Hartt was correct, as the seventy-three-foot-tall Eaton’s Neck Lighthouse was completed in 1799 at a cost of $9,750. The contract stipulated a payment schedule of $5,000 when the contract was signed, $2,000 “when the first story beams are Laid,” $2,000 “when the Lanthorn is completed,” and the final $750 “when the described work is perfected.” On March 14, 1798, Congress appropriated $13,250 for the building the lighthouse and fitting it up with the necessary supplies, and John and Joanna Gardiner sold the necessary ten-acre site to the government for $500 on June 16 of that year.
The second lighthouse built on Long Island Sound, Eaton’s Neck Lighthouse is a freestone tower described as standing “on an eminence, about 73 feet high; the building is 50 feet more, and the total height, above the sea, is 126 feet.” The tower stood 300 feet back from the high-water mark and was originally painted in black and white horizontal stripes. An 1854 Light List shows the tower was all white by that time. Built of hammer-dressed stone, the octagonal tower tapers from a diameter of eighteen feet at its base to ten feet at the lantern, while its walls shrink from a thickness of five feet, seven inches to twenty-one inches. Two windows adorn the western side of the lighthouse, three the tower’s eastern face, and a spiral wooden staircase originally provided access to the lantern room. A one-and-a-half-story keeper’s dwelling was linked to the southern side of the tower by a thirty-four-foot-long passageway.
John Squire was appointed the first keeper on December 6, 1798, but he immediately refused the position. A week later, Thomas Burgher of New York City accepted the post, and the station became operational shortly thereafter. Another of the early keepers of the lighthouse was John Gardiner, who provided the land for the lighthouse, and when he passed away in 1812 his son, John H. Gardiner, was appointed in his stead.
Rocks, extending northward and eastward from the point for three-quarters of a mile, have seen more shipwrecks than any other location on Long Island’s northern shore. During just one storm in December 1811, at least sixty ships and most of their crew were lost on the rocks. A particularly bad shipwreck motivated residents to petition Congress to raise the tower’s height to seventy-three feet.
In 1837, a Lieutenant Blake inspected the station after receiving multiple complaints about the light. He found all the lamps defective, and reported: “The keeper admitted that the lights were bad, and he was censured for keeping a bad light.” The American Coast Pilot also joined in the complaints noting that “most, if not all, the lamps of this house should have been condemned many years since; the light, for the most part, cannot be seen more than 7 or 8 miles.” In 1838, a new Argand lamp/reflector combination, having twelve lamps and reflectors arranged around two circular tables, was installed in the lantern room. In 1857, after the tower had been remodeled and strengthened to support a larger lantern room, the illuminating apparatus was changed to a single third-order Fresnel lens fabricated by Henry Lepaute of Paris. Over a century later, the lens remains in service today, although it is now powered by an electric light instead of oil.
The next day, the scene was described by Joseph J. Comstock who was aboard a vessel searching for survivors: “From Crane’s Neck to Old Man’s landing, twelve to fifteen miles east, including the deep bays adjacent, is covered with pieces of the wreck, among which I noticed her name among the siding, nearly in full length, large pieces of her guards, and portions of almost every part of the boat, all of which is mostly burned to coal. We found one of her quarter boats, from which three of the bodies now in our possession were taken; she is very slightly damaged.”
On August 25, 1850, Keeper Benjamin Downing, who had been in charge of the lighthouse for seven years, sent the following to the president of the Life Saving Benevolent Association:
I have to inform you that an accident occurred here today, during the violent northeast storm which is now raging, that called for the use of the Life boat. About 9 o’clock I observed a small vessel coming round the head of the reef; I kept watch of her, and in the act of jibbing, coming into the bay, she capsized, and directly I saw two men on her bottom, the sea running very high, and breaking over her. I immediately sent off for help, when Mr. John Gardiner’s workmen and others came with two yoke of oxen. I had the boat hauled down to the shore, but you may judge of my surprise when I inform you that I could not prevail upon one single person to go in the boat; and knowing that no time was to be lost, I got into the boat with only my son, a lad 16 years of age, and myself, lame with one arm. We pulled off in the trough of the sea until I got to the windward of the wreck, when I ran down before the wind, and succeeded in saving one of the men. The other undertook to swim ashore, and met a watery grave. Had he remained on the wreck, he would have been saved. …
P. S.—Please show this letter to the Collector, as I may be censured for leaving the light house, although I left a good substitute, in the shape of my wife; but I could not stand and see a fellow being perish when I had the means of saving him; the boat, I am happy to say, is all that is required.
For their heroic efforts, the Life Saving Benevolent Association awarded Keeper Downing and his son silver medals and 100 dollars in cash. Keeper Downing’s medal carried the following inscription: “Presented to Benjamin Downing, who by his humane and courageous exertions, during a gale, saved the life of John Clark, from the bottom of the schooner Jane when upset in Long Island Sound, on the 25th August, 1850.”
After Congress provided $11,800 on March 2, 1867, major repair work was performed at the station in 1868 as noted in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board.
The parapet of the tower has been covered with cast-iron panels, and a cast-iron deck-plate put around the lantern. The wooden stairway in the tower has been replaced by iron steps and landings built inside of a cylindrical brick wall. Iron window frames and sashes were substituted for those of wood; an oil-room of brick provided with closets and shelves, built in connection with the tower; the passage-way between the tower and dwelling rebuilt. The keeper’s dwelling was also partially torn down, remodeled, and expanded at that time. After those renovations, the dwelling consisted of a kitchen, a pantry, two storerooms, three sitting rooms, and five bedrooms. The other structures at the station included a shop, a barn, a coal bin, and a fog signal building.
A steam siren fog signal was installed at the station in 1871, to help mariners navigate Long Island Sound and find the entrance to nearby Lloyd’s Harbor in thick weather. As it had to blow as much as 500 hours per year, the siren required a lot of fresh water, and a new well and cistern were added to help quench the signal’s thirst. A duplicate fog signal was added a year or so later to provide redundancy. On June 30, 1904, a first-class automatic siren, powered by two, thirteen-horsepower oil engines and housed in a new brick building, replaced the steam sirens.
The schooner Florence E. Turner, under the command of George E. Graves, was bound from Honduras to New York with a load of cocoanuts when it struck Stratford Shoal and capsized on a stormy night in 1873. The mate and three sailors took to a boat, leaving behind the captain, his wife, and three others. The following morning, Keeper William Parrott organized a volunteer lifesaving crew consisting of himself, his assistant, and a few other men and set off for the wreck. Captain Graves penned the following card of thanks to his rescuers that appeared in a local paper:
On the 28th day of November, the Schooner “Florence V. Turner,” of which I was master, was thrown on her beam ends during a heavy gale, and for five hours the sea made a clean breach over the vessel killing three of the crew from exhaustion, and myself and my wife were in terrible peril, when the gallant keeper of Eaton’s Neck Light Station, obtaining a volunteer crew, launched a life boat and rescued us. To these men, who so unselfishly risked their lives to save those of strangers, I desire to render my most sincere thanks and heart-felt gratitude.The mate and other sailors from the Turner were picked up by a schooner and landed at Eaton’s Neck.
The intensity of the light was increased on February 28, 1907, when the illuminant used in the lantern room was changed from oil to incandescent oil vapor.
The tradition of lighthouse keepers at Eaton’s Neck assisting mariners in distress continued with Arthur Jensen, who was in charge of the station from 1916 to 1942. On August 15, 1923, Keeper Jensen rescued the occupants of a rowboat that capsized near Eaton’s Neck, and on January 28, 1926, Jensen and Ole Andersen, his assistant, helped save the lives of those aboard two barges that broke adrift from a towboat during a heavy westerly storm.
The keeper’s dwelling was demolished in 1969, and eleven Coast Guard housing units were added to the station. Eaton’s Neck Lighthouse was also scheduled for demolition, but local activists went to work and succeeded in having the tower placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The lighthouse continues to show a white light from its classic third-order Fresnel lens – the only Fresnel lens in active use at a Long Island lighthouse. As Eaton’s Neck is an active Coast Guard station, the lighthouse and grounds are closed to the public.