In The Handbook of Hampton Bay published in 1945 by The Hampton Bays Board of Trade and Village Improvement Society, Inc. and edited by James F. Marshall, the chapter on the lighthouse says, “Several years ago the structure was condemned by the federal government after an electronic beacon had been erected directly on the ocean front about a mile east of the Ponquogue Bridge. However, such proposal to raise this international famous beacon met with such vigorous widespread opposition that it still stands in all its majestic dignity as a unique landmark and distinguishing feature of the Village of Hampton Bays.”
Little did James Marshall realize when he wrote that paragraph in 1945 that the Ponquogue Lighthouse as it was known locally was doomed and would meet its end only several years later.
As local resident John H. Sutter wrote at the time, “After standing wind and storm for 91 years, they said it was dangerous, yet after the landmark had been thrown down, one had to but examine the handmade brick and solid mortar that held those bricks together to know that it would have stood safely for at least another 100 years.”
So many lighthouses in the United States have had several names, local names and nicknames that it is sometime difficult for the novice to research lighthouses. Not so in the case of the Pon Quogue, which eventually became know locally as the Ponquogue Lighthouse and by the government as the Shinnecock Lighthouse. The experienced researcher can find and learn much about the history of this, one of our nation’s taller lighthouses.
According to Helen Penny Walter, in a booklet she wrote on the history of the lighthouse when it was completed in 1877 with one million bricks, yellow pine, timber, rocks and concrete, it was painted red and repainted every two years by the keepers and their assistants. To paint the lighthouse the men stood in a cradle hoisted from the ground, not a job for those with a faint heart or fear of heights. The lighthouse was officially lit for the first time on New Year’s Day 1878.
Helen wrote that at the spot where the last window was, there was a small room with a stove where the keepers could sit in warmth and keep a watch on the light. Coal for the stove and oil for the lamp were hoisted on the outside of the tower.
Many of the keepers over the years were related to each other. Hardship and death were common at all lighthouses and Shinnecock was no different. Three children of one keeper were born and died at the lighthouse. One keeper, Martin Van Buren Squires, supplemented his income by operating a sportsmen’s lodge near the lighthouse.
Marjorie Congdon, who was born in 1916 at the Shinnecock Lighthouse where her father was keeper, recalled many fond memories of life at the lighthouse in an interview with lighthouse historian Elinor DeWire a number of years ago. Marjorie recalled, “My father was so proud to be a lighthouse keeper. He always wore his uniform and would take people up in the lighthouse and show them how it worked.
Unfortunately for us all, the Shinnecock Lighthouse was discontinued on August 1, 1931 and replaced by a beacon on a steel tower.
When the government left the station they leased it to a Manhattan, New York attorney whose family used it as a summer home.
When the Coast Guard announced its expansion plans for the Coast Guard Station at the site, those plans called for the lighthouse to come down. However, local residents circulated a petition, which was sent to Representative Leonard W. Hall asking that the lighthouse be saved. It received a stay, which was thought by locals to be permanent as was reported in the beginning of this story. They honestly believed that the lighthouse was now going to be there forever. They were wrong.
The Coast Guard sent out bids to have the condemned structure torn down, saying it was no longer safe to remain standing and besides they wanted the land for other purposes. Helen Penny Walter reported that all pleas, letters, requests and protests against tearing the lighthouse down were ignored. The Coast Guard’s sealed bids to be opened on Dec. 19, 1947 said the all signs that the lighthouse ever existed must be completed with 60 days of the Guard’s acceptance of the bid.
The end came two days before Christmas, 1948. Contractors had removed bricks at a section of the base and shored it up with timbers, which would then be set on fire, thus allowing the tower to topple without possible injury to work crews.
John H. Sutter then reported the rest in the local newspaper the following day, “Ellsworth Holland, 88 years of age, lit the fire. There were tears in the eyes of many old timers who stood watching the old landmark pass away, powerless to save the old building. We did our best to save it, but in vain. Thus passes a landmark that will be missed by thousands ashore and by those who still used the old Ponquogue Lighthouse as a guide to bring them safely to land from the sea.”
This story appeared in the
April 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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