The Little Light That Could
Natural disasters, Prohibition, erosion, flawed structural engineering and even decomission hasn’t been enough to extinguish the glory of the Cedar Island Lighthouse.
Feature Photo Courtesy-Bob Savage
Established in 1839 by the United States Coast Guard, the Cedar Island Light remains a valuable part of Long Island history. The original house stood on an island roughly two-hundred yards from the South Fork. The island itself only consisted of about three acres. Despite its small size, the island was geographically titanic.
Sag Harbor during this period was considered the second most important port on Long Island. Brooklyn far to its west boasted first place. Even famed Greenport to her east couldn’t compete with the Harbor of Sagg in its hey-dey. Ships needed safe passasge through a narrow waterway between Shelter Island and Cedar Island in order to make port in Sag Harbor, thus the commissioning of a much needed navigational light.
The original structure was a 35 foot tall wooden tower. It has been speculated that this original building could not support the weight of the cast iron lantern. This would seem like the end for the sagging little lighthouse. As if a buckling foundation wasn’t bad enough, the sand around the lighthouse was constantly battling the severe forces of erosion. A visitor in 1850 noted the need for protection against this terrible force of nature and concluded that the current measures would not be enough to withstand an eventual demise. These two factors would surely mean the end for the light, would it not?
The answer came in 1867 when Congress approved $25,000 for the building of a new lighthouse. In 1868 a new granite building was erected. This L-shaped house is still standing today. Erosion persisted on being an issue into the very early 1900’s and by 1907 more than 6,000 tons of riprap would be placed on the north and west sides of the island to help hinder the effects of erosion.
Throughout its history there have been quite a few keepers at Cedar Island Lighthouse. Two of the most interesting, in my opinion, would be Keeper Mulford and Keeper Follett.
A Civil War veteran named Charles Mulford was made Keeper at Cedar Island in 1897. Notably he was injured during the war and had to wear a peg leg as a result. One can only imagine the stories local children must have had regarding Keeper Mulford as he was well known for buying up every single wooden leg he could find around the local community. Rumors say that after a vandal set fire to the lighthouse in 1974 a firefighter found an old storage room that was full of charred wooden peg legs.
William H. Follett, Keeper of Cedar Island from 1917 until 1934, when the light was decommissioned, has two harrowing tales that seem to have lent him some local notoriety. The first taking place in 1919, Follett had taken note of a fire aboard a boat called the Flyer. Suddenly there was an explosion, Keeper Follett worked his way to the doomed vessel and managed to get three badly burned men from the boat to a hospital. Sadly, despite his efforts, none survived.
Keeper Follett probably felt the sobering effects of Prohibition as well. One story, particularly interesting, tells of William Follett’s involvement in none other than rum running! The trade was very active in Sag Harbor during the era of Prohibition. It has been said that Keeper Follett used to hang a lantern on one of the Cedar trees that still dotted the island if the Coast Guard was in the area. When his grand-children asked why he hung the lanterns he told them it was to keep the deer away!
One morning after bootleggers had been caught by the Coast Guard the night before, Keeper Follett’s grandsons noticed a man clinging to a rock they had affectionately called “Fatty”. He had been shot in the leg and the keeper and his family, over the course of a few days, helped him recover from his wounds. After dropping the stranger in Sag Harbor, for three consecutive Sundays, a large wooden boat dropped a barrel at the station. Inside, the family would find the Sunday paper, candy bars and even a bone for the family dog.
Once decommissioned the old lighthouse was put up for sale and bought by one Phelan Beale for about $2,000. He had envisioned a peaceful hunting lodge. After his death, his wife, Edith Beale, who was also an Aunt to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, sold the property which finally ended up being bought by Suffolk County and made part of the Cedar Point Park as it remains today.
In a strange twist of fate, the most noticeable geographic attribute of Cedar Island Lighthouse, is that it isn’t an island at all. Long Islanders can thank the notorious Hurricane of 1938. Without that massive natural disaster, Cedar Island Lighthouse by now, even with the many tons of riprap, would have more than likely been swept into the bay. The Long Island Express had such an impact on the area that enough sand had been deposited so that the 200 yard gap between Cedar Island and the South Fork closed. Thus forming what we now know as Cedar Point.
The next time you take the two mile hike out to Cedar Point and you revel in the perfect shell beach surrounding the peninsula, keep the history of this amazing lighthouse in the back of your mind. Picture the lantern swinging in the night, the whaling ships making safe passage, the generations of families staying vigilant during even the strongest of storms that batter this bruised and ever-changing landscape. Look over to Gardiner’s Bay and then toward Sag Harbor. Breathe in the calming salt air as the waves lap the shoreline. This is what Long Island is about. This is…Cedar Island Lighthouse.