Before there was a lighthouse on Montauk Point, there were only three structures on all of Montauk’s 10,000-plus acres. They were known as First House, Second House, and Third House. The inhabitants of these dwellings oversaw the herds of cattle and sheep that were brought on Montauk each spring and returned to their farms in towns such as Amagansett, East Hampton, and others each fall.
These dwellings, all built in the 1740s and later rebuilt, also provided shelter to individuals that survived numerous shipwrecks that occurred along Montauk’s dark, forbidden shores. With the close of the American Revolution came increasing numbers of ships heading to and departing from the growing Port of New York. Many vessels sailed to and from European ports and undoubtedly passed Long Island’s South Shore. Not having a seamark to give them a better perspective of their location, ships were at risk of running aground or being dashed to pieces by the many rocks and boulders along Montauk’s coast.
By 1792, some of the loudest voices in support of a lighthouse at Montauk Point came from members of the newly established New York Stock Exchange, many of whom invested in overseas trade. It is easy to understand how a lighthouse would benefit their financial interests. Wrote one New York merchant: “I drove the coasting business through all seasons for twenty years and often reflected upon the settling of a light upon Montague which in fact would…give the most universal relief and satisfaction of any spot you could fix upon.”
Another merchant wrote: “Its elevation is such as makes it a Key to a Great portion of the Foreign trade both to New York and Several of the eastern states and to all the Coasting trade in that quarter.”
Aware of the need for a lighthouse at Montauk Point, President George Washington (1732-1799) authorized construction of the lighthouse by an act of the Second Congress on April 12, 1792. The document was signed by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Before construction could begin, the Treasury Department, then the administrator of the fledgling lighthouse service, requested a survey at Montauk Point to determine the best site for construction of the tower. At the request of the New York Chamber of Commerce, Revolutionary War patriot and New York politician, Ezra L’Hommedieu (1734-1811) selected a site upon the flat plateau of Turtle Hill, 297 feet from the edge of the Point. However, in his report, he noted that beach erosion was significant at Montauk Point: “…as the Bank is washed away by the sea in storms, we suppose it best to set the Building at this distance.”
The land at Turtle Hill was later purchased by the federal government for the sum of $250. The document authorizing the purchase was signed by George Washington on January 4, 1796.
In March 1793, Congress appropriated $20,000 for construction. The need for a light at Montauk was, in some ways, even greater than for other lighthouses in the new nation. While many existing towers served to guide ships into major ports, the Montauk Light was intended to be the landfall light for ships approaching New York City from Europe. It would also guide ships into Gardiner’s Bay, to enter Long Island Sound, and to head eastward from the Atlantic Ocean to harbors at Newport and coastal Massachusetts.
New York bricklayer John McComb’s (1763-1853) bid of $22,300 earned him the contract in August of 1795. He assembled a crew of 50 men – masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, bricklayers and laborers- and laid the cornerstone on June 7, 1796. The sandstone for the 80-foot tower most likely came from quarries in the Connecticut towns of Portland or Middletown.
The 33-year-old McComb and his crew completed the tower, a keeper’s dwelling, a storage building containing nine cedar cisterns for whale oil, and other structures by November 5th – only five months after construction began. Once completed, McComb’s younger brother, Isaac, a builder himself, completed a watercolor capturing the appearance of the light station entitled “A View of the Light House on Montack Point.”
Though completed in November, there was an unforeseen delay and a touch of irony in the lighting of the tower. The lighthouse was constructed to help prevent shipwrecks, but the ship carrying the supply of whale oil for the station reportedly ran aground in early December “in a violent gale of wind” at Napeague, about 15 miles west of the lighthouse. The oil eventually arrived at the lighthouse, which was first lit by April of 1797, with 64-year-old Jacob Hand (1733-1813) as the first keeper.
Changes in the lighting apparatus occurred early in the 19th century. However, during the years 1820-1852 when the Lighthouse Establishment was under the administration of Stephen Pleasanton (1777-1855), Montauk Light, as well as many others, suffered from neglect. Being an auditor in the Treasury Department, Pleasanton knew how to pinch pennies. Consequently, many repairs were overlooked and inferior quality materials were used in construction and any repairs that were made.
By 1851 Congress had become totally dissatisfied with Pleasanton and created the Light-House Board. A 9-member panel included military personnel, engineers, and a scientist. Their regimented and somewhat martial style brought immediate improvements. They viewed Montauk Light as a “very important light, especially for navigators bound from Europe to New York” and made plans to fit the tower with a first-order Fresnel lens. In use in European lighthouses from the 1820s, they were far superior to any lighting apparatus in the U.S.
The lens selected for Montauk, standing twelve feet tall, six feet in diameter, and weighing about 10,000 pounds, was installed in the summer of 1857. The new lens required much attention; therefore two assistant keepers were assigned to the Montauk Point Light Station at that time. Three keepers would maintain the station until 1943.
To avoid confusion with neighboring lighthouses, the Light-House Board announced that as of January 1, 1858 the Montauk Light would be displayed as a “fixed beam varied by flashes,” while at Shinnecock (Hampton Bays), a new lighthouse would begin operation as a fixed beam. The changes in the two lights on the same day set the stage for a famous maritime disaster, since there was no way in those days to notify ships at sea of changes in lighthouses or their characteristics.
The John Milton, a medium clipper ship, had departed New York back in December of 1856 and sailed for San Francisco. It then sailed for the Chincha Islands near Peru, where it picked up nearly 2,000 pounds of guano and headed for its home port of New Bedford, Massachusetts. As the ship approached Long Island, the ship’s captain, Ephraim Harding, noted in the ship’s log of running into “strong gales and a thick snowstorm.” It is believed that as the vessel groped along in the tempest, he was able to make out the steady beam of what he believed to be the Montauk Point Lighthouse. He continued eastward for a distance and then turned north into what he thought was Block Island Sound. Just before dawn on February 20, 1858 the John Milton crashed on the rocks at Montauk, five miles west of the lighthouse. The entire crew of 33 perished. Captain Harding had apparently mistaken the new Shinnecock Lighthouse for Montauk Light.
In June 1860 work began in order to upgrade Montauk Point Lighthouse to the standards of a first order light station. The lighthouse was raised 14 feet and a larger lantern was installed, bringing the tower to its current height of 110 1/2 feet. In addition, a new keeper’s dwelling was built atop Turtle Hill and connected to the tower. The new dwelling, able to house three keepers and their families, was most welcome, since the original 1796 house was infested with termites at the time and was therefore immediately demolished when the new dwelling was occupied.
William F. Smith (1824-1903), Engineer-Secretary of the Light-House Board, set the standards for a first-order light station, all of which were met at Montauk:
1) The lighthouse had to have a focal plane of at least 150-feet above sea level. Montauk had a focal plane of 154-feet.
2) A first-order lantern was required. One was installed at Montauk and contained a first-order Fresnel lens.
3) A service room just below the lantern was to house the pedestal and clockworks for the lens, and a watch room was needed for the keeper to tend the light. These components were part of the 1860 construction at Montauk.
4) The tower had to be fireproof. At Montauk, the original wooden floors, stairways and windows in the tower were removed. An iron spiral stairway was installed in a circular brick stairwell. The service room and watch deck room were constructed of iron, as were decks, casement sashes, and other items. An oil house for storage of flammable fuel and a maintenance workroom were built adjacent to the tower.
With the implementation of proper training and instructions, keepers were now skillfully prepared to “tend the light.” Robert Hefner, a historic preservation consultant wrote: “The practice of selecting keepers from the local population and political appointments quickly gave way to career keepers.” Periodic inspections were conducted to assure light stations were properly maintained.
By the 1860s whale oil as an illuminant, in use since the tower’s inception, had become scarce and expensive. The Light-House Board sought alternatives and ultimately settled on kerosene, which was in use at Montauk by the early 1880s. A fog signal, consisting of a first-class Daboll trumpet powered by two steam engines was added in 1873 and sounded a 12-second blast every 50 seconds. A fog signal building was added in 1897. The distinctive daymark – the brown band around the tower’s middle – was painted in 1899, “denoting by day that the light-house displays a flashing light.”
By 1901 the clockworks that operated the first order lens was in poor condition. It was replaced with a 3 1/2 order bivalve Fresnel lens in June of 1903, which exhibited a flashing white light every 10 seconds. At this time, a fourth order fixed red range light was mounted on the main balcony of the lighthouse to warn of Shagwong Reef, a navigational hazard about 3 1/2 miles northwest of the lighthouse. This remained in use until the lighthouse was electrified in 1940.
An incandescent oil vapor lamp was installed in December 1907 which greatly increased the light’s intensity. This was the last modification of the flame in the lens until the lighthouse was electrified.
Electricity reached the keeper’s dwelling in 1938, bringing lights, heat, and plumbing. The light itself was electrified and a radio beacon installed on July 1, 1940, bringing the Montauk Light into the “modern era.”
With the onset of WWII, the lighthouse station was gradually taken over by the military and became part of the Eastern Coast Defense Shield. The last three civilian keepers, Thomas Buckridge, Jack Miller, and George Warrington were all gone by early 1943. The primary role of the lighthouse during the war was surveillance. A fire control tower was built in 1942, housing radar equipment and coordinating fire power with guns installed at neighboring Camp Hero, a military base. Army Staff Sergeant Arthur Dunne (1916-2009) was assigned to Montauk to establish and operate a radar station and construct the fire tower. He told of receiving orders from the Army to self-destruct in the event of an enemy attack at the Point.
By 1946, the Coast Guard took over operation of Montauk Lighthouse. In 1961, a motor was installed below the lantern, ending 100 years of manually cranking an 80-pound weight every three hours to operate the flash signal. At that time the signal was reduced to 5 seconds, which is maintained today.
Coast Guard operation at Montauk Point ended when the lighthouse was automated on February 3, 1987, and the 3 1/2 order Fresnel lens was replaced with a DCB-224 revolving airport beacon, powered by a 1000-watt, 2 1/2 million candlepower bulb, visible up to 24 miles. In July 2001 the beacon was replaced with a Vega VRB-25 DC low voltage marine rotating beacon. Visible up to about 18 miles, the nearly 300,000 candlepower unit maintains a flash every five seconds.
Almost 20 civilian head keepers operated the Montauk Point Lighthouse during the years 1796-1943, beginning with Jacob Hand. His son, Jared, succeed him in 1812, but not before Jared officially qualified for the position after President Thomas Jefferson had warned of his opposition to nepotism.
Henry Baker was keeper at Montauk 1814-1832. During those years visitors began staying overnight at the lighthouse, one noting in the guestbook in 1825: “Our most sincere thanks to Mr. & Mrs. Baker for their kindness and attention which made our visit extremely pleasant and agreeable.” By 1832 it was time to replace keeper Baker since he had become “partially deranged, dejected and melancholy.”
Patrick Gould (1799-1879) served 1832-1849 and was an enterprising man. When he requested an extension to the keeper’s dwelling in 1837 (built 1838), allegedly to be used for storage, the possibility of using it to accommodate additional guests was certainly an incentive!
The practice of entertaining overnight guests at Montauk ended in 1857 when, during William Gardiner’s tenure as head keeper, the newly created Light-House Board alleged: “that the keeper…repeatedly violated the instructions and regulations of the Department by entertaining boarders for pay…and in vending intoxicating liquors.” It was also during Gardiner’s time that two assistant keepers were assigned to the Montauk Light Station.
Other keepers followed with interesting stories. Jonathan Allen Miller (1834-1915) served 1865-1869 and 1872-1875, with the use of only one arm, having lost the other in a Civil War naval battle. James G. Scott (1840-1910) was probably the most noted and documented civilian keeper at Montauk, serving 1885-1910. He was the first to wear an official uniform at the station. He and his wife Margaret had five children, only one of whom survived to adulthood. Detailed logbooks give a clear picture of life at the station during his time there, featuring changes in assistant keepers, certain special visitors, weather conditions, and some of the everyday activities.
Shipwrecks still took place in those days, and survivors “would be put up at the lighthouse and they would become members of the family for as long as they were marooned there.” This sometimes lasted for weeks.
John Ellsworth Miller (1863-1932), a son of keeper Jonathan Allen Miller, was a retired Brooklyn police officer when he came to Montauk Lighthouse in 1912. During his years here, Montauk became a lively place during Prohibition, when keepers were suspected of collusion with “rumrunners.” These suspicions touched off an investigation in 1925, involving the Coast Guard and the Lighthouse Bureau. Though keeper Miller and his two assistants (one of whom was his son, Jack) were interviewed and were not implicated in any wrongdoing, the Bureau wrote that they would “closely observe this station and the keepers in the future for any evidence of collusion with the liquor traffic.”
Keeper Miller liked to relate the story of the wreck of the Madonna V, a rumrunner that ran aground near the lighthouse in 1924. While locals made short work of recovering the contents, a few days later Miller recovered the ship’s flag and kept it “as a souvenir of a most memorable work.”
Thomas Buckridge (1874-1955) succeeded keeper Miller on January 1, 1930 and was the last civilian head keeper at Montauk Point Light. He and his assistants, Jack Miller (1891-1969), son of former keeper John Ellsworth Miller, and George Warrington (1901-1955), witnessed the arrival of thousands of visitors during the 1930s, access improved by the newly constructed Montauk Point State Parkway in 1931 by Robert Moses (1888-1981). It became a difficult task to balance the responsibilities of greeting visitors and maintaining the station at the same time.
Keepers Buckridge, Miller and Warrington left the lighthouse during WWII, ending the era of the civilian keeper at Montauk.
Following the years of occupation by the Coast Guard (1946-1987), the Montauk Point Lighthouse Museum was established by the Montauk Historical Society and opened to the public in May of 1987. Tour guides inform visitors of the significance of the lighthouse and its place in history as being the first lighthouse built in New York State and the fourth oldest lighthouse in continuous operation in the United States.
Looking back at its more than 210 years of service, the Montauk Point Lighthouse has withstood attacks from the forces of nature, including the great hurricane of September 21, 1938 which sent 150-mile per hour gusts across the Point. The most destructive threat came from the constant erosion of the bluff, which originally stood 297-feet from the base of the tower in 1796, shrinking to less than 60-feet today. Thanks to an erosion control project begun by photographer and textile designer Giorginia Reid (1908-2001) in 1970 and completed under the guidance of Montauk landscaper Greg Donohue, the Montauk Historical Society, and other organizations in 1998, the lighthouse is on a secure footing for the future.
The sturdiness of the Montauk Point Lighthouse is a credit to its builder. Historic preservation consultant Robert Hefner wrote: “John McComb Jr. had an excellent reputation as a builder and there is every indication that the Montauk Point Lighthouse was constructed to the highest standards of the time. The fact that three out of the four surviving towers constructed by the Federal government before 1800 (Cape Henry, Montauk Point, Eaton’s Neck) were built by McComb is testimony to his skill and careful supervision…its present sound condition is certainly the result of McComb’s initial construction.”
May the Montauk Point Lighthouse continue to stand proud and continue its noble vigil, and may visitors, like the great American poet Walt Whitman, “stand on some mighty eagle’s beak” to appreciate the wondrous tableau of sea, sky, and rolling hills…interrupted only by the ancient lighthouse perched on high battered bluffs.
Editor’s Note: Henry Osmers is the author of three books about Montauk Point Lighthouse. On Eagles Beak: A History of the Montauk Point Lighthouse, Outskirts Press, 2008. Living on the Edge: Life at Montauk Point Lighthouse 1930-1945, Outskirts Press, 2009. They Were All Strangers: The Wreck of the John Milton at Montauk, New York, Outskirts Press, 2010.
This story appeared in the
September 2010 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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