The Montauk Point Lighthouse is the largest lighthouse on Long Island and one of the biggest mainland lights on the Atlantic coast. Designated a National Historic Landmark in recognition of the property’s national significance in the history of the United States on March 2, 2012 by the Secretary of the Interior, the lighthouse is open daily in the summer months and on a varying schedule throughout the year.
The story of the lighthouse goes back to the beginnings of the United States. Because of the importance of maritime shipping, one of the acts of the first session of Congress was to create a Lighthouse Service to aid commerce. In 1792, Congress authorized the construction of the Montauk Lighthouse, and on August 18, 1795, President George Washington approved the proposal. President Washington is often quoted as predicting that the lighthouse would stand for 200 years.
On June 7, 1796, the first stone of the foundation was laid, 297 feet from shore on Turtle Hill. The site planner, Ezra L’Hommedieu, warned that the clay banks would gradually erode from the action of the sea, and sited the lighthouse far back from the cliffs. The lighthouse was completed on November 5, 1796. Erosion has been a problem ever since. By 1897, the distance had been reduced to a little over 200 feet. Today the lighthouse is situated 50 feet from the bank’s edge and efforts are underway to protect the bluffs.
The tower’s original lighting apparatus consisted of 13 whale oil lamps arranged on two levels shining a continuous beam of light. Whale oil was replaced by lard oil for a short time, then by kerosene, and in 1838, polished metal reflectors were placed behind the lamps to make the light more intense. In 1860, the lighthouse was refitted with a “first-order” Fresnel lens, a brass and crystal French lens that reflected the light in a round casement of glass prisms and magnifying lenses. At that time, Montauk’s immobile beam was altered by a bright flash that interrupted the beam every two minutes. This light was replaced in 1904 by a more modern and powerful bivalve lens which flashed a white light every fifteen seconds. Today the light is an automated 1,000 watt airport type beacon, and no longer needs the attention of a lighthouse keeper as it had for nearly 200 years.
From 1796 until 1987, lighthouse keepers maintained and tended to the light. Jacob Hand was the first keeper, and his son Jared the second. The keepers lived in a wood framed building adjacent to the lighthouse, with their wives and children, their assistants and the assistant’s families. Along with their duties tending to the light and maintaining the grounds and structures, the keepers were required to escort visitors up to the top of the tower, and explain its functions. It wasn’t until the late 1930’s that the family dwellings were modernized with electricity, inside plumbing, running water and a furnace. In the early 19th century and up to the beginnings of this century, visitors could obtain lodging at the point. Like the keepers of the original houses in Montauk, First, Second and Third House, the lighthouse keepers could and did entertain paying guests. Comments by guests to the lighthouse in a visitor’s log in the 1800’s were enthusiastic about the beauty of Montauk. Then, as now, guests came from all over the world to visit this historic structure.
In 1987, the bivalve lens was removed from the tower, the lighthouse was automated, and passed out of the hands of the government. The building was sold to the Montauk Historical Society, that now operates it as a visitor’s attraction and a museum. The museum, which is located in the 1860 Keepers’ house, displays an assortment of many historical documents, and photographs such as a display case containing the Congressional authorization, approved by President George Washington in 1792, to construct a lighthouse at Montauk Point..
The original 3 1/2 Order Bivalve Fresnel lens is also on display. The lens was placed into service in 1903 and removed on February 3, 1987 when the lighthouse was automated.
The Gilmartin Galleries is home to a four-room exhibit “Where Land Meets Sea & Sky.”
The lighthouse is also the home of the Montauk Oceans Institute and Surf Museum.
For more information, the Montauk Point Lighthouse is a great resource: www.montauklighthouse.com