Description: The Shinnecock Bay Lighthouse was first activated on January 1, 1858, showing a fixed white light. During the previous year, the Montauk Point Lighthouse, located some thirty miles to the east, received a new Fresnel lens that changed its characteristic from fixed white to fixed white varied by flashes. On February 19 of 1858, the captain of the John Milton spotted the Shinnecock Bay Light near the end of a lengthy journey to South America. Unaware of the activation of Long Island’s newest light, the captain believed he was looking at Montauk Point Light, and after a short time steered his vessel north to enter Block Island Sound. Much to the captain’s surprise, his vessel soon ran aground, and all thirty-one members of his crew perished that dark, stormy night. The same day, another captain was similarly confused by the light, but figured out that something was amiss and held his ship offshore until daylight.
Work on the new station was overseen by Lieutenants J. C. Duane and J. St. C. Morton. A large hole ten feet deep was dug, and layers of pine logs were laid perpendicular to each other, forming a sort of grillwork. The hole was then filled with concrete to near ground level, and large granite blocks were put in place as a base for the approximately 800,000 bricks it took to build the tower. A central iron column supported a circular set of stairs that provided access to the lantern room, which housed a first-order Fresnel lens.
Two separate 2 ½-story keeper’s dwellings were built on opposite sides of the lighthouse and were connected to the tower by a covered walkway. One dwelling was used by the head keeper, while the two assistant keepers each occupied a floor in the other building. The first head keeper appointed was Charles A. Conley, who received a salary of $500 a year.
The red brick tower was one of the tallest lighthouses on the East Coast at 150 feet, and keepers were required to be in decent physical shape, as each trip to the lantern room involved walking up 178 steps. During the stormy evening of September 30, 1883, an amazing 160 birds perished after slamming into the glass panes of the lantern room. Eighty-five of the birds were taken to a local ornithologist who identified them as being 59 Black-Poll Warblers, two Summer Tanagers, two Gray-Cheeked Thrushes, one Veery, one Ovenbird, one Olive-Backed Thrush, one Parula Warbler, and one Yellowthroat.
The official name of the lighthouse was changed from Great West Bay to Shinnecock Bay in 1893. In 1901, the Lighthouse Board requested funds to alter the light’s characteristic from a fixed light to a flashing one, arguing that many transatlantic steamers steered toward the light, which could easily be confused for a ship’s light. The request was not funded for several years, but the light was changed in 1907 from oil to incandescent oil vapor, which more than tripled the light’s candlepower while using a fraction of the amount of fuel. Finally, in 1915 a lens with four bull’s-eye panels and four solid brass panels was installed in the lighthouse.
Given the station’s ample acreage, the keepers often kept cows or pigs and grew large vegetable gardens. When Major Charles Potter arrived for an inspection in November of 1909, he asked Keeper John Raynor what the oil house was used for. Before the Keeper could answer, a high-pitched female voiced answered loudly, “John uses that work shop and he’s going to use it as long as he’s here. John, you come here.” Potter looked and saw First Assistant John Potter (no relation, apparently) jump up from what he was occupied with and answer his wife’s call. She continued in a loud voice: “He’s got every devilish thing at this station except that old oil house and now he’s trying to get that. There ain’t a devilish thing left for John. He’s got everything filled with his hogs, his cows and his horse!”
The unsettled Major Potter walked away in disgust from the confrontation, noting later, “the voice followed me growing louder and louder as the distance increase but I purposely avoided hearing anymore - I could not have felt more uncanny if I had been in an insane asylum.” Assistant keeper Potter later apologized in writing, saying, “Women get sore sometimes and talk a good deal more than they might.” Major Potter first considered firing the assistant, but decided he was “rather loath to recommend drastic action in this case for such an old and faithful employee of the Board.”
In 1931, the Shinnecock Lighthouse was replaced with a light atop a skeleton tower. A hurricane in 1938 destroyed the metal tower, but the old brick lighthouse stood resolute. Shortly after the Coast Guard assumed control of the nation’s lighthouses in 1939, they felt the Shinnecock Lighthouse was unstable and should be torn town. Local residents wanted the tower preserved and had the lighthouse examined by engineers, who found it to be “safe and stable.” The Coast Guard still pursued its demolition plans, and in December of 1948 the bottom portion of the brick walls on one side of the tower was jackhammered away and replaced with supporting timbers. The timbers were then doused with gasoline and set on fire. As the wood was consumed, the tower slowly leaned over and then crashed to the ground. The only remaining sign of the majestic Shinnecock Lighthouse is a 1902 brick oil house.
Located on Shinnecock Bay on the southern
shore of Long Island. The site is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds open with permission of Coast Guard.
The site is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds open with permission of Coast Guard.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.