Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2016-01-01.
At the far eastern end of Long Island stands Turtle Hill. The massive headland rises up out of the Atlantic Ocean, and was said to resemble the top of a turtle's shell. Atop that promontory, standing for more than 200 years is the Montauk Point Lighthouse.
Long before a lighthouse was erected, farmers brought their sheep and cattle to graze the 10,000-plus acres. Three houses were established around the 1740s, called First House, Second House, and Third House. The inhabitants of these dwellings would watch over the animals and no doubt tend to the survivors of the many shipwrecks that occurred along the coast.
After the culmination of the American Revolution, in order to grow and prosper, the newly-formed American government knew it needed to stimulate trade with other nations. An ever-increasing number of ships were calling at the many East Coast ports, including New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. To ensure that vessels could arrive safely, lighthouses were deemed essential.
Some of the earliest lighthouses in America were built during colonial times with the earliest being the Boston Harbor Light on Little Brewster Island, built in 1716. Other colonial lights include the lighthouse at Beavertail, built in 1749, the lighthouse at Sandy Hook, built in 1764, and the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, built in 1765.
These lighthouses served the new nation well, but none really addressed Long Island, a dangerous stretch of land jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. At the far eastern end is Montauk Point, where offshore are numerous shoals and rocky reefs. Without a light to mark the point, vessels bound to or from New York had no perspective of their location.
Some of the most vocal proponents for a lighthouse at Montauk Point were the signers of the Buttonwood Agreement, an organization that would later be renamed to the New York Stock & Exchange Board. Most of the brokers were involved with overseas trade and would directly benefit from the lighthouse.
To rectify the situation, by an act of the Second Congress, President George Washington authorized construction of a lighthouse at Montauk Point on April 12, 1792. To determine the best location, the Treasury Department sent Ezra L'Hommedieu to survey the point. He selected a flat plateau on Turtle Hill, which had suitable soil for the foundation, but warned that the bluff would gradually erode under the action of the sea. Thus he recommended that the lighthouse be "set back a distance for safety."
On December 18 1792, the legislature of New York passed an "Act to cede the jurisdiction of certain lands on Montaack [sic] Point, to the United States of America, for the purposes therein mentioned."
In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, dated February 21, 1793, New York's first governor, George Clinton ceded lands on Montauk Point to the United States of America. A few weeks after receiving the letter, Congress appropriated $20,000 on March 2, 1793 for the construction of the lighthouse.
The Commissioner of Revenue, Tench Coxe, negotiated with the Montauk Proprietors, a group that owned most of land on eastern Long Island, for several years before the proprietors finally agreed to sell. President Washington authorized the purchase on January 4, 1796 for the sum of $250.
During August of 1795, President Washington reviewed the proposals for the lighthouse at Montauk Point, and of the proposals received, he selected the lowest bid of $22,300 submitted by New York bricklayer John McComb Jr.
McComb had assembled a crew of 50 men, and began construction in May of 1796. The eighty-foot-tall tower was built of Connecticut sandstone. At its base, the walls were six feet thick, tapering to three feet thick near the top. At the top was a ten-foot-tall iron lantern. Inside the lantern were thirteen whale-oil lamps arranged on two levels.
Also constructed by McComb and his team was a two-story, frame dwelling measuring 16 feet by 34 feet and an oil vault for storing casks of lamp oil. All work was completed by November 5, 1796.
Lighting of the new lighthouse was delayed as the ship carrying the supply of whale oil for the tower ran aground in early December at Napeague, fifteen miles west of the lighthouse. A new shipment of oil was sent, and in April of 1797, Keeper Jacob Hand lit the lamps for the first time.
In 1806, a wood-frame barn and stable, measuring 20 feet by 24 feet, was built just west of the keeper's dwelling. This was to provide the keeper a place to shelter his horse and to allow him to farm some of the land near the station.
Lieutenant Bache inspected many of the lighthouses along the East Coast and issued a report in 1838. A few paragraphs detail some of the changes that took place that year:
The tower, from which the light is shown, was built in the year 1795, and is 80 feet in height; the masonry is of Chatham freestone, firm, hammered, and laid in courses on the exterior. It is ascended by an interior spiral stairway of wood, having landings at convenient distances.
A new lighting apparatus was placed in the lantern in July, 1838; it consists of 18 lamps with parabolic reflectors, which are arranged on two iron tables - ten upon the upper, and eight upon the lower table; the vacant space below being towards the land. The reflectors are 14½ inches in diameter, and weigh from 3lbs. to 3lbs. 6oz.; the tube-glasses in use are too short to project through the holes in the reflectors.
There are three dwelling-houses belonging to this establishment: the oldest house is of frame, containing three rooms, and is very much out of repair; another frame building is connected with it, and contains four rooms; a brick building containing six rooms has recently been added.
By the early to mid-1800s, it was determined that the quality of the lighthouses kept by the United States lagged behind those of Europe. In 1851, Congress established a nine-member board, which consisted of distinguished military officers, and civilian scientists who understood the business. The group would assume oversight of all navigational aids in the United States.
One of the first tasks undertaken by the new Lighthouse Board was to set new standards for the nation's lighthouses and with the approval of Congress, implement them. For the primary seacoast lights, the board recommended that they be equipped with a first-order Fresnel lens, have an elevation of at least 150 feet above sea level, be fireproof, and have a service room below the lantern.
As more and more shipping traffic was calling at the Port of New York, the Lighthouse Board felt the need to adequately light the Long Island coastline. To do this, they sought to establish first class lighthouses from Montauk Point to New York Harbor.
To start, they established two new first class lighthouses, one at Fire Island and the other at Shinnecock Bay, both on Long Island. The other part of the plan was to install a first-order Fresnel lens in the Montauk Point Lighthouse, work which was carried out during the summer of 1857. The Lighthouse Board felt that these three lights made navigation along the seacoast, if done with precaution and care, "easy and safe."
The new first-order Fresnel lens required more attention; therefore two assistant keepers were assigned to the station. Three years later, major renovations were carried out at the station to meet the Lighthouse Board's new standard of a first-order seacoast lighthouse.
A watch room and a service room were constructed on the top of the 1796 tower. These additions raised the tower's height from 80 feet, to 94 feet. Atop the new rooms, a first-order balcony and lantern were installed. The new lantern was 16 feet tall, raising the overall height of the tower to 110 feet. The new focal-plane was now 169 feet.
To make the Montauk Point Lighthouse fireproof, the wood floors and stairs were removed, having been replaced with a fire-proof brick stairwell and cast-iron spiral staircase. The wooden window sashes were then replaced by iron sashes.
In addition to the changes in the tower, several new buildings were constructed. A new one-story, 20-foot by 24-foot brick oil house was built against the south wall of the lighthouse tower, enclosing the entrance. A new 28-foot by 48-foot, two-story, gable-roofed, frame dwelling was built for the keepers, and a one-story, gable-roofed, frame passage connected the oil house, the tower, and the keeper's dwelling.
The new 1860 keeper's dwelling had a center wall that divided the dwelling into two equal apartments. The head keeper occupied the south half, and the two assistant keepers each occupied a floor of the north half. At this time, the original 1796 keeper's dwelling was demolished and the 1838 dwelling was abandoned.
Although the 1838 dwelling was abandoned, it was later reused when a hurricane struck in 1869, destroying the barn. The first floor interior partitions of the 1838 keeper's dwelling were removed, and a barn doorway was built into the center of the north wall. The outhouses and the 1860 keeper's dwelling were also damaged during the hurricane.
In the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1871, a recommendation was made to establish a fog signal. The estimated cost was $8,000. On May 1, 1873, the steam-powered fog signal was placed into operation.
By 1877, extensive repairs were needed on the engines, and that year, a new trumpet and main shaft were fitted. A year later, the 1838 dwelling, which was converted to a barn was in poor condition. The Lighthouse Board requested $800 to build a new one stating that it was a necessity as the lighthouse was a great distance from any location for supplies and therefore a horse and wagon were required.
An upgrade to the fog signal was carried out in 1897 when the old coal-fired fog signal was replaced with a new signal powered by compressed air. A new 21-foot by 31-foot, one story, hip-roofed, brick building was built east of the tower to house the new equipment. The building was completed on April 24, and on June 19, the two oil engines, tanks, compressors, and sirens were delivered to the station. Over the next few months, the equipment was installed.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1898 details additional changes that took place to ready the Montauk Point Lighthouse for the Spanish-American War:
209. Montauk Point, New York - On February 20, 1898, the old Daboll trumpet signal was replaced by a first-class siren signal in duplicate, consisting of two 10-horsepower oil engines and two belt air compressors, two vertical air receivers, and two first-class sirens. A cistern was built to supply the new signals. The old caloric engines, apparatus, chimneys, etc., were removed from the old fog-signal house to provide quarters for the naval militia signal corps stationed at this point on April 11, 1898. Telephone connection with the office of the light-house engineer was established on April 30, 1898, under the appropriation for national defense. Telegraphic connection through the Western Union Company with this office, which was established June 16, 1898, has been since discontinued. On May 18, 1898, the station was supplied with a signaling outfit.
On May 15, 1899, the Montauk Point Lighthouse received its unique day mark - a brown band around the midsection of the tower.
Issues arose in 1903 when the clockwork mechanism to rotate the black glass eclipsing panel began to fail. At that time, it was decided to remove the massive 10,000-pound first-order Fresnel lens and replace it with a smaller 3½-order bivalve Fresnel lens. The bivalve lens, with two flash panels, produced a brighter flash every 15 seconds.
At that same time, a fourth-order fixed red range light was added to the watch deck of the Montauk Point Lighthouse. Its purpose was to warn of a navigational hazard named Shagwong Reef, 3½ miles northwest of the lighthouse. This lens served until September 21, 1938, when the "Great Hurricane" struck the area. It was removed on July 1, 1940 when the tower was electrified.
Electricity reached the area in 1938. At that time, the keeper's dwelling was modernized receiving heat, lights, and plumbing. Electricity was ran to the tower two years later, in 1940. Also, at that time, a radio beacon was established. A 60-foot-tall skeleton tower was erected near the keeper's dwelling.
The radio beacon broadcasted a signal that allowed ships with direction finders to determine their position. This apparatus was in use until the late 1970s, with the tower being torn down in the early 1980s.
Because of its proximity to major shipping lanes and due to its remoteness, Montauk Point had a strategic significance during World War II. Due to this fact, the United States Army and Navy both established bases there.
In 1942, the Army took over control of the lighthouse and a six-story fire control station was built just east of the lighthouse. It was one of 82 fire control stations of the Harbor Defenses of Long Island Sound active during World War II. The fire control station was used to take bearings on targets, which were then relayed to nearby Camp Hero to direct the fire from the 16-inch coastal guns. By the spring of 1943, the last three civilian keepers had departed.
The United States Coast Guard took over control of the Montauk Point Lighthouse in 1946 and continued to operate it until February 3, 1987 when it was automated. At that time, the bivalve Fresnel lens was removed, having been replaced by a DCB-224 optic, and more recently, a VRB-25 DC lens. Today, the bivalve lens is on display in the museum.
That same year, the Montauk Historical Society began operating the property as a historic museum. Exhibits have been placed in the 1860 keeper's dwelling as well as the oil house. In 1996, ownership of the property was transferred from the federal government to the Montauk Historical Society.
When the location was surveyed back in 1792 by Ezra L'Hommedieu, he noted the erosion and recommended the lighthouse be "set a distance back for safety." He placed the lighthouse 297 feet from the edge of the bluff. By 1867, a survey revealed that the distance had been reduced to a little over 200 feet.
Following a severe storm in 1944, a 12-foot section of the bluff crumbled into the ocean. Engineers from the Army constructed a 650-foot long seawall, but it too was largely ineffective. By 1965, the lighthouse was less than 46 feet from the edge and by 1967, planning was underway to have the tower torn down, replaced by a steel skeletal tower further inland.
A grass roots campaign was started by Dan Rattiner, editor of the Montauk Pioneer, to save the lighthouse when he placed an image of the Coast Guard blowing up the abandoned Shinnecock Lighthouse on the front page. He later organized "Light-In" in which people showed up at the lighthouse to protest its destruction.
Montauk Point Lighthouse (courtesy Coast Guard)
About 1,500 people showed up at the first protest, but the Coast Guard was undeterred. In June of 1969, Rattiner organized a second "Light-In." This time, nearly 5,000 people attended, which swayed the Coast Guard to stop the demolition. At the rate of erosion, the Coast Guard figured it would take 12 years for Mother Nature to demolish the tower.
In the end, an ingenious erosion control solution came from 60-year-old retiree Giorgina Reid and her husband, Donald. Both had been textile designers in New York City, and after their retirement, bought a cottage overlooking Long Island Sound. Within two years of its purchase, a Nor'easter took down a large section in front of their cottage.
To save their cottage, she terraced the cliff, and within the sections, planted reeds, Phragmites, and beach grass. The roots would grow into the soil and stabilize the hillside. Rather than rains washing away the soil, it would run over it. She would later patent the technique, calling it "Reed-Trench Terracing."
After getting approval from the Coast Guard to try the terracing at Montauk Point, the Reids and a few volunteers showed up at the lighthouse on April 22, 1970. The selected a 10-foot by 20-foot section, and coming out on the weekends, got to work. At that time, other than offering the coffee to the volunteers, none of the Coast Guardsmen offered to help. Over the course of a year, the Reids had successfully stabilized one section, top to bottom.
During the second year, the Coast Guardsmen had become believers, and offered to help. The Reids declined the offer, insisting on doing the work themselves, but did ask for supplies and help carrying them down the cliff face. A partnership formed between the Reids and the Coast Guard, and over the next 15 years the bluff was stabilized.
Although the work was successful at Montauk Point, the waves were much larger than near the Reid's cottage at Rocky Point, and would occasionally wash away some of the plants. To "break" the waves, the Coast Guard built a 770-foot-long seawall on the east side beach in 1993, and in 1994, a similar 300-foot-long seawall was completed on the northeast side. A similar 200-foot-long seawall along the south face completed the erosion control project.
Since the measures have been completed, the erosion has subsided. Surveys and photos taken 20 years apart show no loss of ground. Sadly, Giorgina Reid passed away in 2001 at the age of 92, but the fact that the Montauk Point Lighthouse is still standing is a testament to her tenacity.
Directions: Take the Long Island Expressway (I-495) pretty much all the way to the end. Near the end, you will see Route 111. Take this east to Route 27 east. Take Route 27 all the way to the end. (~50 miles) This will drop you off at Montauk Point State Park. Follow the signs to the lighthouse.
Access:The tower is owned by the Montauk Point Historical Society. Grounds and tower open.View more Montauk Point Lighthouse pictures