Re-kindling Plum Island's Mission
East End Lighthouses, the Long Island chapter of the American Lighthouse Society, last visited Plum Island and its 1869 lighthouse in the summer of 2001 when it held a picnic there. It's hard to visit a lighthouse on an island with no regular public access. And it's especially hard when the island is the site of a national laboratory owned by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The lighthouse buffs hoped to return regularly, but the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that year put a kink in those plans. After the attacks, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center and the rest of the island were transferred from the Department of Agriculture to DHS.
But East End Lighthouses, with its keen interest in restoring the beacon in the Plum Island Lighthouse, didn't give up.
And on August 7, 25 members of the group took the government ferry to the island and made their way to the lighthouse, where they peered through the grimy windows and snapped photos of the rugged granite structure.
The tour was approved because Homeland Security, which started running the island last summer, has been allowing an increasing number of organized groups to come over for tours to explain its mission of keeping foreign animal diseases foreign while trying to demystify the facility.
“It's been a fairly regular occurrence,” said lab Director of Operations Thomas Sheridan. “They're coming to get an understanding of Plum Island's mission and science, and just to tour the island.”
Normally visitors to the island are barred from taking photographs, but officials made an exception for the lighthouse group so it could photograph the lighthouse and a huge pile of rocks stored near the dock that will be used to shore up the eroding bluff in front of the lighthouse.
East End Lighthouses member Evelyn Buhner of Riverhead said, “I've been dying to come over here since learning about the lighthouse a year ago. I love lighthouses because I think they're part of America, and we should preserve them.” Her friend, Norm Pape of Cold Spring Harbor, added that “I've always been fascinated by lighthouses. I always wanted to go to Plum Island since I read Nelson DeMille's novel “Plum Island.” And my friends always said 'Sure, try to get on it.' So when the opportunity came, we grabbed it. I also want to see the old Fort on the island.” That was Fort Terry, built by the Army for the Spanish-American War and used on and off through World War II. A visit there was part of the island tour.
The first stop upon disembarking from the ferry was the rock pile. The 15,000 tons of granite boulders came from the old Sag Harbor breakwater that was replaced two years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
East End Lighthouses President Merlon Wiggin said it would have cost $750,000 for that amount amount of rocks. Even though the rocks were free – it was cheaper for the Corps to take them to Plum Island than dump them out at sea – the Department of Agriculture, which then ran the island, had to shell out $70,000 to get them from the barges to a storage spot near the dock.
The group members posed for photos in front of the 15-foot-high rock pile, many making jokes about their subject matter. “Americans are crazy taking pictures of rocks,” said Marge Smith of Central Islip, who took the photos. “They don't look any different than any other rocks,” commented Joe Mikulas when he got a closer look. “But I'm pleased they're going to do what they're supposed to do.”
Sheridan said DHS put out a request for proposals from contractors interested in moving the rocks into position two weeks ago. A contract should be awarded by mid-September by the Corps of Engineers, which will oversee the project. “They say it should be done before the end of the year,” Sheridan said, unless bad weather intervenes. Sheridan said there are no plans at this point for restoration of the lighthouse itself or money to fund the work. In the meantime, he said, “we are keeping it sealed up and it is not leaking.” But because there is no electricity running into the building and it is unheated, it has deteriorated because of condensation. “So when you look inside, you'll see that sections of the ceiling are peeling off,” he said. “I am sure that if somebody said they wanted to do the job we could probably figure out a way to allow it to happen,” Sheridan said. If there is interest in the community to restore the lighthouse, DHS wants to respond to that, officials said.
Restoring Plum Island's Glory
Wiggin has presented Plum Island officials with an outline of a rehabilitation project that would be done by the nonprofit group. The first step would be to remove the iron lantern room from atop the lighthouse for restoration. He said a local architect has drawn up plans that have been submitted to the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to make sure they meet preservation guidelines. “We have all the funds in the bank – $25,000 – to do this,” he said.
The next stage would be to bring electrical power to the lighthouse to allow restoration work to proceed and prevent any further deterioration. He said his group has already acquired surplus Coast Guard power cable that could be used for that project.
He said he said been in touch with the Coast Guard's Group Long Island Sound about relighting the beacon. “They've gone on record that once the lantern room is repaired, they would install a new automated optic,” he said.
After that, the final step would be cleaning and restoring the interior. “That would require a lot of work because the plaster is falling off the walls and asbestos has to be removed,” Wiggin said. “But we have a whole bunch of volunteers who are anxious to work on it, when and if we can.”
Wiggin said some kind of contract would have to be worked out to allow the volunteers access to the island and for the work to proceed at no cost to the government.
“We'd like to restore the inside pretty much like it was 100 years ago,” Wiggin said.
There is no cost estimate yet for the entire project.
The original lens, which was removed about a decade ago, would probably remain on display at the East End Seaport Museum in Greenport. Wiggin said it would be prohibitively expensive to reinstall the original lens.
“For the whole thing, we're probably talking about a five-year project,” Wiggin said.
After the lighthouse is restored, Wiggin said his group would like to see the lighthouse open once a week for public tours.
On the day of the visit last month, lab officials told the group that they would not be allowed to go inside the lighthouse because of mold growing on the walls because of a lack of ventilation and heat. “When we go in there, we wear respirators,” Sheridan said.
After arriving at the lighthouse, the group got a history lesson from Wiggin, a retired chief engineer at the lab, who noted a Revolutionary War skirmish was fought on the island.
“This lighthouse was built in 1869,” Wiggin said. “The first lighthouse was built in 1826.” He said the lighthouses were manned from 1826 until the second structure was abandoned in 1978. He pointed out that the lighthouse used to be 300 feet from Plum Gut but erosion has cut that to 50 feet.
Even though the building has been empty, the basic structure is holding up well and the government has put asphalt shingles up on the roof to replace the slate roof tiles that have fallen. But the lack of maintenance also shows in rust stains on the white cast-iron tower, falling plaster and even a shrub that has grown up under the wooden siding to grow inside the building.
Visitors, careful to avoid the poison ivy growing up around the sides of the building, peered through the grimy windows to stare at the pool table left behind by the Coast Guard. They looked inside the old oil storage house, which now houses and old refrigerator.
“It's very beautiful,” said John Diomede, a Staten Island resident who serves on the board of East End Lighthouses. “The way the granite blocks are laid out is very beautiful.”
“This was absolutely fantastic,” said Dick Cardozo of Westbury. “It's amazing to see it so close.”
This story appeared in the
October 2004 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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