Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-12-20.
The first Fire Island Lighthouse was built in 1826 to mark the Fire Island Inlet between the Great South Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. It would also serve to mark the shoal a mile offshore in the shipping lanes heading into Lower New York Bay.
It's unclear on how the island got its name, however, there are several different theories. Some say that Fire Island gets its name from a misreading of the word "five," which was the number of barrier islands that existed off the Long Island coast in 1688. Others think that the name is derived from a misspelling of the Dutch word vier, meaning four, which appeared as "fier."
Another group thinks that the name came about by actual fires on the island itself. There are several reasons for fires being lit on the shores, some of which are detailed below:
There was a legend that swamp fires smoldered on the island for many years. Others stated that local Indians would light fires on the beaches to signal the mainland, the whalers would light fires on the beaches to boil down whale blubber into oil, and lastly, is the theory that "wreckers" would light fires to lure unsuspecting ships to their demise, where the crews were murdered and the cargo plundered.
Prior to the 1600s, Native Americans used the island for manufacturing wampum and hunting whales from shore. When the Europeans began arriving in the 1700s, the skill was passed on to them. They soon improved upon the techniques.
By the early 1800s, New York City was becoming an economic powerhouse and quickly emerged as the most important American port in the transatlantic trade route. Ships coming in from the open Atlantic usually made the light at Montauk Point, but then had over 130 miles of dark coastline before making Lower New York Bay. As they got closer to the harbor, they would be greeted by the lighthouse at Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
With many miles of unlighted coastline between Montauk Point and Sandy Hook, many shipwrecks occurred. By 1825, there had been more than 400 off the coast of Long Island, leading to many calls for a lighthouse. Congress reacted on March 3, 1825, enacting a law calling for "a lighthouse near the Fire Island inlet [sic], on the south side of Long Island, in the state of New York."
In May of 1825, the state of New York transferred 31 acres on the east side of Fire Island Inlet to the federal government for the construction of the Fire Island Lighthouse. On August 22, 1825, the federal government signed a contract with Haviland Wicks for the construction of the Fire Island Lighthouse.
A separate contract was signed on September 30, 1825 with George W. Thompson for furnishing and outfitting the Fire Island Lighthouse.
Construction started later that year, and by 1826, a 74-foot, cream-colored, octagonal tower was built of Connecticut River blue split stone, and had a soapstone deck for the lantern. Inside the lantern were 18 lamps and 15-inch reflectors. The optic revolved, creating a flash. The cost to build it was $9,999.65.
By 1838, the Fire Island Lighthouse was in bad shape. That year, most lighthouses were inspected and reported on. For the fourth district, the stations were inspected by Lieutenant William D. Porter, U.S. Navy, and he reported the following:
Fire-island light-tower - Revolving; burns 18 lamps with spherical reflectors, placed on three parallel rows: reflectors are badly placed, and do not stand perpendicularly, but have an inclination of two or three degrees from the line of focus. The stone of which the tower is built, good: but the cement is bad, and crumbles; arch leaks. The deck outside of lantern, soapstone; inside, porous sandstone. Lantern appears to be too small for the number of lamps; I therefore recommend that the lower tier be dispensed with. Sills of windows rotten. Keeper's dwelling in bad order; wood work rotten.
In an effort to increase the effectiveness of the lighthouse, the lighting apparatus was upgraded to 14 lamps with 21-inch reflectors in 1842. Updating the lighting system did little to help as the true issue was the "short" stature of the tower. It simply wasn't tall enough to cast its beam out far enough into the ocean.
With the establishment of the United States Lighthouse Service in 1852, the system of lighthouses, fog bells, and buoys were removed from oversight by the U.S. Treasury department and put under the auspices of a nine-member board, which consisted of distinguished military officers, and civilian scientists who understood the business.
One of the first tasks undertaken by the Lighthouse Board, as the new group was widely known, was to adopt the more efficient Fresnel lens. Starting in the early 1850s, the Lighthouse Board began removing the inefficient lamps and reflectors, and replacing them with various sizes, or orders, of the Fresnel lenses.
The Lighthouse Board determined that due to the proximity of the heavily trafficked New York shipping lanes, the Fire Island Lighthouse should receive a first-order Fresnel lens, the largest of the lenses. As the tower was not tall enough, it was determined that a new "first-order" lighthouse should be established on Fire Island.
On March 3, 1857, Congress appropriated $40,000 for a new lighthouse. A site 200 feet northeast of the 1826 tower was chosen, and construction began that summer under the direction of Lieutenant J. C. Duane of the Army Corps of Engineers. Due to the island's elevation, the entire station would be built upon a 100-foot by 150-foot terrace. Work ceased in December due to weather.
The following spring, Lieutenant J. T. Morton took over the project and found many defects in the foundation's concrete. He made a request to the Lighthouse Board to remove several courses of the foundation and replace them, but was denied.
Rather than starting over, he recommended doubling the number of iron reinforcing bands in the lower ten feet of the tower. The bands were embedded in the brick work, prevented any spreading or cracking, and added very little to the cost of the lighthouse.
This request was approved and allowed the work to continue. Using an estimated 800,000 bricks, a new 168' tower was erected. Starting at the bottom, the diameter of the tower is 32 feet and narrows to 15 feet near the lantern. When completed, the tower was painted a light yellow color. Inside the cast-iron lantern was a first order Fresnel lens.
While the new tower was under construction, the keepers continued to live in the 1826 dwelling. The old dwelling was a combination of brick and wooden frame. On August 14, 1858, Lieutenant Morton wrote a letter to the Captain William Franklin, Secretary of the Lighthouse Board asking if he could tear down the brick portion of the 1826 keeper's dwelling to be used in building the foundation of the new dwelling.
In that letter, Lieutenant Morton suggested that the keepers could live in the workman's shanty over the winter and / or the new oil house, which would form part of the new dwelling. Morton assured the secretary that he could make it weather-tight and it would be as comfortable as the keeper's old dwelling.
Although the keepers didn't like the plan, it was approved. In the end, it didn't appear that the keepers had to live in the oil house. By September 30, 1858, the new one-story keeper's dwelling was completed. It contained an attic, a large oil room, and enough room for three keepers and their families.
According to an entry in an 1858 Report to the Lighthouse Board, the Bricks from the old tower and dwelling were used to finish the terrace that surrounds the entire station.
The new Fire Island Lighthouse was exhibited for the first time on the night of November 1, 1858 and was visible for up to 23 miles. With the new first-order lighthouse at Shinnecock Bay being exhibited on January 1, 1858, and the Montauk Point Lighthouse exhibiting a third-order Fresnel lens, the Lighthouse Board was confident that with the three lighthouses, the 120 miles of coastline to New York Harbor was adequately lit.
By 1862, quite a bit of work had to be done at the station. The tower and the outside woodwork of the keeper's dwelling needed to be painted, and there were several other repairs. The estimated cost of the work was $450.00. The following year, the estimate had risen to $475.
The following entry was in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1865:
Fire Island - The outside of the tower at this Station was thoroughly scraped of the yellow wash; imperfect brick were replaced by sound ones, the joints were scraped and repointed with cement mortar and the whole outside was painted with three coats of oil paint. The iron stairs [sic] also were repainted, and a sett [sic] of heavy springs was placed inside the newell to guard against further accidents by the falling of the clockweight.
The stonework on the keeper's dwelling was repainted, the woodwork repainted and the stone flagging around the buildings were re-laid in cement mortar.
In 1866, the roof of the keeper's dwelling was damaged during a gale and was repaired the following year. By 1870, the exterior of the tower was in poor condition. Many bricks were decaying and much of the yellow paint had faded, making the tower appear white.
By October of 1870, the crumbling bricks had been replaced and two coats of Portland cement wash had been applied. Speaking tubes and alarm bells between the watchroom and the keeper's dwelling were installed that year as well.
It seemed like every few years, the exterior of the tower needed repairs and to be repainted. By 1873, it was noted in the Annual Report that repainting was required, which was taken care of the following year. It was cement-washed and recolored in 1876, and then in 1878, the tower had been repointed and cement washed.
The lamps in the lantern were switched over to mineral oil in 1884. Previously they had burned lard oil. In order to safely store the oil, a new fire-proof oil house was constructed on the premises in 1889.
By June of 1891, in a monthly report to the Lighthouse Board, it was noted that the "outside of the tower needs paint or wash to protect it from deterioration. The pointing is falling out and the bricks are chipping off."
Fire Island Lighthouse (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
Plans were made to give the tower a new distinct daymark, and by August of that year, the materials had been delivered to the site and the workers had begun applying it. By September, the lighthouse had received its unique black and white alternating bands, a scheme it still has today.
In the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1894, the Fire Island Lighthouse was said to be the most important light for transatlantic steamers bound for New York. It was described as a first-order light, flashing white at intervals of one minute, powered by a 500-candlepower oil lamp, giving it a flash intensity of 63,830 candlepower.
One year earlier, at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, Parisian Henry Lepaute, a widely known manufacturer of Fresnel lenses, displayed what was being called a bivalve lightning light, using electricity as an illuminant. It was called a "lightning" light because the flash was so brilliant that people said it resembled "sheet lightning."
The bivalve Fresnel lens was massive. Weighing nearly seven tons and resembling a clamshell, each side was 9 feet in diameter. Because of its size, the French decided to sell it rather than ship it back to France. The lens was purchased by the U.S. Lighthouse Board, which had planned to install it into the Fire Island Lighthouse.
Because the new lens utilized electricity as its illuminant, a lot of additional work was necessary before the lens could be installed in the tower. Most of that work took place in 1895 and was detailed in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board:
284. Fire Island, seacoast of New York - The ceiling and walls of the dwelling were repaired and patched. The watch-room deck was pointed and grouted. The following-named work, preparatory to establishing the new electric light, was completed: A power house and coal shed were built. Two boilers, one engine, one dynamo, and one exciter were put in place. A narrow-gauge railroad was built from the beach to the coal shed. All the ironwork necessary to adapt the lantern to the new apparatus was fitted, and is now stored at the general light-house depot ready for shipment. A fourth-order lantern was placed temporarily on a bracket on the south side of the tower to be used while the new light is being installed.
By 1896, plans had changed and a lightship was petitioned to replace a whistling buoy off of Fire Island. On June 11, 1896, Congress approved an $80,000 contract for a new first class steam light vessel (LV-68). While that was being built, LV-58 was cleaned, painted, and equipped for its new post 9.7 miles due south of the Fire Island Lighthouse.
As a new lightship was under construction for Fire Island, plans to install the bivalve lightning lens at the Fire Island Lighthouse were scrapped. On December 21, 1896, the steam and electric plant established at the Fire Island Lighthouse were returned to the General Lighthouse Depot in Staten Island. The massive bivalve lens would be installed in the south tower of the Navesink Lighthouse in 1898.
Ten years later, on June 5, 1908, the Lighthouse Board received a petition representing steamship and marine insurance companies stating that the lighthouse on Fire Island was not a modern light and that its visibility and power should equal the standard of the light at Navesink.
Although several options were explored, it doesn't appear that any action was taken. A first-order Fresnel lens remained on Fire Island until it was decommissioned in 1974. However, over time, the illuminant was upgraded. Incandescent oil vapor was introduced in 1924, and electricity in 1939.
The tower was inspected in 1912. During the inspection, a large crack was discovered in the upper half of the tower about 130 feet above the ground and smaller cracks were found closer to the ground. To remedy the issue, reinforcing bands were placed around the tower and covered over with a protective coating.
The nearby Great West Bay Lighthouse, also known as the Shinnecock Bay Lighthouse, was discontinued in 1931. It was recommended that the lighter, more efficient first-order lens in the Shinnecock Light be transferred to the Fire Island Lighthouse.
That task was completed in 1933, changing the flash characteristic of the Fire Island Lighthouse to one flash every seven-and-one-half seconds. The original first-order Fresnel lens that was in the lighthouse was shipped to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.
In 1952, the newer first-order Fresnel lens in the Fire Island Lighthouse was removed, having been replaced with a Crouse-Hinds aero-beacon. The lighthouse was never automated, instead, the lighthouse was decommissioned on December 31, 1973. An automated "xenon flash tube" beacon was installed on the newly constructed Robert Moses State Park water tower.
After automation, the station was left to the elements. As most of the land around the lightstation was encompassed within the Fire Island National Seashore, the Coast Guard gave the National Park Service a five-year permit to use the 82-acres that the lighthouse stood on.
As the National Park Service had limited funds, their main focus was to prevent further deterioration of the structures and discourage vandalism. Shortly after the lighthouse was decommissioned, local citizens began a campaign to save the Fire Island Lighthouse.
Many boaters on the Great South Bay pledged their support as the new automated light installed on the water tower only shone towards the ocean. This left the boaters on the bay without a guiding light.
Due to rapid deterioration, plans were being made for the demolition of the Fire Island Lighthouse. The Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (FILPS) was formed in 1982 to ensure it stayed standing. The group managed to raise over $1.3 million, which was used for restoration and preservation.
Through the efforts of the FILPS, the lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, and the lighthouse was successfully restored to its 1939 condition, which was when it was first electrified. The tower was relit on Memorial Day, 1986 and was reinstated as an official aid to navigation.
The Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society took over maintenance and operation of the lighthouse and keeper's quarters from the National Park Service in December of 1996. The lighthouse was privatized in 2006 when the U.S. Coast Guard signed over operational duties to the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society.
After being on display for 67 years at the Franklin Institute, the station's original first-order lens was returned to the Fire Island Lighthouse on March 27, 2007. A new lens building was erected and installed on the foundation of the power station, which was installed in 1895. The new building opened and the lens went on display in July of 2011.
Today, the tower and grounds are open for visitation and climbing.
Directions: From New York City, take I-495 (Long Island Expressway) East onto Long Island. At exit S1E, you will take the Sagtikos Parkway south across the Robert Moses Causeway to the Fire Island National Seashore. This will put you into the Robert Moses State Park. Once in the park, you will head east to the lighthouse. For more information, there is a map located here: Fire Island National Seashore Map
Access: The Fire Island Lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service. The grounds and tower are open regularly.View more Fire Island Lighthouse pictures