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 Yorks 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 reachd 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 nations 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. Lieutenant J.C. Duane of the Corps of Engineers prepared the plans for the station and estimated the cost would be $32,345 plus the expense of a new lighting apparatus. Lieutenant James St. Clair Morton, also of the Corps of Engineers, was 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.
Benjamin Smith was serving as head keeper when the second lighthouse built. Smiths tenure lasted eight years, and he was followed by a succession of seven head keepers, none of whom served more than four years. The last of these was Hugh Walsh, who was in charge of the light from 1873 to 1874. In 1878, Walsh hung himself from a peg in his cell at the Kings County penitentiary, where he was serving a six-month sentence for beating his wife in a drunken range. Walsh, who was morbidly jealous of his wife, had a leg shot off while serving as a gunner on Commodore David Farraguts ship during the Battle of Mobile Bay.
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.
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 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.
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 wasnt to get off that easily.
An investigation into Hubbards 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, didnt 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 Smiths 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 lighthouses 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.
Arthur Miller, who served as first assistant keeper during the early 1930s, would drive his children four miles along the beach each day so they could attend school at Ocean Beach. One day, Miller became stuck in heavy sand, and before his vehicle could be rescued by the Coast Guard, the rising tide had swept over his car. Miller wisely abandoned the car but not before getting soaked himself. In 1934, Peggy, the six-year-old daughter of Keeper Miller, fell against some sharp stones while playing near the lighthouse and suffered a severe cut on her forehead. After efforts to stop the bleeding failed, Miller radioed the Coast Guard station, and a speedy patrol boat took the child to a hospital in Bay Shore. A quick response was credited with saving the girl from bleeding to death.
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.
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.
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 used in Fire Island Lighthouse from 1858 to 1933 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 lens building was built on the foundation of and resembles the former power generation that was erected in 1894 and can be seen in some of the historic photographs on this page. The 100,000-plus visitors that annually call at the lighthouse, maintained and operated by the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, now have one more reason to make the trek.
After Hurricane Sandy inflicted destruction throughout the area in 2012, a $1.2 million project was carried out in 2017 to strengthen the terrace surrounding the tower and keepers dwelling and reset the Connecticut Bluestone pavers. The tower was closed for three weeks in 2019 while sections of brick and mortar were removed from the tower and monitoring devices were installed. The removed material will be analyzed in a laboratory for strength, moisture migration, and salt content, and the monitoring equipment will be kept in place for several months to measure any movement in the tower and to record temperature and moisture levels. This work should help ensure the long-term viability of Fire Island Lighthouse.