Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-10-25.
Long before the Cedar Island Lighthouse and its unique history was the center point of the Cedar Point County Park, it was an important navigational aid to mariners that called Sag Harbor home and whaling fleets that left from eastern Long Island.
Whaling fleets began working out of Sag Harbor in the early 1780s, long before any lighthouse marked the eastern end of Long Island. Despite these risks, the rewards were too great to ignore and as the whaling trade continued to grow, it brought great fortune to the area. Sag Harbor was then considered the second most important town on Long Island, second only to Brooklyn.
The Montauk Point Lighthouse, when activated on November7, 1797, did help the seafaring mariner, but did comparatively little to aid mariners entering Sag Harbor. Cedar Island stood in the middle of the passage between Shelter Island and the South Fork of Long Island.
Around 1810, mariners set up numerous stake lights to guide the growing whaling fleet around Cedar Island and were maintained by Joshua Penny, a local captain. The federal government took notice and between 1837 and 1838, appropriated $3,500 for a lighthouse.
On August 20, 1838, the federal government purchased the nearly three-acre Cedar Island from the town of East Hampton for $200. By September 25, Samuel Eldridge was awarded the contract to construct the Cedar Island Lighthouse.
The lighthouse was a wooden keeper's dwelling on the north side of the island, topped with a tower and a cast-iron lantern. The fixed white light was shown from thirty-four feet above sea level and became operational in January of 1839. Frederick King was named the station's first keeper.
Stephen Pleasonton, the Fifth Auditor of the U.S. Treasury, was in charge of the nation's maritime interests at that time and was well known for being miserly. Given his stingy ways, he usually ended up with inferior workmanship and shoddy materials. The Cedar Island Lighthouse was no different.
Shortly after being placed into service, it was noted that the lantern was not properly supported and began to experience structural problems. When inspected on June 20, 1850, Captain Howland reported in his log: "with the exception of the house being leaky, it is in good order. Lantern is very leaky."
In that same report, Inspector Howland also noted that measures have been taken to protect the island from erosion and that he was "fearful it will [sic] not prove effectual."
When the Lighthouse Board was formed in 1852, they took over ownership of all navigational aids in the United States and began fitting them with the more efficient Fresnel lenses. In 1855, the Cedar Island Lighthouse received a 270° sixth-order Fresnel lens and Argand lamp to replace the nine Winslow Lewis lamps and reflectors.
By the 1860s, the lighthouse was in poor condition and the wooden tower was barely supporting the cast iron lantern. An act of Congress dated March 2, 1867 provided $25,000 for the rebuilding and protection of the Cedar Island Lighthouse.
The following entry was placed in the Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances for the year 1866:
10. For rebuilding light-house at Cedar island, [sic] on the plan adopted for Rondout, on Hudson river. The tower is in a very bad condition, and requires rebuilding; but the island is gradually wasting away under the action of the sea, notwithstanding the attempted protection by pile planking, and the cost of an effectual remedy would largely exceed the expense of a building with a protecting pier, such as it is proposed to construct.
Construction of the new lighthouse started in 1868 and was carried out by a contractor from Massachusetts. The two-and-one-half-story, nine-room, L-shaped dwelling and forty-foot tower were constructed of Vermont granite and built atop a granite pier. The structures were built in the same Victorian-Gothic style of the Rondout Creek Lighthouse on the Hudson River.
When completed, the sixth-order Fresnel lens was moved over to the new tower and the old lighthouse was torn down. The Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances for the year 1869 mentioned the new lighthouse getting a larger fifth-order lens:
121. Cedar Island, Sag Harbor, Long Island - The rebuilding of this station is completed and old structure removed. A 5th-order lens will be placed in this tower as a substitute for the 6th-order, which was in the old tower.
Despite it being in official government documents, the lens was never replaced. All subsequent documents for the Cedar Island Lighthouse would report the presence of a sixth-order lens until 1899.
After construction, the tower was in good order and required very little maintenance as evidenced by its absence in government reports. The next entries came in 1880 when the dwelling was painted and in 1882 when a "fog bell, struck by machinery" was established at the station.
Other improvements were made to the station over the years. In 1891, the boathouse was moved and repaired and a well was drilled. Three years later, a new set of boatways were built. In 1899, an upgraded fifth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the lantern and in 1902, a brick oil house was built.
Over the years, erosion continued to plague the island. Between February of 1903 and September of 1906, more than 4,600 tons of riprap were delivered and placed around the island. Additional riprap was placed in the 1920s to provide additional stabilization.
In 1920, the Bureau of Lighthouses requested $45,700 to establish five acetylene lights in the channel leading into and in the vicinity of Sag Harbor and to improve the illuminating apparatus at the Sag Harbor Breakwater and Cedar Island Light Stations.
It doesn't appear that this request was granted as two years later, nearly the same entry was in the Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, the only difference was the amount requested - $58,500. Of that amount, $11,000 was earmarked for the Cedar Island Lighthouse.
It is unclear whether the upgrade was ever carried out.
Several Long Island lighthouses were decommissioned in the 1930s, including the lights at Shinnecock Bay, Horton Point, and Old Field Point. The Cedar Island Lighthouse was among those discontinued, being replaced by a skeletal tower on the southern riprap pier in 1934.
When the island was surveyed in 1936, it was found to be less than one acre. As it was no longer needed, the Bureau of Lighthouses offered the property to the National Park Service, but they declined. The following year, the property went to auction and was sold to Phelan Beale, a Manhattan lawyer, for $2,002. Less than a year later, the island and lighthouse would be struck by a hurricane.
The Great Hurricane of 1938 would start as a category 5 storm in the open Atlantic. But by the time it made landfall in the Northeast, it would be downgraded to a category 3 with gusts reaching 121-mph. This hurricane would cause catastrophic damage to the New England area, including ripping the Whale Rock Lighthouse from its foundation and sending it to the bottom of Narragansett Bay, killing its keeper.
Contrary to the destruction that the Great Hurricane caused in many areas, the hurricane actually benefitted Cedar Island. The Great Hurricane of 1938 reshaped the coastline of Cedar Island, filling in the 200-yard gap between Cedar Island and the south fork of Long Island, stabilizing the island. The newly created peninsula would be called Cedar Point.
Although Phelan Beale had owned the lighthouse, Isabelle Bradley had been renting it from him for nearly four years. In 1943, she purchased the property and would retain ownership until 1967, when it was sold to Suffolk County.
Suffolk County, incorporated the lighthouse into the Cedar Point County Park. At that time, the interior of the lighthouse was still in good condition, but that changed in June of 1974 when the lighthouse caught fire.
While trying to secure the property, plates were being welded on the doors and windows. A spark from the welder's torch ignited the building and due to its isolated location, it took too long for fire crews to arrive. After it was extinguished, the entire interior and roof of the lighthouse were gone. All that remained was the exterior granite walls and the cast iron lantern room.
It was determined at that time that the county had forgot to insure the Cedar Island Lighthouse, therefore no money was available to fix it. To protect the lighthouse from the elements, Suffolk County had a new roof built and sealed the doors and windows. Over the years, vandals would damage the property, including tearing away bricks from oil house walls.
In 2002, a joint stewardship was formed between the Suffolk County Parks Department and the Long Island Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society. One of the first tasks undertaken by the group was to restore the Cedar Island oil house.
The Long Island Chapter of the U.S Lighthouse Society reached an agreement with the Suffolk County Parks Department to give the group the necessary licenses needed to renovate the lighthouse in 2011. By November of 2013, the lantern was removed by Chesterfield Associates and taken to the Sag Harbor Yacht Yard where it underwent restoration.
While there, several items needed to be recast at a foundry that specializes in historic renovations. Once completed, the entire lantern was coated with a moisture resistant paint, similar to that used on bridges and transported to the lawn of the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum. Once finished, it will be reinstalled.
Once the entire restoration of the lighthouse is completed, it will be operated as a two-bedroom bed and breakfast. All revenue generated from its operation will be used for the maintenance of the lighthouse. To start the renovation, the group first needs to raise $2 million.
The operation is modeled after a bed and breakfast being operated at the Saugerties Lighthouse. A similar bed and breakfast is also operated at the Execution Rocks Lighthouse.
Directions: From within Cedar Point County Park, follow Cedar Point Road to the end. After that, there will be a mile and a half walk to the lighthouse.View more Cedar Island Lighthouse pictures