Fire island lighthouse
Fire Island Lighthouse was an important landmark for transatlantic ships coming into New York Harbor at the turn of the last century. For many European immigrants, the Fire Island Light was their first sight of land upon arrival in America.
The first lighthouse built on Fire Island was completed in 1826. It was a 74-foot high, cream-colored, octagonal pyramid made of Connecticut River blue split stone. The tower was built at the end of the island, adjacent to the inlet. This tower was not effective due to its lack of height. It was almost entirely removed and the stone reused to build the terrace for the present lighthouse. Today a circular ring of bricks and stone are all that remain of the original lighthouse. Due to the westward migration of sand along the beach, known as littoral drift, the inlet is now approximately six miles westward of this site.
In 1857 Congress appropriated $40,000 for the construction of a new tower, 168 feet tall. It was lit for the first time on November 1, 1858. This tower was made of red brick, painted a creamy yellow color. The tower was changed to the present day-mark of alternating black and white bands in August 1891.
This new tower was fitted with a First Order Fresnel Lens, emitting a white flash at one-minute intervals. A Funk Lamp with 5 concentric wicks was used for illumination. Over the years various fuels were used for the lamps, including whale oil, lard oil, mineral oil, and kerosene. Electricity reached the lighthouse on September 20, 1938. On September 21, 1938 a hurricane struck the island, effectively severing all electric power to the island and causing a delay in the electrification of the Fire Island Light Station.
The United States Coast Guard has been present on Fire Island since its inception in 1915. A Coast Guard Station was established on the Lighthouse tract. Eventually, the United States Lighthouse Service was dissolved. The administration of lighthouses was placed under the jurisdiction of the US Coast Guard in 1939 "in the interest of economy and efficiency" (Presidential Reorganization Act).
The Fire Island Lighthouse was decommissioned as an aid to navigation on December 31, 1973. The new aid to navigation was a "small flash tube optic" installed atop the Robert Moses State Park Water Tower.
After decommissioning in 1974, the Coast Guard gave the National Park Service a five-year permit to use the entire Lighthouse Tract (approximately 82 acres). In 1979, the track was declared by law to be within the boundaries of the Fire Island National Seashore. With limited funds, the major function of the Park Service during this time was to prevent further deterioration of the buildings through neglect and vandalism. Between 1974 and 1980, private citizens grouped together in an effort to "save the Fire Island Lighthouse." The strobe light on the Robert Moses Tower only shone seaward and was of no use to boaters on the Great South Bay. Public support for the restoration of the Lighthouse was great among the Baymen.
Long Island boasts more than 20 lighthouses, all different styles and sizes but standing at 168 ft The fire island lighthouse is the tallest!
The Lighthouse was restored to its 1939 condition, which is when electricity was first installed. On Memorial Day, May 25, 1986, the Fire Island Lighthouse was relit and reinstated as an official aid to navigation.
In December 1996 the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (FILPS), through an agreement with the National Park Service, took over maintenance and operation of the Fire Island Lighthouse and Keeper's Quarters'
Today the light is lit by two 1000-watt bulbs, which rotate in a counter-clockwise direction, giving the appearance of a flash every 7.5 seconds. The light is visible for approximately 21-24 miles.
In January 2006 FILPS took over the ownership and maintenance of the beacon from the United States Coast Guard. The beacon will continue to remain on all charts as a private aid to navigation.
The Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (FILPS) was formed in 1982 in response to the possible demolition of the Fire Island Lighthouse. The Society raised over $1.3 million to save and restore the Lighthouse. The founding President was Thomas F. Roberts, III.
On May 25, 1986, the Lighthouse was returned to duty as an active aid to navigation with a grand relighting ceremony. On January 6, 2006 the light was privatized when the US Coast Guard signed over operations to the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society. Volunteers now maintain and repair the light to ensure it continues to be an active aid to navigation.
Image Above: Signing over the rights for the Preservation Society to take over daily operations.
Pictured: Former Congressman Tom Downey, Former FILPS President Thomas F. Roberts III, Former NPS Superintendent Jack Hauptman and Former Coast Guard Lt. Rodney Bowles
In December 1996, FILPS took over the maintenance and operation of the Lighthouse and Keeper's Quarters/Visitor Center, increasing visitor services and programs for schools and other interested groups.
Since its inception FILPS's directive has been to work with the National Park Service to help preserve the nautical heritage of Fire Island and Long Island, and to ensure that this monument remains an integral part of that heritage.
Today, the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society continues its important work. The Board of Directors, staff and volunteers maintain the Lighthouse, archive its history, improve displays, expand programs and make your visit as enjoyable as possible.
You can be part of the success of the Society. See our Membership page for information on joining in our efforts.
The United States Life Saving Service (USLSS) was a very active government agency here on Fire Island in the late 1800s and early part of the 1900s. Although the United States Lighthouse Service and the United States Life Saving Service had similar missions - to protect ships along the coast - they were completely separate organizations.
The first Life-Saving Station on Fire Island was built in 1848, at the westernmost end of the island, adjacent to the site of the first Fire Island Lighthouse. The second USLSS Station was built out at Moriches Inlet, 28 miles to the east. These early stations were manned entirely by volunteers. Local Baymen and farmers volunteered to live at these stations from October until May to patrol the coastline for stranded ships and perform rescues when needed. By 1854 there were seven stations located along the south shore of Fire Island at the following locations: Fire Island, Point O' Woods, Lone Hill, Blue Point, Bellport, Smith's Point and Forge River.
These brave volunteers, known as Surfmen, had an unofficial motto, "You must go out, but you don't have to come back."
These brave volunteers, known as Surfmen, had an unofficial motto, "You must go out, but you don't have to come back." They patrolled the beach on foot every night, from sunset until sunrise, looking for shipwrecks. When a stranded ship was sighted, the USLSS crew would perform a rescue using Beach Apparatus, which consisted of a Breeches Buoy in conjunction with a system of lines and pulleys. A Lyle Gun or small cannon was used to shoot a projectile, or weight, carrying a light line out to the ship. Although very simple, this method was used to rescue over 7000 people from 721 ships right here on Fire Island between 1871 and 1915.
In 1871 Congress appropriated money for paid Keepers and crews at all stations. This resulted in more consistent training for Surfmen. In 1874 the Life Saving Stations Act was made law, requiring all US Boat captains to report all wrecks. In 1875, the LifeSaving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service merged into the Revenue Marine Bureau. The degree of professionalism and proficiency in US Life Saving efforts rose greatly at this point. Logs were kept, inspections were made, reports were submitted, Surfmen were tested and a ranking system was introduced. In 1878 the USLSS separated from the Revenue Cutter Service and continued to improve right up until its merger with the newly created US Coast Guard in 1915.
The Wreck of the Elizabeth
and the U.S. Lifesaving Service
The ship Elizabeth wrecked on the shores of Fire Island on its journey from Livorno, Italy to New York on July 19, 1850. The vessel was caught in a powerful tropical storm that ultimately ravaged the east coast from
Baltimore to Maine.
Among its passengers, the Elizabeth carried the noted writer, intellectual, and social activist Margaret Fuller. In addition to her writings, Fuller was known for editing The Dial, America’s first literary journal, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She then became Horace Greeley’s literary editor for the New York Daily Tribune in New York City.
While visiting Italy, Fuller wrote eyewitness reports of the bloody battles of the Italian Revolution of 1848. Her articles, published in the New York Tribune, made her America’s first female war correspondent.
It was on her journey home that she, her husband, and their two-year old son perished.
Because of Fuller’s fame, the wreck of the Elizabeth received a great deal of national press coverage. The news stories that covered this tragic loss brought attention to the woeful state of the U.S. Lifesaving Service, then in its infancy, and run by volunteers with little equipment and no formal training.
Public pressure caused Congress to provide enough funding for paid, full-time professional crews with proper lifesaving equipment to protect our shoreline and the lives of those aboard stranded ships.
It could be said the wreck of the Elizabeth, and the death of its most famous passenger influenced vast improvements in the safety of America’s