The Montauk Point Lighthouse has long been famed as the symbol of Long Island and one of America’s oldest lighthouses. Authorized in 1792 by the Second Congress under President George Washington, it was built by New York architect, John McComb, in 1796. It was first recognized on a national level on July 7, 1969 when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, a list of close to 90,000 sites considered worthy of preservation.
However, on March 5, 2012, the Montauk Point Lighthouse was designated a National Historic Landmark, thus joining the ranks of fewer than 2500 prestigious sites in the United States that are designated by the Secretary of the Interior as having exceptional value in illustrating and interpreting the heritage of our nation. Montauk Point Lighthouse is now only the eleventh lighthouse in the nation so designated.
The journey culminating in this distinctive recognition began through the efforts of Eleanor Ehrhardt, a member of the Montauk Point Lighthouse Committee of the Montauk Historical Society, who in 2006, suggested the quest for the National Historic Landmark designation
Monthly progress reports were presented to the Lighthouse Committee by Ms. Ehrhardt, who said: “National Historic Landmark status was made possible by the months of ongoing support and encouragement of the members of the Lighthouse Committee and the Site Managers.”
A request for the designation was made to the National Parks Service of the Department of the Interior. Their reply advised that an application should be written “with passion and enthusiasm” and should include the following information:
The location of the Montauk Point Lighthouse
A description and history of the land before and after the lighthouse was built
A description of construction materials and the integrity of the Lighthouse
A description of the ancillary buildings
The significance to local and national areas
The importance to navigation
A comparison to other east coast lighthouses
Sketch maps and photos
On October 30, 2006 Ms. Ehrhardt completed and sent the initial application to the Chief of the National Historic Landmarks Program. In November of 2006 the application was accepted.
In January, 2007 Mr. Richard White, Chairman of the Montauk Point Lighthouse Committee; Ms. Ehrhardt; and Mr. Robert Hefner, Historic Preservation Consultant, met to discuss the next phase of the project. A “summary of information” evaluating the Lighthouse was to be sent to a historian of the National Historic Landmarks Program, Mr. Robie Lange.
The “summary of information” included many historic references, one of which was the bill reported to Congress by Aaron Burr, Senator of New York, on March 6, 1792 to consider the building of a lighthouse at Montauk. The bill passed Congress and was signed by President George Washington on April 12, 1792.
Some of the others involved in correspondence regarding the site and building of the lighthouse were Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury; Tench Coxe, who became Revenue Commissioner and was responsible for implementing the legislation to build a lighthouse; and Ezra L’Hommedieu, who was the New York Chamber of Commerce representative in Montauk for the lighthouse. It was he who chose the site for the Montauk Point Lighthouse. L’Hommedieu’s papers are now a collection of the Montauk Historical Society.
On November 11, 2008 Mr. Hefner completed the report and it was sent to Mr. Lange in Washington, DC for review. Although duly considered, the many historic reports, the beauty of the Montauk Point Lighthouse, and its stunning location were not sufficient to make the case for National Historic Landmark status. Additional research was required. Mr. Lange’s advice and encouragement for further research was the beginning of the proficient editing by him that continued throughout the Nomination process.
The additional information in a “Draft Significance Statement” was to include details of foreign trade, construction of the Montauk Point Lighthouse, the Age of Sail, a detailed comparison of the importance and integrity of the Montauk Point Lighthouse in comparison to the importance of other lighthouses on the east coast; and was also to define and definitively prove the “Period of National Significance” of the Montauk Point Lighthouse to the nation as a whole.
Research sources for this additional information included the U. S. Coast Guard; the South Street Seaport; Ellis Island; Columbia University; the New York Public Library; the New York University Law School; the Liverpool Society; the Steamship Historical Society; the Research Center at Mystic, CT; the U.S. Navy; the New York Chamber of Commerce; and Dr. Joshua Smith and Dr. George Billy, who are senior historians at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
The conclusion of this “Draft” determined that the “Period of Significance” of the Montauk Point Lighthouse was the period from 1797 to 1870 when transatlantic trade was predominately packet ships that carried freight, passengers, and mail, and sailed along the coast in regular service between ports. During that period, the Montauk Point Lighthouse was New York’s premier landfall light for safely guiding ships on this most important sea route; bringing goods to the United States from Liverpool, London and Le Havre.
To substantiate this, research of customs ledgers showed that the number of foreign sailing ships arriving in New York was almost three times more than those arriving in Boston or Philadelphia. Imported goods during that period were vital to the nation’s growth and were a major role in making New York the premier port in the United States. In the year 1797 when the Montauk Point Lighthouse was activated, New York led in tonnage of imports and exports and was growing steadily.
Of that period, the historian, Robert C. Albion, wrote “Look at the customs ledgers and you will find the Atlantic shuttle overshadowing all other sea lanes, from New York . . . the distribution of imports throughout the nation was doing more than anything else to clinch New York’s position as the greatest seaport in America, and one of the greatest in the world.”
On January 18, 2010 the “Draft Significance Statement” was submitted to Mr. Robie Lange. Mr. Hefner’s research concluded that the proven areas of “Significance” were Maritime History, Commerce, and Transportation, and the “Period of Significance” was from 1797-1870. On March 29, 2010 the Montauk Lighthouse Committee received the following notice: “The National Park Service of the United States Department of the Interior is pleased to announce that a study is being conducted on the Montauk Point Lighthouse to determine its potential for designation as a National Historic Landmark.”
On March 22, 2011 the final, formal “National Historical Landmark Nomination” that was prepared by Mr. Hefner and Mr. Lange was submitted to the National Historic Landmark Committee. The Committee was given two months to review the forty-four page “Nomination.”
The “Nomination” included precise, detailed, expanded information of all the areas covered in the previous reports. Every statement was authenticated and corroborated by facts, maps, and photos.
On May 24, 2011 the National Historic Landmark Committee met in Washington, DC to decide on the Nomination. Present at the meeting were Mr. Richard White, Chairman of the Montauk Point Lighthouse Committee; Mr. Brian Pope, Assistant Site Manager; Ms. Eleanor Ehrhardt; and Mr. Robert Hefner, who gave a Power Point presentation. After the presentation there was a question and answer period. It was followed by a discussion strictly among only the members of the National Historical Landmark Committee. The Montauk Point Lighthouse representatives listened but were not participants.
The discussion period was an extremely tense time for the Montauk contingent, and when finally the Chairman made a motion recommending that the Montauk Point Lighthouse be designated a National Historic Landmark and the motion was unanimously passed, Ms. Ehrhardt said “We jumped up and hugged each other. It was really a thrilling moment.”
Although many levels of approval had been reached, the “Nomination” would now make it way through the higher levels of the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior. The final decision to designate or not designate resided with the Secretary of the Interior.
On December 1, 2011, the Nomination that had been presented to the National Historic Landmarks Committee the previous May, would now be considered by the Executive Committee, considered to be an Advisory Board. The Advisory Board voted unanimously to recommend that the Montauk Point Lighthouse be designated a National Historic Landmark.
The recommendation was then forwarded to the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. On March 5, 2012, Secretary Ken Salazar designated the Montauk Point Lighthouse a National Historic Landmark. The Congress of the United States was immediately informed of the designation.
With Secretary Salazar’s signature, the Montauk Point Lighthouse attained the highly honored distinction of National Historic Landmark. This designation has brought additional recognition and visitors to this historic site and is expected to continue to do so, and will thus support the stewards of the Montauk Point Lighthouse in their efforts to interpret this property to the visiting public, and to compete for limited funds to preserve it for future generations.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2012 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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