|Montauk Point, NY|
Description: The prominent bluff at the far eastern edge of Long Island reminded the first European settlers of a turtle’s back, and was thus named Turtle Hill.
The Montauk area remained relatively untouched by the colonists, and other than the lighthouse, a few caretaker dwellings, and a few Indian residents, there were no permanent homes east of Napeague Harbor until after 1879. This entire part of the island apparently only changed hands three times between 1655 and 1926.
Montauk Point was considered such an important and dangerous piece of land that reportedly President George Washington in 1792 personally ordered construction of a lighthouse there. The U.S. government was following a long line of tradition – according to legend, the Montauket tribe lit signal fires on the point to summon chiefs and warriors to council, usually in dugout canoes made from the trunks of large trees. During the Revolutionary War, British warships blockaded Long Island Sound by laying off Montauk Point, and the British kept large fires burning on the hill to act as a beacon.
A New York contractor named John McComb submitted the low bid of $22,300 for the Montauk Lighthouse, beating out Abisha Woodward, Nathaniel Richards, and Abraham Miller & Company. The Montauk Point Lighthouse built by McComb was like a fortress, with a foundation that went down thirteen feet and a base with walls seven feet thick. President Washington is often quoted as saying that this lighthouse would stand for 200 years, and it indeed still stands today after having endured more than two centuries of fierce Atlantic storms. McComb also built the old Cape Henry Lighthouse in Virginia in 1791, which also remains in place today, despite being unused for over a century.
The octagonal, 78-foot tower was made with red Connecticut sandstone, brought to the site by ship. An iron lantern room was placed atop the tower and surmounted by a round copper ventilator, the opening of which was kept facing leeward by a weather vane. Various forms of illumination have been used in the tower, starting most likely with a spider lamp, followed by Argand lamps and reflectors, a first-order Fresnel lens, and a revolving third-and-a-half-order bivalve Fresnel lens that was placed in operation in the lantern room in 1903. The familiar reddish-brown band that bisects the lighthouse was also added in 1903. Before that time, the tower was painted all white.
A new brick keeper’s dwelling was built at the point in 1837 and remains standing to this day, located at the bottom of the hill west of the tower. In 1860, three years after the first-order Fresnel lens was installed, the tower was heightened fourteen feet to make it a proper first-class coastal beacon. Besides the extension, the tower’s walls were also strengthened to support the heavy lens. A new lantern room was put in place, and the wooden stairs in the tower were replaced with an iron staircase. The large, two-story keeper’s dwelling that stands just west of the lighthouse was also constructed as part of these renovations carried out that year.
Until the late 1920s, the last few miles of road leading to the lighthouse were narrow, unpaved, and sandy. Only the most adventurous of drivers tried to make it out to the lighthouse, and even they became trapped at times. The isolation of the station made it an attractive location for smugglers during Prohibition. In 1925, a father and son team named Miller, who maintained the lighthouse as Head Keeper and Assistant Keeper, was suspected of collaborating with sea-borne bootleggers.
The Coast Guard had received a call about two ships that had run aground on a sandbar near the lighthouse, both of which were suspected of carrying illegal liquor. When the Coast Guard called and talked to the younger Miller, he replied that he had not seen the grounded ships, and that they must have gotten themselves off the beach. However, a Coast Guard inspector found the two wrecked ships on the same beach, surrounded by empty liquor cases. When the Millers then neglected to return calls to the Coast Guard, suspicions were aroused. However, there had been a heavy snowstorm on the day of the incident, so it was finally concluded that the Millers had not been able to see the ships, as there was not enough evidence to accuse them of any crimes.
Although the lighthouse structure itself has resisted the elements, the bank below the tower has been gradually eroded away by wind and waves. By the late 1960s, the tower was a mere 50 feet away from falling into the sea. The Coast Guard was preparing to abandon the site and build a new light further inland, when a New Yorker named Giorgina Reid claimed to have the solution.
The Montauk Point Lighthouse was automated in 1987, shortly after the bivalve Fresnel lens was replaced by a DCB-224 optic consisting of two revolving 24-inch drums. The Montauk Historical Society signed a lease for the lighthouse on April 1, 1987, and opened it as a museum just over a month later on May 23. The oldest lighthouse in New York was fortunate to have virtually no gap between the removal of Coast Guard personnel and the takeover by the historical society.
Some lighthouse fans believe that if you can only visit one lighthouse in the U.S., this one would make a good choice. The old, two-story keeper’s dwelling is filled with an outstanding collection of various maritime and lighthouse objects, including the bivalve Fresnel lens removed in 1987 and several other smaller Fresnel lenses.
The lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969 and made a National Historic Landmark in 2012.
Located in Montauk Point State Park at the
eastern tip of Long Island. The lighthouse is owned by the Montauk Historical Society. Grounds open, dwelling/tower open during visiting hours.
The lighthouse is owned by the Montauk Historical Society. Grounds open, dwelling/tower open during visiting hours.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
The Montauk Point Lighthouse was occupied by the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II, and it was during that time that the cement Fire Control Tower was built just east of the lighthouse. No, the tower was not built to watch for brush fires, but rather to help direct the artillery fire from nearby Fort Hero.
See our List of Lighthouses in New York
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.