New York City. He refurbished the facilities and had the Coast Guard relocate the light back into the stone tower after it had been shifted to a skeletal steel structure. The island’s fifth owner, since 1986, is inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, best known for developing the Segway scooter.