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 Fire Island, NY    
A hike of some distance required.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.Lighthouse appeared in movie.
Description: The name Fire Island is of uncertain origin, and if you happen to climb Fire Island Lighthouse on a warm summer day, your guide just might relate one of the following three plausible theories behind the name as you pause at the landings to catch your breath.
  1. Each fall, the poison ivy, which accounts for 30% of the vegetation on the island, turns a brilliant red, making the island appear as if it is on fire.
  2. For many years, whalers used to build fires on the island’s beach to render whale blubber into oil.
  3. Scheming pirates lit fires on the beach to lure ships ashore so they could pillage the valuable cargo.

While each of these possible explanations is grounded in fact, there is another one that seems to carry more weight. Many place names around New York are Anglicized versions of older Dutch names; for instance, Brooklyn was formerly Breuckelen. The Dutch word for four is vier (pronounced “fear”), and an English map from 1798 labels four islands in the area as “Fier Islands.” Although the present-day Fire Island was labeled as East Beach on that 1798 map, it’s easy to see how the name Fire Island likely evolved from “Fier” Island.

Fire Island Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The first Fire Island Lighthouse was an eighty-five-foot-tall octagonal tower, built using Connecticut River blue stone, whose purpose was to mark the entrance to Fire Island Inlet and the eastern entrance to New York’s lower bay. The tower was topped by a round soapstone deck, which had a hole bored in its middle for access to the lantern room from below. Installed inside the lantern room was a chandelier, containing eighteen lamps set in fifteen-inch spherical reflectors, which revolved once every ninety seconds to produce a flashing light at a focal plane of eighty-nine feet. The station cost $9,999.65 to build – thirty-five cents under budget – and opened in 1826.

One early keeper named Felix Dominy became better known around Fire Island for his skills as an innkeeper than as a lightkeeper. He started to hone his hosting skills while on the job at the lighthouse, as a local superintendent named Edward Curtis noted in 1843: “Dominy entertains boarders and company in his dwelling at the Island and devotes so much of his time and care to that, and other business personal to himself, that the public charge committed to him, is not faithfully exercised; his Light House duties are made subordinate objects of attention.” Dominy was relieved of his duties as keeper in 1844 and subsequently became a full-time innkeeper on Fire Island and nearby Bay Shore.

While still employed as keeper, Dominy wrote a letter to his son describing an accident that occurred while he was tending the light:

One night I went up in the lt. House to trim the lamp & walking back wards fell down the trap door until my right foot reach’d the stairs & thought at first my leg was broken crawled up & laid down on the floor for a while & got partly over it & hobbled down. Tis about 10 days & I have got pretty much over it my knees is a little stiff it was so lame for 2 days I was obliged to use a cane & once in a while it made me fairly hallow out loud now I can run quite spry.

Shortly after it was formed in 1852, the Lighthouse Board set about upgrading the nation’s navigational aids. Fire Island Lighthouse was considered inadequate, as its height limited the range of visibility of its light, and in 1857 Congress approved $40,000 to build a replacement. Lieutenants J.C. Duane and J. St. C. Morton were put in charge of the project along with the construction of the new Shinnecock Lighthouse also on Long Island. Built about 200 yards northeast of the first one, the second Fire Island Lighthouse stands 168 feet tall, more than double the height of its predecessor. The stone from the original lighthouse was used to construct the terrace on which the new lighthouse and dwelling were built. The base of the second tower spreads outward for increased stability, and inside, a 192-step, spiral staircase leads to the watchroom. The ascent is interrupted every twenty-six steps with a landing from which an arched window affords a view of the surroundings. The new tower commenced operation on November 1, 1858, showing a white light focused into eight revolving beams by a first-order Fresnel lens.

The handmade bricks of the tower were covered in a protective cement coating that was given “an agreeable cream yellow colour.” It wasn’t until 1891 that the lighthouse received is present distinctive black and white stripes. At the base of the tower, an impressive residence was constructed for the head keeper and his two assistants using New York cut granite.

The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1894 contains the following on Fire Island Lighthouse: “This is the most important light for transatlantic steamers bound for New York. It is generally the first one they make and from which they lay their course.” Due to this importance, the board decided to purchase for use at Fire Island a giant bivalve lens with a nine-foot diameter that the French manufacturer Henry Lepaute had displayed at the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. As the lens was to be fitted with an electric arc light, a coal-fired steam power plant was constructed 200 feet west of the lighthouse in 1896. A fourth-order lantern was placed on a bracket on the south side of the tower for use while the new lens was being installed, and a tramline was built between the tower and a dock, intended to bring coal shipments to the station. After all this preparatory work, the installation of the lens was canceled, and a lightship was instead deployed off Fire Island. The bivalve lens was installed in 1898 at Navesink, New Jersey, where it can still be seen today.

Aerial view of Fire Island in 1957
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Captain Ezra S. Mott had the longest tenure as head keeper of Fire Island Lighthouse, arriving in 1888 and retiring twenty-one years later in 1909 due to ill health. At the age of just seventeen, he became a sailor in the coasting trade and later became part-owner of three vessels. Ezra joined the Lighthouse Service in 1879 and served three years aboard the Stratford Shoal Lightship and six-and-a-half years at Stratford Shoal Lighthouse before taking charge of Fire Island Lighthouse. Keeper Mott loved lighthouse life, but the arduous task of climbing the tower multiple times a day became too much for the sixty-four-year-old. One day during the summer of 1909, he made twenty trips up and down the tower for the benefit of some 500 visitors who called at the lighthouse.

While standing watch on a cold winter night, Keeper Mott was startled by a continual thumping on the lantern room glass and was about to investigate when “dozens of wild ducks” burst through the glass panes. The following morning, forty dead ducks and three wild geese were collected from the base of the tower. A sudden shift of ice in the bay had apparently startled the fowl, which flew straight for the light. So devoted was Keeper Mott to his duty that lighthouse authorities wanted him to take a less demanding job as keeper on the Hudson River, but he preferred to remain on Long Island with his extended family.

Not all keepers at Fire Island were as dependable as Ezra Mott. In October 1886, the Lighthouse Board dispatched Lieutenant Commander McKenzie to investigate the report of Keeper Seth Hubbard housing sufficient stolen property from the wreck of the passenger liner Oregon to “stock a Broadway store.” Items found at the lighthouse included 289 yards of fine lace, twelve black silk shawls, fifty-six neckties, fifty-two handkerchiefs, and a quantity of silverware. Keeper Hubbard greeted the investigator by tendering his resignation on account of “an affliction of the heart,” but he wasn’t to get off that easily.

An investigation into Hubbard’s conduct turned up reports of his having let the light go out and of his paying high prices for services with an agreement that he would receive a portion of the money. Keeper Hubbard was removed from office on November 6, 1886 along with his son-in-law, Walter B. Abrams, who was serving as first assistant.

Charles F. Smith, who replaced Hubbard, didn’t fare much better. On July 23, 1888, Keeper Smith and Edward Udall, his first assistant, were both dismissed after bringing charges against each other – Smith was charged with presenting fraudulent vouchers and Udall with disobeying orders. A local paper noted that Smith’s dismissal was acceptable as he had a tyrannical nature, but the dismissal of Udall was judged a mistake, as he was a faithful employee.

The most egregious charge to be brought against a keeper of Fire Island Lighthouse occurred in 1921, when Keeper Frank Oberly was arrested and charged with burglarizing cottages in the exclusive Saltaire colony near the lighthouse. Stolen items that were reportedly found in the possession of Keeper Oberly included two bottles of liquor, a gun, and a chamois hunting coat.

Over the years, the lighthouse’s exterior was becoming damaged by water seepage, and in 1912 a large crack was discovered in the structure. To strengthen the tower, it was wrapped in round iron bands and steel mesh and then coated with a layer of cement. The first-order Fresnel lens was replaced in 1933 by the lens from the decommissioned Shinnecock Lighthouse. The new lens was much lighter allowing it to be rotated at a higher speed to produce a flash once every 7.5 seconds instead of once every sixty seconds. The light was finally converted to electrical power, using an underwater cable from the mainland, when the Coast Guard assumed control of the station in 1939. In 1952, the Fresnel lens was removed and a Crouse-Hinds beacon, consisting of two lights stacked one on top of the other, was installed in the lantern room. This apparatus is now on display at the lighthouse.

Lens room that opened in 2011.
Photograph courtesy Bob Ojamaa
Fire Island Lighthouse was originally much closer to the inlet, but littoral drift has added several new acres to the western end of Fire Island over the years. This new acreage was removed from Fire Island Light Station and transferred to the State of New York in 1924 and is now part of Robert Moses State Park. Fire Island was only accessible by boat until 1964, when a bridge was built to connect the island to the mainland.

On December 31, 1973, Fire Island Lighthouse was decommissioned; its role having been assumed by a flashing strobe light atop the water tower at the nearby park.

After the lighthouse was discontinued, the steel mesh, placed around the tower in 1912, rusted from exposure to the elements as the cement coating crumbled away. By 1981, the empty and decaying tower was declared unsafe and not worth repairing, and was scheduled to be torn down when the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed in 1982 to raise funds to save and restore the lighthouse. The lighthouse and grounds were transferred from the Coast Guard to the National Park Service, which then leased the property to the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society.

After a million dollars had been raised for its preservation, Fire Island Lighthouse was reactivated on May 25, 1986 using a modern plastic lens, and a visitors center was opened. The next year, the exterior of the tower was covered with waterproofed concrete, and in 1989, the lighthouse was opened to the public. Over the next five years, more renovation took place, culminating in a grand opening celebration on May 15, 1994.

For years, the first-order Fresnel lens from Fire Island Lighthouse had been exhibited at the Franklin Institute, a museum in Philadelphia. In 2000, the lens was taken off display and relocated to a warehouse, prompting calls to return the lens to Fire Island. On March 27, 2007, the 9,000-pound, sixteen-foot-tall lens arrived at Fire Island National Seashore in the form of 900 pieces packed inside twenty-one crates. With funding secured, construction of a building to house the lens was completed, and the lens went on display in July 2011. The over 100,000 visitors that annually call at the lighthouse, which is maintained and operated by the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, now have one more reason to make the trek.

Head Keepers: J.M. Isaacs (1827 – 1835), Felix Dominy (1835 – 1844), Eliphalet Smith (1844 – 1849), John A. Hicks (1849), Selah Strong (1849 – 1853), Benjamin Smith (1853 – 1861), C. W. Fordham (1861 – 1864), David L. Baldwin (1864 – 1865), Samuel C. Hulse (1865 – 1869), Perry S. Wicks (1869 – 1870), Henry D. French (1870 – 1871), Warren F. Clock (1871 – 1872), Hugh Walsh (1873 – 1874), Seth R. Hubbard (1874 – 1886), Charles F. Smith (1886 – 1888), Ezra S. Mott (1888 – 1909), William F. Aichele (1909 – 1917), George J. Thomas (1917 – 1919), Frank Oberly (1919 – 1921), Charlie Behounek (1921 - ), Isaac Karlin (1923 – 1928), Frank Loftin (at least 1930), Adrien J. Boisvert (1934 – 1941).

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. “Poor Health Force Old Lightkeeper Out,” The Brookly Daily Eagle, October 23, 1909.
  3. “Flotsam in the Lighthouse,” New York Herald, October 24, 1886.
  4. America’s Atlantic Coast Lighthouses, Kenneth Kochel, 1996.
  5. Northeast Lights: Lighthouses and Lightships, Rhode Island to Cape May, New Jersey, Robert Bachand, 1989.
  6. Long Island’s Lighthouses Past and Present, Robert G. Müller, 2004.

Location: Located in Robert Moses State Park, part of the Fire Island National Seashore.
Latitude: 40.6325
Longitude: -73.21855

For a larger map of Fire Island Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: From the Southern State Parkway 48 miles east of Manhattan, take exit 40 and travel south on the Robert Moses Parkway to Fire Island. Once on the island, turn left, travel about two miles, and park in the field 5 parking area, from which you need to walk roughly a mile to the lighthouse. Visit the Fire Island National Seashore website for a map showing the lighthouse.

The lighthouse is open much of the year. For the latest hours, call (631) 661-4876 or check out the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society website.

The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service and is part of the Fire Island National Seashore. Grounds open, dwelling/tower open daily.

Find the closest hotels to Fire Island Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
The remains of the first Fire Island Lighthouse can be seen along the boardwalk that leads to the lighthouse. Besides the lighthouse, an oil house and other outbuildings remain standing.

Fire Island Lighthouse serves as a Post Office in the movie "Men in Black II." Agent Kay is working at the office, which is supposedly located in Truro, MA, (home of Highland Lighthouse not Fire Island Lighthouse), when Agent Jay comes to recall him to active duty. The lighthouse also appears in "The Big Year" and "What Happens in Vegas."


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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.