Surely some summer sightseer driving down Lighthouse Road has questioned where the actual lighthouse is, only to be disappointed seeing we have only a spindly steel foghorn tower to speak of. But soon everyone will know that up until 1948, Hampton Bays boasted a lighthouse that was the tenth tallest in the world.
Last Tuesday, the Southampton Town Board approved the placing of a $1,200 historic marker at the site of the fallen lighthouse that stood for 90 years, steering ships clear of danger and sparing seamen their demise in Davey Jones’ locker.
The marker will also honor the 30 men and who lost their lives when their ship ran aground in 1859 — their captain unaware that the new lighthouse was built and mistook it for the Montauk Lighhouse.
"This is long-overdue," said Zach Studenroth, the Southampton's historian. "It is surprising how many residents of Hampton Bays and the town have no idea there was a lighhouse there."
A Lighthouse in History
In 1852, with flotillas of tramp steamers trudging to and from New York Harbor, legislators approved a new navigational aid to break the 67-mile stretch of dark sea between Fire Island and Montauk. Surveyors selected Ponquogue Point as the ideal location, but with the barrier island deemed unstable opted to erect the structure on the shores of Shinnecock (then, known as Great West) Bay, nearly a mile inland at the current station.
Construction commenced on the 168-foot-tall tower in 1854, and on January 1, 1858, its 12-foot, first-order Fresnel lens was lit for the first time.
"As one light faded from view, the next light became visible," said filmmaker Tom Garber, whose documentary, Tide and Time, chronicles the maritime heritage of Hampton Bays. "These three lights served as the guide way for tens of thousands of ships."
The new lighthouse initially caused confusion among mariners returning to the region after many months absent, who without wireless telegraphy at the time were unaware of its existence. One such instance even proved deadly, when the captain of the ship, John Milton mistook the new beacon for Montauk and prematurely turned towards what he thought was open sea, running aground and claiming all hands in one of the worst maritime disasters in Long Island history.
Unlike the solitary existences lead by most lighthouse keepers, life for Shinnecock’s stewards was comparatively non-isolationist. Tenders kept quarters in two spacious 2-1/2 story shelters flanking the sides of the tower, one shared by assistants and the other had entirely by the head keeper and family. The pastoral 10-acre plot provided plentiful grounds to grow gardens and graze livestock, leading many keepers to keep company with modest menageries of horses, pigs and cows.
But by the first half of the 20th century, the advent of the electric light and the ever-present mission to mitigate maintenance-intensive infrastructure were fast rendering America’s lighthouses an endangered species. On August 1, 1931, Shinnecock fell to the first wave of extinctions, replaced by a soulless skeleton tower at Ponquogue Point (which was ironically outlasted by its predecessor).
The brick beacon received a 17-year stay of execution, serving a stint as a summer home before the assumed control of the site. Despite a valiant preservation attempt by concerned citizens, who went so far as to commission an independent engineering study vouching for its structural integrity after officials deemed it unstable, the Coast Guard stood steadfast in their decision to topple the tower.
“The group that wanted to save it thought they succeeded until the Coast Guard was told to take it down,” Garber remarked. "I was told by Alvin Penny—his ancestor was a keeper—that a well connected summer resident who lived nearby thought it was an eyesore and was able to pull political strings in Washington.”
The deed was done by spanning support timbers into the structure’s base to bear the load, dousing them with gasoline and setting it all ablaze.
And so on December 23, 1948, Shinnecock Lighthouse was lit one last time, burning briefly before plunging sideways into Good Ground with a thud audible three miles away and littering the landscape with 800,000 bricks.