Digest>Archives> January 2000

Saving New York's Plum Island Lighthouse

By Robert G. Muller and Merlon E. Wiggin

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The East End Seaport Lighthouse Committee wants ...
Photo by: Ken Spencer

In mid-1999, the East End Seaport Lighthouse Committee decided to undertake the saving of New York's Plum Island lighthouse. With the successful restoration of the Long Beach Bar (Bug) Light in 1990 as well as a popular maritime museum, the Committee feels that it is poised to preserve another piece of maritime history.

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Plum Island Light, NY from a 1976 photograph when ...
Photo by: U.S. Coast Guard

Plum Island is not only rich in maritime history, it is rich in American history. Recent research shows that the area was most likely the location of the first American amphibious landing in August of 1775, when Continental troops landed, under fire, to prevent livestock raids by the British. However, it wasn't until 52 years later in 1827 that the first Plum Island Light station was established. It served until as late as 1978 helping mariners navigate the often-treacherous waters of Plum Gut. Since the decommissioning of the lighthouse, the structure has been allowed to deteriorate with absolutely no action by anyone to restore it or stop the dramatic erosion that threatens the lighthouse.

Plum Gut is the waterway between Orient Point (the easternmost point of Long Island's North Fork), and Plum Island. This mile-wide constriction is a major passage for waters to and from Long Island Sound, a designation it shares with The Race off of Fishers Island. Like The Race, Plum Gut is often plagued by tidal currents of four to five knots and waves of up to six feet as the waters pass over shoals in the Gut. This combination of strong currents, waves and shoals makes the passageway hazardous for mariners.

This dangerous waterway prompted the erection of a lighthouse on the western side of the Plum Island. On August 28, 1826, the Superintendent of Light-Houses in Sag Harbor issued a call for proposals for the construction of a Light-House and Dwelling-House on the west end of Plum Island. The proposal called for a tower 30 feet in height of an octagonal pyramid shape. On top of the rough-stone tower was an octagonal iron lantern containing Winslow Lewis patent lamps. In 1838, the lighting apparatus consisted of 10 patent lamps with 13-inch reflectors. In 1856, the light was changed to a fourth order Fresnel lens.

As with many of the lighthouses built during the reign of the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, the 1827 structure did not fare well. By the 1860's, it was time to rebuild the light. The 1867 annual Report of the Light-House Board reported that "the tower and dwelling require considerable repairs. The tower is damp and contracted, and it is recommended to rebuild it and the dwelling, and provide a new lantern."

The 1868 report pointed out that "both the tower and keepers dwelling are in bad condition and should be rebuilt. The tower, built in 1827, leaks badly; the masonry is soft and crumbling; the lantern is of the old pattern and with small lights and large astragals, and it leaks badly. It is thought that the old buildings are not worth the money which would be required to put them in good order, and it is therefore proposed to rebuild them."

By 1869, "the rebuilding of this station, for which a special appropriation was made March 3, 1869, is now far advanced in progress and will be roofed in by the end of the season for outdoor work." This structure's granite quarters with a cast-iron tower and lantern is the same design as several other area lights, including Old Field Point, Block Island North, Great Captains Island, Sheffield Island and Morgan Point. Unlike the previous lighthouse, the new one was built to last. All of the afore mentioned lights still stand, with several of them still acting as active aids to navigation.

Even with the new lighthouse and its fourth order lens guiding the way, Plum Gut was still a dangerous waterway. In 1899, the new cast-iron Orient Point tower joined forces with the Plum Island light. The two lights worked together for 79 years to guide mariners through Plum Gut.

In 1978, Plum Island's light was extinguished. The Orient Point light, which had avoided demolison earlier in the decade, was upgraded to help compensate for the loss of its neighbor's beacon.

During the time the lighthouse served mariners on the west side of the Plum Island, other things were happening on the 840-acre island. Fort Terry had been built as part of a series of artillery posts to guard the area during the Spanish-American War. After WWII, Fort Terry was deactivated. In April of 1952, Fort Terry was reactivated for Chemical Corps purposes and July 7 of that year, the Department of Agriculture announced plans to build a lab on the island to study hoof and mouth disease in cattle. These two events in 1952, combined with the closing of the island to the public, were the beginning of the mysterious reputation held by Plum Island to this day. In 1954, the Army turned over its labs to the Department of Agriculture. The Animal Disease Center is still in operation, and in 1999 it was announced that the government is considering working with more dangerous diseases on the island. The intrigue which inspired the 1997 Nelson DeMille novel that bears its name continues to this day.

In 1994, the fourth order Fresnel lens and operating clockwork mechanism were removed from the light and put on display at the East End Seaport Museum in Greenport, NY. A 1995 report on a proposed erosion control effort at the island stated that "this historic lighthouse will be condemned unless erosion control measures are taken to stabilize the bluff." In 1997, a generator house at the old light station fell in to the seas as erosion continued to gnaw at the bluff below.

Currently, the East End Seaport Lighthouse Committee is seeking the support to save the lighthouse, however, without the cooperation of the USDA, the lighthouse cannot be accessed, much less restored.

The Committee hopes to obtain a lease to the lighthouse and reestablish it as a federal aid to navigation, as was accomplished with the Long Beach Bar lighthouse. The pro bono services of marine contractors for the placement of rip rap to stabilize the bluff have already been procured. The bluff will be stabilized using the methods which have proven successful at New Yorks, Montauk Point Light. Upon completion, the structure would be accessible to the general public. However, because of the nature of the USDA's work on the island, such access will be conducted under USDA guidelines on a restricted basis.

Perhaps 2000 will see another historc landing on Plum Island, that of the "troops" sent to save an endangered part of American lighthouse history.

About the authors:

Robert G. Muller is a freelance writer, creator of the LongIslandLighthouses.com web site, and is presently writing a book on the history of Long Island's lighthouses. He is the publicist for the Horton Point Lighthouse and is a member of the East End Seaport Lighthouse Committee. You will often find him narrating cruises and guiding tours at many of Long Island's lighthouses. He may be reached at LILighthouses@aol.com

Merlon E. Wiggin, Ph.D., M.E., is the founder and Director of the East End Seaport Lighthouse Committee and a former Chief of Engineering at Plum Island. Dr. Wiggin is a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, has a FFA pilots license and holds a Coast Guard Masters license. When not involved in East End Seaport matters, he and his wife Isabelle can often be found upon their 30-foot sloop, Albion.

How You Can Help?

Those interested in helping save the Plum Island lighthouse may learn more about the effort from:

East End Seaport Lighthouse Committee

One Bootleg Alley

P.O. Box 624

Greenport, NY 11944

631-477-2121

E-mail: lighthouse@peconic.net Web site: ww.eastendlighthouses.org

More information is also available at: www.longislandlighthouses.com/saveplumisland/index.htm

This story appeared in the January 2000 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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