Digest>Archives> June 2005

Saving Plum Island

By Bill Bleyer

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As Greg Guilloz stood on the bluff on the western end of Plum Island and gave him hand signals, Tom Hamilton shifted the control levers of a yellow and black hydraulic excavator sitting in the shallow water at the edge of Plum Gut. With that, the claw on the end of the machine’s arm hefted a granite boulder from the beach.

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When the crane swung around and placed the boulder on the slope, Guilloz threw dozens of small rocks under the boulder to support it and make sure it lined up with other boulders around it.

The painstaking two-man rock-moving effort that began in November wrapped up at the end of March. The $1-million project shifted 7,000 tons of rock into place across 600 feet at the base of the bluff, and with that the historic Plum Island Lighthouse, built in 1869 to replace an 1826 beacon, should be safe from erosion.

“We’ve had a problem for years with erosion of the bluff from the strong currents and tides in Plum Gut,” said Thomas Sheridan, director of operations for the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, the Department of Homeland Security laboratory that occupies the island.

As he watched the work being done, the northwest corner of the lighthouse sat about 50 feet from the edge of the sandy bluff. More than of 100 feet of the cliff has been lost since the lighthouse was built, along with a bell tower, generator building and a search light.

The boulders came from the old Sag Harbor breakwater that was replaced three years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Rather than dump the rocks at sea as originally planned, the corps donated half the rocks to Plum Island and the other half to Orient Beach State Park to shore up the eroded access road.

It has been estimated that buying rocks to bolster the Plum Island shoreline would have cost $750,000. Even though they were obtained free, the Department of Agriculture, which then ran the island, had to spend $70,000 to get them from the barges to a storage spot near the dock. And then DHS paid $1 million to move the stones and place them on the bluff while using some of the rock to rebuild the two breakwaters protecting the entrance to the island’s harbor.

Sheridan described the project as creating a giant puzzle while having to suspend work during high tides when the crane would be submerged.

The contractor, Rambo Inc. of Southampton, first had to spend a month breaking up the boulders from the breakwater to fit in the dimensions of the revetment, Sheridan said. Then a black permeable membrane to hold sand in place but allow water to drain was laid down on the bluff and held in place with steel reinforcing bars. And after the rocks are in place, beach grass will be planted along the top 10 feet of the bluff to reduce runoff and erosion.

It took about 10 minutes to place each large granite stone that is about 10 feet long and three feet high in place.

Guilloz said “It’s been a hard winter, a little windy and a little cold, but we got things going pretty good. The cold doesn’t bother me.” He said lifting rocks keeps him warm despite the stinging wind.

Sheridan said the contractor also pulled some of the naturally occurring boulders from shallow water and placed them on the beach to protect the new revetment. “It breaks up some of the force of the waves as they come across the beach,” Sheridan said.

Merlon Wiggin, a retired chief engineer for the lab and president of East End Lighthouses, a nonprofit group that hopes to restore the building abandoned by the Coast Guard in 1978, said he is developing a plan for the work that would be done in several phases if DHS agrees. “First we want to get the light relit,” he said. “We have the money, $25,000, to do the lantern room. The Coast Guard, we hope, would put the light back in and maintain it. We don’t even have an estimate yet for the cost of restoring the rest of the lighthouse. That will be a lot of work. There’s asbestos in there and the plaster has come off.”

The lighthouse clearly needs some help. The lantern room has broken glass panes and is streaked with rust. Some roof tiles are also missing.

Sheridan said that at this point there has been no planning for a restoration of the lighthouse. “We have to coordinate with the Coast Guard,” he said, “and then we need to get a plan in place that everybody agrees will work and find the money to do it.” He said the money will probably have to come from private sources. “I don’t see how the federal government could do it,” he said.

The original lens, removed more than 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 it.

This story appeared in the June 2005 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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