|Little Gull Island, NY|
Description: Little Gull Island is situated about seven miles northeast of Orient Point, at the eastern end of Long Island’s 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.
The tower of the new lighthouse rose fifty-three feet above sea level and was built of smooth-hammered freestone laid in courses. A wooden spiral staircase led to the lantern room, where an array of lamps and reflectors was mounted. The one-and-a-half-story wooden keeper’s 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, and was later described in the American Coast Pilot as being “the key of the Sound.” Although the area was often covered with dense fog or haze, there would be no fog signal at the station for fifty-one more years.
The first keeper of Little Gull Island Lighthouse was Israel Rogers, who along with his wife Serviah and children, had to share the small dwelling with an 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 Giles Holt, Israel’s son-in-law, 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. Holt may have got his way as the dwelling was later described as a seven-room structure.
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 hadn’t 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, they found the lighthouse sitting on a small patch of level ground atop a twenty-foot-high gravel bluff. Much of the island’s soil around them had simply been washed into the sea.
A circular stone wall with a diameter of 100 feet was built around the station during the summer months of 1817, using $30,000 that had been appropriated by Congress on April 27, 1816 for the “construction of works deemed necessary for the preservation of Little Gull Island.” Henry Thomas Dering, son of the local collector of customs, worked on the project and provided the following specifications for the work: “The foundation sunk on a level with low water mark seven feet thick at the bottom and 3 1/2 at the top. The outside course of stone laid in mortar and bolted with two copper bolts; the height of the wall 22 feet. On top of the wall a railing four feet high.”
The station’s 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 1838 by a similar apparatus with fifteen lamps and larger reflectors was not much better. The original tower finally did receive a Fresnel lens of the third-order in 1858, two years after a fog bell was established at the station, but not too longer after plans were made for a new lighthouse on Little Gull Island capable of housing a second-order lens.
In 1867, the Lighthouse Service began work on the eighty-one-foot gray granite tower that stands on the island today by excavating nineteen feet below the top of the circular, protective wall, building a landing wharf, and erecting a temporary light. When finished two years later using some of the material from the original lighthouse, the tower was attached to an impressive three-story keeper’s 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 in 1883, to incandescent oil vapor in 1907, and finally to electricity in 1937.
A steam fog signal, fed with water from a cistern built in the cellar of the old keeper’s dwelling, was established at the same time as the new lighthouse. The station’s fog bell was retained as a backup until a duplicate steam fog signal was completed in 1872. The entire circular pier on which the tower and dwelling stood was covered with concrete to form a catchment basin to collect rainfall for operating the fog signals. The steam siren was typically in operation for around 500 hours annually, but in 1885, the Lighthouse Board noted it had been in operation for 1,054 hours during the previous year. A perplexing aberration in the audibility of the fog signal was observed off Little Gull Island, and though scientists were brought in to investigate it, they failed to determine why there was a dead zone where the signal was inaudible.
In 1900, a second-class siren, consisting of two, thirteen-horsepower oil engines, two air tanks, and two sirens, replaced the steam siren. On May 15, 1928, a radiobeacon was established on Little Gull Island as part of network to guide mariners through Long Island Sound.
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 condition for days. The keepers managed to survive the storm fine, but an existing crack in the dwelling was opened up considerably.
A fire in 1944 destroyed much of the keeper’s house and spread into the lighthouse tower. The lens was undamaged, but the tower had to be refurbished, and the keeper’s 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. Though the Fresnel lens was removed from the tower in 1995 and placed on display at East End Seaport Maritime Museum, Little Gull Island Light is still an active aid to navigation, casting a flashing white light over the area.
In 2009, 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, the 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.
Located three miles from the eastern end of Plum Island, and 4.7 miles from
the western end of Fishers Island. The lighthouse is privately owned. Grounds/tower closed.
The lighthouse is privately owned. Grounds/tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.