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 Little Gull Island, NY    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Privately owned, no access without permission.
Description: Little Gull Island is situated about seven miles northeast of Orient Point, at the eastern end of Long Islandís North Fork, where Long Island Sound opens out to the sea. Great Gull Island is located just west of Little Gull Island, but four miles of open water lie between Little Gull Island and Fishers Island to the east. This stretch of water is known as the Race, due to the tidal currents that sometimes exceed five knots. When strong winds or heavy onshore seas combine with an ebbing tide, the water in the Race turns into a churning cauldron of white-capped waves and dangerous rip tides.

Along with its neighbor Plum Island, Little Gull Island was purchased by one Samuel Wyllys in 1659 from Wyandanch, the senior chief of four Indian tribes who controlled much of Long Island at the time. Little Gull Island went through a number of owners until the U.S. government bought it from Benjamin Jerome at a cost of $800 in 1803 for lighthouse purposes.

Surveyors visiting Little Gull Island in 1803 found that the island had about one acre of land above the high-tide mark. Rock reefs surrounding the island ensured that erosion would not be a problem, but almost all building materials would need to be brought to the island by ship, apart from some rocks that could be used for the foundation. The construction contract was awarded to New London resident Abisha Woodward, who had recently built the Pequot Lighthouse in New London Harbor.

The tower of the new lighthouse rose fifty-three feet above sea level and was made of smooth-hammered freestone laid in courses. There was a wooden spiral staircase that led to the lantern room. The one and a half story wooden keeperís dwelling had two rooms on the ground floor and a one-room loft upstairs, and was separate from the tower.

The station went into operation in 1805. Although the area was often covered with dense fog or haze, there was no fog signal at the station for fifty-one more years.

The first keeper at Little Gull Island Lighthouse was Israel Rogers, who along with his wife Serviah and children, had to share the small dwelling with the assistant keeper and his wife and children in a location where they were sometimes isolated for up to two months at a time. This level of hardship and lack of privacy was typical for lighthouse personnel and their families. The next keeper was Israelís son-in-law Giles Holt, who served an ultimatum to the local Superintendent of Lighthouses that the womenfolk would not put up with the housing arrangement any longer. If an additional two bedrooms were not built, Holt threatened to resign his post.

The War of 1812 began with a Declaration of War by the U.S. Congress, but communications were so slow in those times (it took four days for the news to reach Boston), and lighthouses so remote, that Giles Holt may have not even noticed there was a war on, if the war hadnít suddenly come to him. On July 28, 1813, a small British force landed at Little Gull Island and removed all of the lamps and reflectors, putting the station out of service for the duration of the conflict.

Giles Holt and his family returned to the station after the war, but their routine was soon disrupted again when the great hurricane of September 23, 1815 swept through New England. Little Gull Island was almost wiped clean; the lantern was heavily damaged, all the windows were broken, the well was ruined, and outbuildings were demolished. Everyone at the station was forced to take refuge inside the lighthouse. One account says that when they emerged after the storm was over, they found the lighthouse sitting on a small patch of level ground atop a twenty-foot-high gravel bluff. Much of the islandís soil around them had simply been washed into the sea.

Holt and his family were once again forced to leave the station, this time for several months while repairs were made. Holt then returned, this time without his family, but resigned the following summer, apparently having had enough. Keeping it in the family, his replacement was John Rogers II Ė his nephew, and grandson of the first keeper, Israel Rogers. John Rogers kept the position for ten years before he was fired for repeatedly letting the light go out. This serious neglect resulted from a combination of boredom and alcoholism.

A circular, eleven-foot-high stone wall was built around the station during the summer months of 1817. The wall had a diameter of 100 feet and was built to protect the station from future storms.

The stationís first beacon was a multi-lamp/reflector combination powered by whale oil as was common in lighthouses of the day. Although that light was considered inadequate from the beginning, its replacement in 1837 by a similar optic with more lamps and larger reflectors was not much better. The original tower finally did receive a Fresnel lens of the third-order in 1858, but by then plans were soon put in place for a new lighthouse on Little Gull Island.

1869 Little Gull Island Lighthouse with its original dwelling
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
In 1867, the Lighthouse Service began work on the 81-foot gray granite tower that stands on the island today. The tower's walls are five feet thick at the base and lined with brick. When finished two years later, the tower was attached to an impressive three-story keeperís house built of granite and wood in the second empire style, with a mansard roof, granite arches over the windows, and granite blocks, called quoins, at the corners. A second-order Fresnel lens was installed in the lantern room atop the new tower, where it was exhibited for the first time on December 15, 1869. Over the years, the method of powering the light has changed from whale oil, to lard oil, to kerosene, to incandescent oil vapor and finally to electricity in 1937.

The legendary great hurricane of 1938 blew a number of the station's outbuildings into the Sound, swept the boat tracks away, and sent waves crashing against the keeper's dwelling, some reaching as high as the second floor. Telephone lines to the mainland were cut off, leaving relatives of the keepers to worry about their survival for days. The keepers managed to make it through the storm fine, but an existing crack in the dwelling was opened up considerably.

A fire in 1944 destroyed much of the keeperís house and spread into the lighthouse tower. The lens was undamaged and the tower was refurbished, but the keeperís house was replaced by a nondescript one-story building, which was used for housing and equipment storage. This building was removed by the Coast Guard in 2002, leaving the tower perched alone atop the old stone wall built in 1817 that now makes up a fair portion of the island.

The station was automated in 1978, ending 172 years of keepers on the island. Little Gull Light is still an active aid to navigation, casting a flashing white light over the area. The Fresnel lens was removed from the tower in 1995 and placed on display at East End Seaport Maritime Museum.

In 2009, the Little Gull Island Lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was offered at no cost to eligible entities, including federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, and educational organizations under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.

When no qualified organization was found to assume ownership, Little Gull Island Lighthouse was placed on the auction block on May 1, 2012, with a starting bid of $50,000. Eight bidders participated in the auction, which closed on October 17, 2012 with a winning bid of $381,000.

References

  1. Northeast Lights: Lighthouses and Lightships, Rhode Island to Cape May, New Jersey, Robert Bachand, 1989.
  2. Americaís Atlantic Coast Lighthouses, Kenneth Kochel, 1996.
  3. Capsule Histories of Some Local Islands and Light Houses in the Eastern Part of L.I. Sound, Benjamin Rathbun, 2001.

Location: Located three miles from the eastern end of Plum Island, and 4.7 miles from the western end of Fishers Island.
Latitude: 41.2064
Longitude: -72.10683

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


Travel Instructions: This light is best seen by boat. East End Seaport and Sunbeam Fleet offer excursions that pass by Little Gull Island Lighthouse.

The second-order Fresnel lens used in the Little Gull Island Lighthouse is on display at East End Seaport Maritime Museum.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds/tower closed.

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