By Laura Schmidt
Robert Müller loves lighthouses so much he got married in one. This lighthouse conservationist’s admiration began 20 years ago while on vacation with his wife, Diana, in Florida. Müller spotted replica lighthouse figurines for sale and wondered about the history of lighthouses back home on Long Island.
To his surprise, he couldn’t find one published book on the subject. It was then that he took on the challenge of conducting his own research and compiling it into a book, entitled “Long Island’s Lighthouses: Past and Present.” (Published in 2003, Long Island Chapter U.S. Lighthouse.)
Müller now spends time sharing what he’s learned with the public. He recently presented a two-hour presentation to a group of individuals at the Bethpage Public Library.
He began by stating Suffolk County has 15 lighthouses, the most of any other county in the United States. When he started his research he was stunned at how much information he found and how many people were generous in giving old artifacts, dated postcards and photographs that would help identify modifications or damage to the buildings.
“We don’t think about the Long Island Sound being a difficult body of water so much now because we have big ships made of steel,” Müller said. “But when we had smaller, wooden ships powered by sail, didn’t have fancy navigation or equipment, a place like the Sound could do some major damage.”
The first and possibly most important lighthouse ever built on Long Island was the Montauk Lighthouse in 1796.
“If you want to get an idea of how important a lighthouse was to an area, look about when it was built,” Müller said. “Montauk was built in 1796. When they had the money and the ability to build a lighthouse, that’s where they built it because that’s where they thought it was most important.”
Although it was built in the fall of 1796, the lighting was delayed because the ship delivering the oil and glass for the lantern ran aground and the materials were destroyed. It wasn’t until the spring that the light was functional. However, no one knows the exact date it was first lit because it was never written down. It also was discovered through dated photographs that the iconic stripe around the lighthouse wasn’t added until 1903.
Many lighthouses have undergone restoration after decades of erosion, vandalism, and lack of care. Weather is also a major enemy of lighthouses. Most lenses have cracks now after being exposed to high temperatures without a cover.
Originally built in 1857 by order of George Washington, Horton’s Point Lighthouse in Southold was restored in 1990 by a group of volunteers. The former keeper’s daughter dug up a photograph of the old property and volunteers tried to replicate it. The original structure had stone griffins that would collect and pour out rain water. During restoration, the original molds were discovered and replicas were made. The result was pretty spot on right down to the hydrangea bush in the front.
“When I started learning about lighthouses, I thought they were cool buildings with cool histories. I learned family stories and family legacies,” Müller said. “The human side of it is not as easy to see but it’s easily just as important.”
Plum Island Lighthouse was built in 1898 and housed its keeper William Whitmore, who welcomed visitors with a sign-in book at the entrance of the quarters. A “very social lighthouse,” people and children would draw pictures of whales and ships that would hang on the walls.
Whitmore, affectionately called Captain Billy, an honorary title for many lighthouse keepers, apparently made notable hard cider. A poem was written about Whitmore that went: “Hurrah for Captain Billy. His cider will not be silly walking up the lighthouse stairs. If you think that you are tough, you’ll be sure to get enough and lose your city airs.”
The present Fire Island Lighthouse, built in 1858, is composed of 800,000 bricks and was originally a cream color. The black and white stripes we know today were added in 1891 to make the building more distinguishable from sea. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1974 and there was talk of knocking it down. Thankfully, the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed and raised enough money to relight it May 25, 1986.
Maintaining lighthouses require considerable funding, often meaning their destiny is uncertain. However lighthouses are an important part of Long Island’s maritime history, and preserving their past is an investment in our future.