Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2019

The Battle for Sands Point Lighthouse

By Timothy E. Harrison


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Vintage image of Sands Point Lighthouse in ...

Sometime in the early 1920s, a dispute arose between wealthy socialite Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt Belmont and Thomas J. Murray the keeper of New York’s Sands Point Lighthouse. It seems that Mrs. Belmont was apparently fed up with people crossing her property to get to the lighthouse. In no uncertain terms, she informed keeper Murray that he needed to have her permission before any visitors could cross her property to visit the lighthouse. And her property was not just any property; it was the newly constructed Beacon Towers, a mansion that she had built on the land adjoining the lighthouse reservation. The Beacon Towers resembled a medieval castle and dwarfed the lowly government lighthouse.

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Sands Point Lighthouse as it appeared from the ...

It was widely known that Alva Belmont was one of the most wealthy and powerful women in America who had far reaching social and political connections. But apparently, keeper Murray was not about to be intimidated by her. To perhaps better understand what type of person keeper Murry was, one has to first understand his background in life.

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Thomas Joseph Murray is shown here on his 80th ...

Thomas J. Murray – The Early Years

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Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt Belmont, the ...

Born in Ireland on March 28, 1881, Thomas J. Murray, who was named after his grandfather, Irish sea Captain Thomas Murray (1809-1869), immigrated to the United States with his parents and seven siblings in 1888. The family packed up everything they could carry and left for the long journey on a ship named the Wyoming. According to family records, the ride across the Atlantic took about a month, and there were 960 other passengers on board the vessel. During that month long journey, Thomas’s father, William, foolishly gambled away all their money, and when they arrived in New York, the previously well-to-do family was totally broke.

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This aerial view of the Sands Point Lighthouse ...

Thomas’s parents found public housing in Brooklyn, but the derelict “room” was too small for the entire family, so they decided to keep his four sisters with them and send Thomas and his three brothers to a workhouse on New York’s Welfare Island, which was more like a prison for the poor, with forced child labor for unscrupulous business owners. Amazingly, all four of the Murray brothers survived and somehow were eventually able to escape the horrors of the workhouse on Welfare Island.

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Aerial photo showing the Sands Point Lighthouse ...

At the age of fifteen, Thomas J. Murray lied about his age and joined the U.S. Navy. Just prior to the outbreak of the Spanish American War, he was assigned as a Seaman Apprentice to the battleship USS Maine. But the USS Maine was in Florida, so he and some other men, who were also being transferred to the USS Maine were assigned passage on the battleship USS Texas which was headed to Florida.

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The Sands Point Lighthouse with its replacement ...

At the time of his 80th birthday, Thomas J. Murray told a reporter from a Florida newspaper, “We were going to be glad to get off the Texas as passengers, because they were giving us all the work. When we got to Key West a storm blew up and we had to wait.” He and the other men who were assigned to the Maine were furious – they wanted off the Texas. By the time the storm passed the USS Maine had left for Cuba without them, and they were stranded on the USS Texas and on their way to Galveston, Texas. While in Galveston, they learned that the USS Maine had blown up in Havana Harbor. The men were stunned in disbelief. Had they been onboard the USS Maine, they might have lost their lives along with the 260 sailors who did perish.

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Sands Point Lighthouse, New York encased in ...
Photo by: Al King, III

The USS Texas was immediately ordered to Cuba. Before long, Murray, as part of the crew who manned the six-inch guns, was soon in the thick of battle and suffered a leg injury. Murray recalled that he had seen some terrible sights on the Spanish ships involved in the battle for Santiago Harbor. “When we blew up one Spanish ship, the bodies were tossing in the air and we were all shouting and yelling, but Capt. Jack said ‘Don’t cheer men; those poor devils are dying,’ and we stopped.”

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The Sands Point Lighthouse has had some changes ...
Photo by: Ken Spencer

Following the surrender of the Spanish and the conclusion of the short-lived Spanish-America War, Murray and three other sailors rowed out to the sunken USS Maine and hoisted a United States flag on the part of the mast that was still above water.

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Some of the Navy medals and memorabilia of Thomas ...

Shortly after he was discharged from the Navy in 1902, Thomas J. Murray joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service. By the time he arrived to become the head keeper at Sands Point Lighthouse in 1916, he was already an established veteran lighthouse keeper, having served at Esopus Meadows Lighthouse from 1907 to 1916 and before that at Fire Island Lighthouse from 1903 to 1907.

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Execution Rocks Lighthouse where Thomas J. Murray ...

The Battle for Sands Point

It was at Sands Point Lighthouse that keeper Murray became involved in a different kind of battle. Describing the conflict one newspaper wrote, “The keeper, Thomas J. Murray, was in the habit of receiving relatives, who went there to fish and swim, incidentally passing through Mrs. Belmont’s property. The doughty little mistress of Beacon Towers was wroth at those intrusions. In 2004, Thomas Murray’s nephew said. “He was a hard-nosed guy from Brooklyn. He told her [Alva Belmont], ‘This is government property and we have the right of way.’”

The newspaper may have been somewhat kind in the way that they wrote about keeper Murray, because family memories of Murray’s stories, as he himself had told them, indicated that he loved to “tip the bottle” a bit and was somewhat of a partier himself, especially with his military friends. At Sands Point Lighthouse, they would stay up partying until all hours of the night.

Soon it became evident how influential Mrs. Belmont was when a letter dated June 14, 1922 arrived from the Superintendent of the Third Lighthouse District. It stated that keeper Murray would not be allowed to have any visitors at the lighthouse on weekends or holidays in the months of June, July, and August, and this included “all visitors, whether they be personal friends of yourself or family or otherwise.”

Doubting that any other lighthouse keeper in the United States had ever received a letter with orders like this, keeper Thomas Murray was probably livid. This meant that those weekend and holiday gatherings would have to come to a complete stop. We can only speculate if there were any kind of future confrontations between the salty keeper and Mrs. Belmont after that.

However, things went downhill quickly afterwards for keeper Murray. In the autumn of 1922, he was then informed that the lighthouse would be deactivated and replaced by a steel skeletal tower located offshore at the end of Sands Point, and that the Sands Point Light Station would no longer need a lighthouse keeper.

In the back of keeper Murray’s mind, he believed that Alva Belmont had something to do with the lighthouse being deactivated. In December of that year, a work crew arrived and dismantled the lantern and removed it, leaving behind a headless tower and the station was closed up.

Sale and Ownerships

In 1923, the federal government announced that the lighthouse would be sold at auction in April of that year. The advertisement stated that no bid under $50,000 would be accepted. The people of nearby Port Washington were upset about this and raised a number of vocal and written concerns.

New York’s famous governor Alfred E. Smith, who would later run as the Democratic Party candidate for President, stepped in, claiming that ownership of the lighthouse property should revert back to state ownership rather than be put up for auction. The Governor was then able to get the auction held off for another six months while he tried to secure the property.

The Daily News wrote, “If Gov. Smith succeeds in obtaining the coveted tract for a State Park, as everyone predicts he will, he will find himself in the legal lists of Mrs. Belmont. The latter loves a good fight and political opponents who have felt the strength of her mental fist admit that she is a formidable opponent.”

The newspaper went on to write, “The disputed tip has two to three thousand feet of waterfront, sufficient to afford steamboat landing, in case picnickers are willing to take a water route to the spot. Present indications are that they will insist on running their flivvers [small cheap cars] over the place, with lunch baskets and fishing tackle. Mrs. Belmont would rather die than see her immaculate gravel driveways littered with pop bottles and banana peels. So, she is girding herself for the fray.”

However, Governor Smith’s plan to secure the lighthouse for the State of New York as a park was thwarted, perhaps by the long reaching influence of Alva Belmont at higher levels of government. In November of 1924 when the federal government auction took place for the headless light station, with a high bid of $100,000, Alva Belmont became the new owner of the former Sands Point Lighthouse. At some point, the lighthouse was capped with a facsimile lantern room, which returned some dignity to the former light tower.

In 1927, perhaps as a final insult to Gov. Smith, Alva Belmont sold the Beacon Towers and the former Sands Point Light Station to newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who was once described by Gov. Smith as “A man as low and mean as I can picture.” It was reported that the Hearst family then lived in the former Sands Point Lighthouse keeper’s house and used the Beacon Towers mansion for guests.

According to Wikipedia, in the 1940s Hearst put the property up for sale, and after being unable to find a buyer, he surrendered the property to a New York bank to satisfy a mortgage. Also unable to find a buyer for the property, the bank began selling off parts of the mansion and demolishing it; however, remnants of it still remain. The property was later sold to a realtor who divided it into lots to build a private residential development. Fortunately, the former Sands Point Light Station was saved and has continued to remain in private ownership to this day. On October 27, 1992, the Village of Sands Point and the Landmarks Commission designated the lighthouse as a Village Landmark.

In 2014-15, the Sands Point Lighthouse underwent an extensive restoration that was funded by current owners Don and Ilene Vultaggio. At the time of the rededication of the restored lighthouse, Don Vultaggio was quoted in the Port Washington News as saying “My belief as an overseer is that you are preserving something historic so that hundreds of years from now the town will continue to be very proud of this landmark.”

Into Obscurity

But what happened to Thomas J. Murray, the last keeper of the Sands Point Lighthouse who tangled with the powerful and wealthy Alva Vanderbilt Belmont? He was exiled from an ideal land-based lighthouse to become the keeper of the inhospitable Execution Rocks Lighthouse that sits on a rocky outcropping in Western Long Island Sound. It could be speculated that the long arm of Alva Belmont had something to do with where he had been transferred.

Thomas J. Murray stayed at Execution Rocks Lighthouse until 1924 when he was transferred to Greens Ledge Lighthouse in Connecticut. By 1935 Thomas J. Murray left the Lighthouse Service and he and his wife Hannah retired to Florida where he spent his last days whittling wood, carving toys, and building model ships.

Thomas J. Murray died in Bradenton, Florida in November of 1969 and was buried at the Skyway Memorial Gardens in Palmetto, Florida. At the time of his death, it was reported that he was among the very few last surviving members of the Spanish American War.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2019 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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