The following is Part II 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.
Execution Rocks. Built on a reef in Long Island Sound a mile north of Sands Point and illuminated in 1850, it was reconstructed in 1868. Legend has it that its name stems from the practice of the British, who occupied Long Island during the American Revolution, to chain prisoners to the rocks at low tide and let them drown as the water rose, but there’s no evidence this ever happened. The name is more likely the result of the reef ripping out the bottoms of numerous ships before the lighthouse was constructed. When the lighthouse was automated in 1979, the keeper was removed and the Fresnel lens at the top of the tower was replaced by an automated rotating beacon. When the government declared the site surplus, a Philadelphia nonprofit organization, Historically Significant Structures, purchased it in 2009 and has been working on a restoration. Tours have been given intermittently and the group allows overnight stays as a fundraising mechanism.
Gardiners Island. In 1851, the federal government purchased the sandpits
running off the northern tip of Gardiners Island between the North and South Fork for $400 to build a lighthouse. The fourteen acres, known as Gardiner’s Point, became the location of a one-and-a-half story stone lighthouse completed in 1854 at a cost of $7,000. The choice of the site would prove unwise. In the following decades, storms eroded the sandpits, leaving the lighthouse on its own small island, and undermined the lighthouse foundation. Rather than build a proposed breakwater to protect the lighthouse, in March 1894 the government discontinued it. That led to several vessels running aground on Gardiner’s Point. The lighthouse eventually collapsed and the government built Fort Tyler on the site in 1900. The ruins of the fort remain the property of the federal government.
Lloyd Harbor. The square brick tower, thirty-four feet from its base to the light apparatus, was built on a sand spit jutting out from Lloyd Neck at the entrance to Lloyd Harbor in 1857. It was attached to a two-story wood-frame keepers’ quarters. The beacon was augmented by a new Lloyd Harbor Lighthouse – now named the Huntington Harbor Lighthouse – nearby at the entrances to Huntington and Lloyd harbors in 1912. The original lighthouse was extinguished by the Coast Guard in 1925 and destroyed by a fire in 1947.
Horton Point. The 58-foot-tall square brick and stone tower and two-story Federal-style dwelling were built on a 110-foot bluff overlooking Long Island Sound in Southold in 1857. The lighthouse was decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 1933 and replaced by a light on a steel tower. The 7.62-acre site was transferred to the Southold Park District in December 1937. During World War II, the Civilian Defense Corps and military units used the tower as a lookout post. After the war the lighthouse was vacant for many years, and in the 1960s there was discussion about its demolition. But the Southold Historical Society and the Park District stepped in, and efforts to restore the building began in the 1970s. It opened as a maritime museum in 1977. After a restoration project, the light was moved back into the old tower on June 7, 1990.
Shinnecock Bay. Initially named the Great West Bay Lighthouse for its location, the beacon was built in Hampton Bays in 1858 to fill the 67-mile gap between the Montauk Point and Fire Island lighthouses. At 160 feet, the brick tower was the tallest lighthouse in the state when completed. It was renamed the Shinnecock Bay Lighthouse in 1893, although local residents have long called it the Ponquogue Light because it was built on Ponquogue Point. The aid to navigation was discontinued in 1931 and replaced by a metal skeleton tower. It was demolished in 1948 after Southhampton officials declined the Coast Guard’s offer to donate it to the town. The only original building left at the site, now a Coast Guard station, is a brick oil house from 1902.
Long Beach Bar. More popularly known as Bug Light because it sat on spindly metal legs, the beacon was built at the entrance to Peconic Bay off Orient in 1870 and was lit December 1, 1871. The foundation of “screwpile” metal legs drilled into the sea floor was replaced with reinforced concrete in 1926 to allow for installation of a central heating system. It was discontinued in 1948 and sold at auction by the government to the Orient Marine Historical Association in 1956.
Destroyed by arsonists on July 4, 1963, the lighthouse was replaced by a replica created by the East End Seaport Foundation in 1990. The following year, the Coast Guard agreed to take over operation of the light mechanism that initially was operated as a private aid to navigation. The foundation allowed donors to spend the night at the lighthouse, the only Long Island beacon where this was permitted until the new owners of Execution Rocks followed suit in the past few years.
Latimer Reef. After years of building offshore stone lighthouses on stone foundations, the U.S. Lighthouse Board decided in the 1880s to shift to a less expensive technique. It began deploying prefabricated circular cast-iron caisson foundations that were bolted together on-site. These were topped with prefabricated iron towers, often containing Victorian architectural details. This lighthouse was built with that technique on the west end of a rocky shoal in eastern Fishers Island Sound to replace a lightship that had been stationed nearby. It was built of cast iron lined with bricks on a cement-filled cast-iron base 30 feet in diameter. The three-story lighthouse was equipped with a fifth-order Fresnel lens mounted 55 feet above the water. It was lit on July 1, 1884. A modern lens was installed in 1983. It’s the oldest cast-iron lighthouse in the region.
Stepping Stones. The rocks that break the surface of Long Island Sound north of Great Neck were known as the Devil’s Stepping Stones in colonial times. The westernmost Long Island Sound lighthouse was completed there in 1877 at a time when the government began building offshore beacons with no land access. To create a foundation for the 46-foot-high red brick tower, 900 tons of boulders were dropped into the Sound. The Second Empire-style light was automated in 1966. Stepping Stones was given by the federal government to the town of North Hempstead in 2008. After several years with no action by the town to restore the beacon, the National Park Service threatened to take it back. But after a change in the town administration, officials are working with the Stepping Stones Lighthouse Preservation Society, formed in 2012, Great Neck Historical Society and Great Neck Park District to undertake an estimated $4 million restoration program.
Race Rock. This lighthouse has the most dramatic construction story of any Long Island beacon. It was built on a reef only three feet underwater a half-mile west of Fishers Island, Many engineers thought the task was impossible because of the strong currents running between Long Island Sound and Block Island Sound. The lighthouse would be built, but it would takes nine years.
The government had 10,000 tons of stones for a foundation brought out to the reef in 1870 only to have them swept away by the tidal current that can run at more than six miles an hour. Next the engineers tried building a wall around the reef with stones weighing three to five tons. This foundation was then filled with cement. It took two more years to erect the 67-foot Victorian-style granite tower. The project claimed the lives of several workmen and cost $278,716 instead of the original $8,000 allocated. On January 1, 1879, the lens, 60 feet above the water, was illuminated for the first time. The lighthouse was automated in 1978 and the Fresnel lens replaced by a moderate rotating beacon. The federal government gave the lighthouse to the New London Maritime Society in 2013.
Cold Spring Harbor. It was built in 1890 at the entrance to Cold Spring Harbor and Oyster Bay with the light 40.5 feet above mean high water. President Theodore Roosevelt would row out from his home at nearby Sagamore Hill with his children and visit keeper Arthur Jensen after he was appointed in 1908 following the drowning of his predecessor.
The light was automated in 1948. The small wooden structure was deactivated by the Coast Guard in 1965, removed from its caisson foundation and was slated for demolition. Artist Mary Glenn, who lived across the water in Centre Island, saw the lighthouse floating next to its foundation. She and her husband, J. Wooderson Glenn, arranged to buy it for one dollar and had it towed to the shoreline of their property. Then a truck winch was used to pull it across marshland where it was set on a new foundation next to a tidal creek to become Mary Glenn’s studio. It’s the only Long Island lighthouse to ever be relocated. The foundation caisson remains out in the harbor entrance topped by a skeletal light tower.
Orient Point. This is the second lighthouse in the region built with a prefabricated circular cast-iron caisson foundation bolted together on-site and topped with a prefabricated iron tower. It was erected in 1899 to mark the channel at Plum Gut between Orient Point and Plum Island. The beacon, nicknamed the Coffee Pot, rises 64 feet above sea level. It was automated in 1958. The Coast Guard plan to demolish the lighthouse in 1970 resulted in a huge outcry that saved the beacon.
Huntington Harbor. The last Long Island lighthouse to be built, the 48-foot-high structure was erected at the entrance of Huntington and Lloyd harbors in 1912. It was constructed with reinforced concrete, a material first used for lighthouses after a 1908 earthquake in California destroyed a lighthouse there. It’s the only concrete lighthouse on the East Coast. It was designed in the Venetian Renaissance (Beaux Art) style. It replaced a wooden two-story structure erected in 1857 across the water on the shore of Lloyd Neck. The Huntington light originally carried the same name – Lloyd Harbor Lighthouse – until it was renamed for the busier of the two harbors.
After the Coast Guard automated the light in 1949, there was little maintenance. In 1984 the structure was crumbling and the agency proposed demolishing the lighthouse and replacing it with a light on a steel tower. The outcry from boaters and other residents spurred concerned citizens led by Janis Harrington, with the help of her father-in-law, Dr. Douglas Harrington, to organize the Save Huntington’s Lighthouse Inc. in 1985. The Coast Guard shelved the demolition plan and leased the structure to the nonprofit group in 1988 and the beacon was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The nonprofit organization, renamed Huntington Lighthouse Preservation Society in 2003, restored the structure and opened it for tours. The lighthouse is now owned by the preservation society and is an active aid to navigation maintained by the Coast Guard. In the summer of 2018, the group completed a two-year renovation of the unstable stone foundation at a cost of more than $1 million. Adding 350 tons of stone around the foundation, replacing the windows and doing masonry repairs are planned for the future as funding allows.
Today, many of Long Island’s lighthouses remain active aids to navigation maintained by the Coast Guard even if the structures have been turned over to someone else. Some of the lighthouses, such as Montauk Point, Fire Island and Horton Point, are museums open to the public. Whatever their status, Long Island is fortunate fortunate that only one of the beacons – Shinnecock – has been intentionally demolished while the rest have been saved to help tell the story of the region’s maritime heritage.