Digest>Archives> March 2000

Memories of Eaton's Neck Lighthouse

By Penny Richtman

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Eaton's Neck Lighthouse, NY as it appears today
Photo by: Carolyn Ortiz

In the early 1950's, we were a Coast Guard family transferred from the training station at Groton, CT. My husband would be responsible for Aids to Navigation duties at Eaton's Neck Lifeboat Station where there was also a lighthouse. It was located five miles by land from Northport, Long Island, NY. The family included my husband, Rick, our six-month-old daughter Penny, our black cocker spaniel Dana Tabu, a dark gray and white striped tabby cat, King, and myself. Our son, Ricky, was nearly two years old when we left the lighthouse five and one-half years later.

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Coast Guard Chief Bos'n Mate Rolland H. Richtman ...

The sun was setting as we drove down the winding tree-lined road to the Coast Guard headquarters. To our right, stood the white stone lighthouse, 50 feet tall, surrounded by land on three sides. Its bright light would soon be shining. During the day, it was necessary to cover the lens to protect it from the sun.

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Eaton's Neck Lighthouse as it appeared when the ...


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Mama Penny and daughter "Little Penny" making ...

New York millionaire J. P. Morgan owned property close to the Coast Guard station. He owned a huge, many windowed, white mansion hidden behind a forest of trees and a small white cottage where the caretaker and his family lived. It was said Morgan raised pheasants so his city friends had a hunting area during pheasant season. They sometimes forgot the hunting season was over.

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While living at the lighthouse in the 1950's the ...


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Daughter Penny with her father inside the ...

As I remember, there were about 200 steps inside the lighthouse, forming a spiral stairway that led to the lantern. They were made of metal grating and painted black. After climbing the stairs to the top, there was a metal grating circling the light with an open space of about a foot from the lens. It was scary to look down and see all that empty space to the floor.

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Daughter Penny and father Rolland Richtman ...

I remember the morning my husband's assistant awakened us at 4:30 insisting he couldn't climb the stairway to the tower because there was a huge rat waiting for him midway up the climb. It turned out to be an opossum.

The only noise at the lighthouse was seagulls, waves, the wind and the foghorn. I became so accustomed to it all that often I didn't notice the absence of the foghorn unless it had not sounded for a day or so. We became a very close family, working, playing and learning how to have fun doing simple things together. King, the cat, often presented me with a rat measuring perhaps two feet and laid it directly in front of the back door where I couldn't miss it. Sometimes it might be a fretful garden snake dangling pleasantly from his mouth. There was the incident when I was reaching into a box of stored clothing in a closet of the bathroom. My hand touched four warm, wrigley, newborn pinkish white hairless rats.

When visibility was less than half a mile, the foghorn had to be set. To do that, my husband cranked up three round weights of about 60 pounds. When the pulley caught the gears, he set the clock and as the weights moved down, the foghorn blasted three times every thirty seconds.

I remember the time I left the East Coast accompanied by my baby daughter, my dog, and my mother who was returning to the Midwest. It was in the fall and the 1,000-mile trip had been well planned days ahead. As we were packing the car for the trip, my husband's leave was suddenly cancelled. That was not uncommon because when you're in the Service that happens. I don't remember why but I think it had something to do with his replacement not showing up. My mother had reasons she had to return to her home in Keokuk, Iowa, so I decided to drive her. We were waiting in the car for Rick to come say good-bye. He was doing something in the fog house. When he did show up, it was with a split, bleeding lip. He had been cranking weights into place when the crank slipped and hit him in the mouth. The crank was similar to cranks used on Model T Fords. I wondered all the time I was on the two-week trip if the men at the Coast Guard station believed we had a fight and I had left him. No, we didn't have a fight.

We had many visitors eager for a tour of the lighthouse and to listen to my husband's colorful narration. My young daughter often accompanied him when he got to the generator room. One day he was explaining to visitors how the foghorn operated and our four-year-old had gone with him carrying King. She told me, "Dad said it would be all right for the cat to go inside, that he would turn on the foghorn since the people wanted to see and hear it so he turned it on." I guess that the cat was scared silly. The cat clawed against her chest and he jumped from her arms and ran into Morgan's woods with the pheasants. He didn't reappear for a few days. My daughter reminded me of this recently when she heard I was putting together material to talk about our stay at the lighthouse.

She also remembered the school bus that came from Northport to pick her up on school days. She was still four when she started school. Her birthday wouldn't be until November. Beginning school dates were different in New York. When she was picked up, I could watch from my kitchen window and, because of my baby son, I didn't always go down and stand with her until the bus arrived. One morning she wasn't at the pickup location on time and she ran along the creeping vehicle banging on the door yelling, "Let me in, Let me in." It took her all these years to tell me about that.

I always wanted to go out on the buoy tender when my husband tended to his Aids to Navigation duties. One sunny, pleasant day he surprised me. I was invited to go along. Right away I envisioned the pretty tan I would acquire sitting on the deck with my husband navigating and his assistant and others doing whatever an assistant and others do. We were returning when it happened.

It was almost dusk and I was eager to get back to the lighthouse. It had turned into a difficult day for all of us when the clouds appeared. A fierce storm came up suddenly. Winds increased and the tender whipped across the water like a stone. Water was slapping up on sides of the bow spilling onto the deck. By that time, I had been instructed by my husband to go down into the cabin for safety reasons. So I did. I hung onto a table for a long time steadying myself against the waves and praying that I would soon spot the lighthouse with its partial slick rocky shore and gorgeous sandy beach. Above me, the men kept the waves from the stern to keep us a float. I was bruised and battered and bleeding. I never asked to go on that buoy tender again.

Most important to me in the evening was the blinding sunset over the water. We'd sit in wooden lawn chairs and watch the sun go down. I wore white rimmed sunglasses, the mode of the year, because they were supposed to make you look sexy, according to the movie magazines also of the 1950's. We listened to the waves and breathed in the salt air.

I remember sitting on the sandy beach which bordered one side of the lighthouse, watching the dolphins swim by. My daughter remembers her father trying to teach her to swim in waist deep water. She remembers the dolphins swimming around them, checking on their activities. I was always told a dolphin would save you if you were in trouble in the water by shoving you into shore. Storms appeared often without warning. There were five hurricanes while we were living in the lighthouse though we were never in the hurricane's eye, just at the edge.

My daughter remembers water pushing through the kitchen door and I remember the same storm when I looked from the kitchen window and saw a tree with about a two foot trunk double over. When the storm quieted, it returned to its full height, unharmed.

There was Hurricane Carol which indirectly caused the lighthouse to catch on fire. She had arrived the day before and eventually knocked out the electrical system. The wife of my husband's assistant put her baby to bed and placed a lighted candle by the window. A sudden breeze carried the window's gauze curtain in to the path of the candle's flame and ignited the curtain quickly. Coastguardsmen off of an 85-foot vessel, harbored at the dock because of the storm saw it happen. They raced up the hill dragging what little fire equipment they had. The fire was quickly extinguished with little damage. Later, I questioned one of the young seamen, about 18 or 19 years of age, why I had found burnt matches leading to the master bedroom in the lighthouse dwelling, He said, "Oh, I was looking for the fire."

My teen-age grandson inquired over the Internet whether the lighthouse was still in existence. He learned that the lighthouse itself had been on the Doomsday List but had been rescued by a historical group but could not find out whether the nine room house was still standing.

No tale of a lighthouse is complete unless you remember to tell of the ghosts said to be living there, too. Our lighthouse had Marvin. I had given Marvin his name. I visualized him as being a pale, shadowy form with the hint of black unkempt hair, a fuzzy beard, and snappy brown pinpoint eyes or maybe just dark holes where the eyes should have been. Marvin was said to have moved into the lighthouse in 1868.

The clarity of Marvin's death was never really established but it was hinted it was foul play occurring in the master bedroom on a lonely, stormy night. This was the bedroom where I was located the night I was first aware that Marvin might have arrived.

I was propped up by pillows painting a watercolor from memory of J. P. Morgan's pheasants. Rick had had a massive heart attack in our bedroom during the early part of the evening. The ambulance attendant had to place him in a chair and, with the help of two others, (Rick was a big man) maneuvered the chair and him down the narrow stairs to the ambulance. He was rushed to the Staten Island Marine Hospital, a two and one half-mile trip by ambulance from the lighthouse. He was hospitalized for ninety days.

Suddenly I was aware of the right cabinet door, above the mantle of the sealed off bedroom fireplace, quietly opening. There was no one in the room but me. It was opening by itself. The chimney above the narrow, tiled fireplace, in the center of the cabinet doors, was creating fearsome chimney sounds. I sat very still with eyes glued to the happenings of the door. On this particular night, there was a piercing wind howling out of the North, the kind of wind people hinted might be around if Marvin put in an appearance. The children were in their rooms, and though the foghorn was blasting steadily, had not awakened. The strong steady wind kept blowing.

I climbed out of bed. The noise of the storm, in contrast to the deep silence in the bedroom, pressed around me, I walked across the room on shaky legs, sure Marvin was about to make an appearance. I closed the right hand door. The stillness of the room seemed to smother me. I returned to my bed, sat down on its edge, stretched out my legs and picked up my paintbrush. Suddenly I shook my head in disbelief. The left cabinet door was opening quietly. I imagined the cabinets were watching me. I strained my eyes looking about the room expecting to see Marvin's shadowy form. I imagined I heard a thin little giggle then a low mad laugh.

It took an act of real courage to get me moving from the bed a second time. My body moved across the room headed toward the fireplace and the troublesome cabinets. I was scarcely aware of what I was doing. I stopped in the middle of the room. I was sure I heard the smallest whisper of a laugh coming from the corner of the room. I imagined there was a tiny, gloating chuckle following on my heels.

The storm continued to rattle the one bedroom window.

Outside, the winds force increased. Inside there was another burst of wind whistling down the fireplace chimney. In frenzy, I rushed to the fireplace, reached out and slammed the cabinet door with a loud, echoing bang. I listened to hear if the children had awakened. They hadn't.

I realized that the next day, there would be a lot of small, dead birds lying at the base of the lighthouse. The brilliant flashing light would have attracted them during the storm. In their confusion, they would have smashed against the stone structure. When ducks and larger fowl hit the lighthouse, they sometimes shattered the glass of the lantern.

Gradually, the wind slowed down. The chimney noises became less noticeable. Nothing more happened with the cabinet doors. I spent a restless night, spilling water over the bed as I tried to resume my painting. The children, however, had a wonderful night of rest.

Was Marvin really there?

Maybe.

Did I ever imagine he was around again?

Never.

This story appeared in the March 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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