A Broken Beacon

The Shinnecock Bay Lighthouse

There were tears in the eyes of many old timers who stood watching the old landmark pass away…

I was born in 1975, long after this beautiful lighthouse was demolished. Still, that fact didn’t stop the melancholy from finding its way in as I did my research. I can imagine how seeing this towering brick beacon on a daily basis afforded it the sentiment of being a permanent fixture of the Long Island lanscape.

It is truly sad that such a structure, which at one time was one of the tallest brick lighthouses in the United States, standing proudly at 168 feet, could be destroyed even against the argument of historical preservation.

Built just before the Civil War, this beacon while preventing many a disaster, actually caused one. Generally, lights were constructed to provide navigation for a ship’s safe passage, as was the case for the Shinnecock Light. In 1852, it was one of eight projects slated for construction during the first year of operation for the Lighthouse Board, which took over the responsiblilty of constructing and maintaining the lights from the United States Lighthouse Service.

Keep in mind while at sea, news did not travel quickly. With troubles rising in the South with regard to slavery and succession, the construction of a lighthouse on the south shore of Long Island probably ranked very low on any list of important news.

The ship the John Milton was ending her long voyage to South America on February 19, 1858. The Captain had no knowledge of the lighthouse’s debut just one month prior. Aware of only two lights, Fire Island and Montauk, by his calculations the Captain believed he must have been approaching Montauk. He maneuvered the vessel North toward Block Island Sound only to find out moments later, he had acually run aground at Shinnecock. His entire crew perished.

It was reported that another Captain, on that same stormy night, was confused as well, but held his ship off shore and waited for the first light of dawn, successfully avoiding disaster.

To access the lantern room the keepers had to climb the 178 steps that wound to the top of the lighthouse. Strangely, one inclement night during the fall in 1883, approximately 160 birds flew into the glass panes of the lantern room causing considerable damage. Historians have noted that this was a recurring problem which had caused six panes to be replaced years earlier.

The Light helped break the 67 mile gap between the Fire Island Lighthouse and Montauk. It took close to one million bricks to build the Shinnnecock Bay Lighthouse and according to lighthouse historians it took almost two weeks to saw through the base upon demolition. Crews removed part of the brickwork on the base and replaced it with dry timber. John H. Sutter wrote, ” Ellsworth Holland, 88 years of age, lit the fire. There were tears in the eyes of many old timers who stood watching the old landmark pass away..” Despite the efforts of the local residents and mariners, Shinnecock Bay Lighthouse was no more.

Today, an automated beacon on a skeleton tower is there to guide the many ships voyaging along that stretch of the Long Island coast. Perhaps that beacon poetically remains shadowed by the memory of a once magnificent light.

*photo credit- U.S. Coast Guard

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