Of the many aspects of Long Island History, maritime history can be one of the most interesting at times. Long Island has a vast heritage when it comes to lighthouses. We have lights built during many time periods, and under several different construction methods. Some are still in operation. Others stand as ruins and remnants of their pasts, and still others are gone only to be preserved in memories. Each lighthouse is a testimony to the tapestry of Long Island’s rich maritime industry and heritage.
Long Island’s lighthouses have been affected by several eras in which their control and development were handled by different agencies and parts of the government. Originally the first lights were merely fires set by natives, especially on Turtle Hill now known as Montauk Point. Eventually the new and budding American Government took over development and construction of lights, thanks in part to George Washington’s tour of Long Island.
While lighthouse planning was under government control, there was a period of extremely poor construction, planning, and the use of cheap materials. This ”Reign of the Fifth Auditor”, as the era was called, is responsible for many lighthouses being lost to us today. Very few of the lights built during that era survived. The lights that evaded that period faced more modern challenges to overcome as ownership of the lighthouses transferred to the Coast Guard and many lights were replaced by ugly skeletal towers with automated lights. Still despite all the challenges there is still a good amount of history that remains.
The North Shore: Stepping Stones Rock:
This lighthouse is the westernmost one on Long Island, situated just east of the Throggs Neck Bridge on the Long Island Sound between Great Neck and City Island. It began operating in 1877 to guide ships through a dangerous boulder reef known as the “Devil’s Stepping Stones”.
There is a very interesting local legend connected with this name. Supposedly the devil tried to stake claim to Connecticut but the local Indians were too tough and pushed him back to Throggs Point where at low tide the devil was able to step across on the stones to Long Island. According to the legend the North Shore of Long Island was full of rocks. After contemplating his situation, he collected all of the rocks into Cold Spring Harbor where he began throwing them at Connecticut, making Connecticut’s rocky shoreline.
This lighthouse was constructed in Second Empire style with a square tower on top of the Mansard roof of the keeper’s residence. It was the last Long Island lighthouse to be built out of brick and stone.
Sands Point Lighthouse:
This lighthouse is the third oldest still standing light on Long Island. Though inactive and long abandoned, the tower and the keeper’s house remain today. The lighthouse was actually built by Noah Mason in 1809 who would then go on to be the first keeper. He was also a well known Revolutionary War hero. The tower was 40 feet in height and built with coursed brownstone in an octagonal shape. The light was meant to warn people of dangerous reefs but In 1992 like many others, the lighthouse was replaced by an automated light.
The former lighthouse and the property were put up for auction. Adjoining the property was the wealthy estate of Mrs. Belmont. She objected to N.Y. State’s efforts to get the land and instead purchased the land herself. She later sold it to William Randolph Hearst in 1927 for $400,000. They lived in the keeper’s house for a while but eventually the land was surrendered to the bank to satisfy a mortgage debt during the depression. Since then the lot has been divided up into small residential sections. The lighthouse itself still stands although under constant threat from erosion and storms. The original lighthouse and keeper’s residence are still in good shape and efforts are being made to preserve them.
Executions Rocks Lighthouse:
Execution Rocks has its share of local lore as well. There are stories of British soldiers tying Revolutionary War patriots to the rocks as the tide came in. The same tale is also told of Native Americans versus Colonists. The more likely reason is that the rocks at high tide were a severe danger to ships and hence at the time were called “executions” according to “Recollections of an Old New Yorker”.
There was some debate over whether to build a light boat or a stationary lighthouse. Construction began on the lighthouse in 1847 with a separate keeper’s dwelling added in 1868. It is the only surviving lighthouse on Long Island from the disastrous era of the Fifth Auditor, Stephen Pleasanton. The light was automated in 1979.
Cold Spring Harbor:
This port was well known for its whaling fleet run by the Jones family. The first lighthouse went into operation on January 31st, 1890. Theodore Roosevelt was a frequent visitor to the house. The light was automated in 1948 and in 1965 the 75 year old wooden tower was moved and slated for demolition. Instead it was purchased by a local woman for $1. The tower still stands today and was the only L.I. lighthouse tower to be moved.
Lloyd Harbor and Huntington Harbor Lights
In 1838 a small beacon light was suggested to help ships enter Lloyd Harbor. At this time Huntington Harbor was not as active. Lloyd harbor was also an important refuge in times of stormy weather. The first Lloyd Harbor light was built at the end of a sand spit at the entrance to the harbor. It fell prey many times to erosion, storms, and ice. Eventually as propeller driven ships replaced sails, and as Huntington Harbor developed, the light at Lloyd Harbor became less important.
A new light was built in a place where it could serve both harbors. This is where it stands today. The old light was kept as a shore station for the keeper. In 1994 the old light was deeded to New York State and then to the town of Huntington. Sadly the original lighthouse was damaged in a fire leaving only the foundation. As for the newer light, it was rumored that the keeper once rescued Albert Einstein in an upturned boat.
Eaton’s Neck is named after Theophilus Eaton who purchased the land from the Matincocks. It is currently owned by the Coast Guard who offers occasional limited access for tours, though the tower itself is not open. It is a white tower in an octagonal shape. It is also the only lighthouse on Long Island to still contain a Fresnel lens in the lantern room. Plans for the light to be built began in 1798. In 1969 the keepers dwelling was torn down and Coast Guard housing built around the tower. The tower was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and still operates as a useful light.
Old Field Light:
This was the fifth station established on Long Island. It is one of three lighthouses built during the Pleasanton era that still remain standing today. The original lighthouse was a 30 foot octagonal stone structure. In 1824 Edward Shoemaker became the new light’s first keeper. When he died in December of 1826 his wife became the first female keeper on Long Island. In the late 1860’s a decision was made to build a new tower. The plans used were exactly the same as those for Block Island, in fact only the name “Old Field” was scrawled in on top of the actual Block Island plans. This was not the first time blueprints were re-used in building other lights.
In 1933 the light was replaced by a typical automated Coast Guard tower; however the tower was lit again in 1991 and continues to shine today. The village constable currently resides in the lighthouse and the keeper’s house has become the village hall. The Coast Guard still maintains the light.
North Fork Lighthouses:
This light is named after the property of Barnabas Horton, one of the original settlers of Long Island in 1640. The lighthouse stands on what was Horton’s cliff lot. George Washington was said to be instrumental in the choice or a lighthouse here after his tour of Long Island. The lighthouse opened in 1857.The ten sided roof to the tower was crowned with rainspout covers shaped like gargoyles. In 1933 the Horton Point light was replaced by an automated one atop a tall metal tower. The tower was used as a lookout post during WWII and was then left abandoned to decay. Restoration efforts began in the 1990’s and the lighthouse is currently operating as a museum for tours.
Long Beach Bar:
The original lighthouse was built in the screwpile style with the structure resting above the water on metal braces. It became known as “Bug light” because of the way it looked as it hovered over the water. The small island of land beneath it was a point of debate between the state and federal government initially. In 1926 the lighthouse received a very visual overhaul. The metal stilts were replaced by a concrete foundation. In 1956 the lighthouse was sold off to the Orient Marine Historical Association. Sadly, the lighthouse suffered at the hands of an arsonist in 1963. By September 1990 a replica of the old lighthouse (with some changes) had been erected in its place. Currently the coast guard still maintains the light and it is under care and restoration.
The lighthouse at Orient Point is also known as the “coffee pot” by locals. It differs from older lighthouses because of the use of cheaper pre-fabricated structures. This gives the lighthouse a sterile, utilitarian style. The lighthouse began operating in 1899. It was cylindrical in shape with a dark brown color, helping to earn the local nickname. The lighthouse was finally automated in 1958. There was a brief scare in 1970 when the Coast Guard slated it for demolition however public outcry had an effect. Instead the lighthouse was repaired and restored. It still shines today even without staff to attend it.
There are several proposed reasons for the naming of the island. Whether it was named after a Plumb family or because of a wealth of beach plums growing there is uncertain. A lighthouse was built in 1837 which proved to be very useful especially when entering Gardiner’s Bay. The lighthouse was often reported as being leaky and in need of many repairs, which led to the rebuilding of the light in 1870. The new light rests on the same spot as the original and has a cast iron tower atop a granite house. One of the later keepers, the Wetmores, kept a log of the guests that came to visit and much of the character of their visitors can be seen through their entries.
The light was deactivated in 1978 and given to the USDA, under whose control the homes of the Wetmores and other families decayed. Currently there is hope as the current owners; the Department of Homeland Security is working with the Long Island Chapter of the US Lighthouse Society to make a preservation plan.
Little Gull Island:
Little Gull Island is located to a very well known water hazard called The Race. The water can reach speeds of 6 knots and combined with wind and a rocky bottom makes it very threatening indeed. A lighthouse has stood on this small island East of Plum since 1805. The lighthouse was prey to storms which once swept the ground right from under part of the keeper’s quarters in the hurricane of 1815. As a result a 100 foot diameter wall was constructed around the light and quarters.
After the civil war, the wall was used as a base for a newer larger round tower. The hurricane of 1938 did extensive damage, even flooding the new keeper’s quarters up to the second floor. The beautiful two story “mansion” burned in 1944 leaving only a shell. A smaller, plainer house was built in its stead. In 1978 the light and fog horn were automated but the tower still stands today.
The site of the Montauk Point lighthouse was first used for signal fires by the Montaukets. Construction of the tower began in 1796. It served in good order until 1860 when the lighthouse was renovated, extending the tower taller and switching out the wooden floors and steps for iron ones. The US Army Signal Corps occupied the tower during WWII and a fire watch tower was built as well. On September 1st 1996 the lighthouse celebrated its bicentennial and 29 days later the light was transferred to the Montauk Historical Society Lighthouse Museum Committee. The light is still in operation and the keeper’s house serves as a museum.
This is one of the very last lights build during the poor quality Pleasanton era. The land was purchased for a mere $400 to Pleasanton’s delight. The light was built on 14 acres purchased from John G. and Sarah Gardiner. When the lighthouse was lit in 1855 it was the first L.I. lighthouse to have a Fresnel lens. There are only two rough sketches from when the lighthouse was in operation.
In March of 1894 the lighthouse was deemed to be too dangerous to enter due to erosion and undermining of the foundation. The light was ordered to be extinguished temporarily until the construction of a lighted buoy. This caused several strandings and wrecks on the island. Eventually even the gas buoy topped and sank leaving the area with no light. Though a light was never rebuilt on the site, a fort was built on the same land during the Spanish American War. Fort Tyler was not completed until after the war and was never occupied. During prohibition it may have served as a hideout for bootleggers and the fort is now marked as “ruins” on nautical charts.
Cedar Island (Cedar Point)
Standing between the South fork and Shelter Island, the former Cedar Island was a prime place for a light to guide ships into and out of Sag Harbor, a booming whaling village at the time. Construction began on the tower and keepers quarters in 1839 during the Pleasanton era so well known for shoddy construction. The lantern and building was leaky and they also had to contend with massive erosion of the island. In the hurricane of 1938 land was actually deposited between the island and the shore of the South Fork turning it from Cedar Island to Cedar Point. It also helped to save the light from the threat of erosion.
During the prohibition era one of the keepers, William Follett and his family rescued a man clinging to the rocks who had been shot trying to escape the authorities. Their kindness was returned when the man dropped off gifts and provisions for them at the light after his recovery. The Cedar Point light was decommissioned and replaced with an automated tower in 1934 and ownership was transferred to the county years later. It suffered a fire in 1974 destroying all of the beautiful woodwork inside. Currently there are ongoing efforts in funding restoration.
This light was constructed to cover the 40 mile visibility gap between Montauk Point and the Fire Island light. In 1857 construction began on the light positioned on Ponquogue Point in Good Ground (Hampton Bays). Sometimes to get oil and supplies up to the tower, ropes were used and these became very popular for children to play on. Navy personnel were placed there during WWI. The lamp was last lit in 1931 and the lighthouse was put up for sale soon after. As with so many Long Island lighthouses it would be replaced with a skeletal tower, although it was destroyed by the hurricane of 1938. Sadly in 1948 the tower was slated for destruction, the foundation set ablaze and toppled. The only remnant left is the old 1902 oil house.
The South Shore:
The waters south of the Fire Island Islet have been crucial for many reasons. Commerce through these waters helped make Long Island flourish. It was also a very dangerous region fraught with sandbars. Two towers were constructed during the life of the lighthouse station. This tower was built during the Pleasanton era of the fifth auditor and as such suffered from poor construction and cheap materials. The light did not shine very far and sometimes failed to stop ships from crashing into the sandbars. In 1852 with the beginning of the Lighthouse Board era it was decided that a new tower was to be built. The new light that stands now was lit in 1858. It received its distinctive black and white daymark in 1891. Currently the lighthouse serves as a museum but the light still shines. It is one of few that still light up the Long Island nights. The remnants of the old tower are also on display forming a contrast easily visible in the different constructions.
In the late 1800’s a community known for its roughness, gambling, and fighting was steadily developing on the West end of Coney Island. With increased traffic to the island came the need for a lighthouse. A pair of lights at two different locations was built but one was later shut down and removed. In 1898 the Coney Island light went out temporarily so as not to provide any aid towards an invasion during the Spanish American War. The Coney Island light, now pale in comparison to the more well known attractions, still serves to light the waterways around the island.
Throughout Long Island and its many lighthouses of past and present you can find signs of the different eras and changes in our nautical heritage. You can identify trends in our history as well as enjoy wonderful tales of the lights and their keepers. While some eras like the Pleasanton era and the era of the Coast Guard have boded ill for lights, there is a current trend towards restoration and preservation. Hopefully these towers will still be around for future generations in one form or another to shed light on our past.