By Shoshanna McCollum / In 1858, Fire Island Lighthouse would be lit for the very first time. It also would be the year that Theodore Roosevelt was born; Charles Darwin went public with his theories of evolution; and a young man running for senator named Abraham Lincoln made a speech in which he famously said, “A house divided cannot stand,” only to lose to his opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, after a series of heated debates. One could call it a year that change was on the horizon.
It was November of 1858 when Fire Island Lighthouse was put into service. It had been constructed to replace a shorter lighthouse which had been built only decades before, but deemed insufficient after several notable shipwrecks took place in the area. The new taller lighthouse (168 feet high) would be outfitted with a Fresnel lens of the first order, which was the very best in cutting-edge technology at the time. On Sept. 20, 1938 (just shy of its 80th birthday) electric power was activated at the lighthouse for the first time – only to be blown-out the next day by the most infamous hurricane of that century. At age 120, its fate was uncertain, having been decommissioned a few years prior. Then came rebirth, and by its 130th year the lighthouse had been restored and repurposed. With its national historic place designation established, and the beacon relit, Fire Island Lighthouse embarked on a new chapter and was shining brightly once again.
Now at the seasoned age of 160, those who love the Fire Island Lighthouse gathered on Saturday, Nov. 3, to observe its benchmark birthday, and Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (FILPS) pulled out all the stops. Festivities included the FILPS Players who performed a lively rendition of “Robert’s Tall Friend” authored by Vivian Farrell. First published in 1987, the local classic has delighted generations of Long Island children. While “Robert’s Tall Friend” is a work of fiction, Vivian’s lead character was based on a real little boy named Robert. Robert Norris is grown up now, and was given the honor of cutting the celebratory birthday cake, as his family, now several generations strong, made an appearance to reminisce about their years in residence in the lighthouse.
Celebrations continued in the Lens Building as performance artist Joseph Smith portrayed Augustin Fresnel. Smith was a hit when he made his debut at Fire Island Lighthouse last year. With an endowment from the Staten Island Arts Council/National Lighthouse Museum, Smith delivers his moving one-man show to lighthouses across the region, in which he paints a vivid picture of the French inventor of simple beginnings who would go on to revolutionize sea navigation.
“I don’t think any Hollywood studio could prepare a better set for me than what you folks have here,” said Smith as he addressed the audience after his show. “Not only is your lighthouse a national treasure, this lens is a national treasure, all of you are national treasures I’m telling you right now. I really appreciate that you come out here on a windy day and allow me to share the love.”
Smith further explained to the audience that Fresnel’s principals of light refraction are still used in modern day applications including theater lighting, traffic signals, and solar technology.
However the actual Augustin Fresnel would perish of ill health three decades before his lens would reach Fire Island shores. Author Vivian Farrell died in 2015, at the age of 85, just three years shy of this important celebration.
The cycle of all that Fire Island has witnessed is one that is sometimes bittersweet, but underscores the importance of FILPS’s ongoing mission. We celebrate not just a lighthouse, but the men and women who contribute to its legacy.
The birthday party is not over. Pay a visit Fire Island Lighthouse, and consider giving to the FILPS One Step at a Time campaign to restore the stairs of the lighthouse tower so visitors can enjoy the breathtaking views for another 160 years. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
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