Every lighthouse on Long Island but one is maintained by the Coast Guard, nonprofit groups or private owners, or at least has a group of preservationists trying to organize a restoration effort. The exception has been the Cedar Island Lighthouse near Sag Harbor in Suffolk County, which boasts of having the most beacons of any county in the country.
Despite local efforts to preserve it in the late 1980s, the Cedar Island Light has remained abandoned since a 1974 fire gutted its interior. Now there is renewed interest in restoring the historic granite tower. And the prospects look better because Suffolk County, which owns the lighthouse located in Cedar Point County Park, is behind the plan.
The restoration plan was conceived by the 2-year-old Long Island Chapter of the United States Lighthouse Society. The county parks department has agreed to a stewardship agreement with the preservation group. “It’s a big job,” said Robert Muller, head of the lighthouse group, as he toured the site recently. “I see it as being a long-term, multi-phase project.” No cost estimate has been made yet.
The current 1868 lighthouse is the second in the area. The original wooden lighthouse was built in 1839 to guide whaling ships between Northwest Harbor and Gardiner’s Bay. It contained a sixth order Fresnel lens after 1855. The second lighthouse was erected 140 feet away and is four stories or 35 feet tall and the attached keeper’s quarters is 2 1/2 stories. The tower had a fifth order Fresnel lens, and a fog bell was added in 1882.
In 1934, the government decommissioned the lighthouse and replaced it with a steel skeleton tower. Three years later, the lighthouse and one acre were sold at auction to a Manhattan lawyer for $2,002. In 1938, a hurricane created a 200-yard sandbar between the island and the shore and Cedar Island became Cedar Point. Suffolk County acquired the lighthouse and land in 1967. Seven years later a fire destroyed the roof and oak interior of the vacant structure. The county installed a new roof and sealed the doors and windows with cement blocks but vandals have continually broken in.
Now the roof shingles are intact but the wooden framing around the edge of the roof is cracking and crumbling. The lantern room is missing its glass and the iron structure that held the glass is badly rusted. Other than that the exterior has held up reasonably well except where vandals have broken off a chunk of stone over the front door and obliterated part of the 1868 construction date. There are some cracks in the granite walls and foundation. Vines are growing up through the cracks and engulfing the fence encircling the top of the foundation.
The interior is another story. Everything is gone right down to the walls and basement floor so the top of the cistern in the foundation for collecting rainwater is visible. The 1902 brick oil house on the south side is also in trouble. It is heavily deteriorated with holes in the brick walls and some of the roof missing. Muller said it is important to save the oil house to fully tell the story of the lighthouse. “Lighthouses started out with whale oil and that was replaced with lard oil and then kerosene in the 1870s,” he said. “It was very volatile so instead of storing it in the lighthouse they started building all of these oil houses separate from the lighthouses. This is indicative of the technology changing around 1900 to 1910. There is one at Plum Island, one in Montauk and even the one from the demolished Shinnecock Lighthouse. That’s all that’s left of the oil houses on Long Island.”
On the southern shore of the point are the remains of an old dock where a boathouse once stood. Muller envisions rebuilding the dock so people could visit the lighthouse by boat from Sag Harbor. Muller glanced at the roof and noticed that the original covering was slate tiles, mostly replaced by the county’s asphalt shingles. “That’s going to be a big job,” he said of installing new slate.
The restoration will be complicated because Muller said he has no idea where the original lens is and he cannot even find the original blueprints to guide the work. “I’ve got everything from the National Archives, the U.S. Coast Guard historian’s office and the local libraries,” he said. Judy Gordon, the assistant deputy county park commissioner, said her office has signed similar stewardship agreements with other nonprofit groups such as the Audubon Society and school groups to assist in managing trails and buildings. “They would assist us with the management but they wouldn’t pay us anything. They are going to help us with a fundraising effort and hopefully once the building is restored they may be able to help us manage it.
“There are no county funds right now for the restoration,” Gordon continued, “but we just made application for a $1,800 state grant to pay for an architect to do a technical assessment to come up with an estimate of what it would cost to restore it. Depending on how we decide to proceed, we could always go to the county legislature for money.” Gordon said the ideal project would involve full restoration inside and out. “It may happen in stages but at least we get the exterior secured and worry about the interior later on.” Gordon said one possibility might be for the county to assume responsibility for the exterior and lighthouse society for the interior.
Gordon would like to see the building open to the public for some kind of historical interpretation with some rooms restored to their original appearance rather than just being filled with lighthouse artifacts and exhibits. “A lot of lighthouses have been turned into museums,” Muller said. “One of the criticisms of that is that you go into the museum and you’re really not getting a feeling for how the keeper lived. It’s not like a living museum.”
“The nice thing about this location is that it allows for environmental education as well with the piping plovers and the whole geology of the area,” he added. But Gordon said nesting plovers also create a problem for visitors. “We close off vehicle access to the site a good portion of the summer so access is problematic,” she said. Gordon said the county would probably try to find someone to live in the restored lighthouse as a caretaker to prevent vandalism as it has done at other historic buildings. The caretaker could live on the second floor, leaving exhibit space on the first floor and still allowing access to the lantern room.
“It’s going to be a long-term project because there’s a lot of planning involved and a lot of research to be done,” Muller said. After the research is completed, the county will apply to have the lighthouse placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The ultimate goal in the restoration would be to install a light in the tower to again make it an aid to navigation. “Our concern is navigation,” said Lt. Dean Jones, spokesman for the Coast Guard’s First District in Boston. He said his agency might put a light into the tower if that would make it safer for mariners. If the Coast Guard did not think relighting the lighthouse is necessary, “if they want to capture the old lighthouse feeling, they could put a light into the tower as long as it met our standards,” he said.
This story appeared in the
August 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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