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The sentinels of Long Island Sound

Lighthouses that guard passages from the eastern Sound to the sea are witnesses to history

Lighthouses that guard passages from the eastern Sound to the sea are witnesses to history

Long Island Sound is an important and sizeable body of water. It has an area of 1,320 square miles, a 600-mile coastline, and a volume of some 18 trillion gallons.

There are three principal passages from the sea to eastern Long Island Sound. The easternmost one is Watch Hill Passage and Fisher’s Island Sound; the central and principal one, The Race; and the western one, The Gut.

Through these passages flow a tremendous amount of water with each change of tide, creating dangerous currents often exceeding 5 knots. The Watch Hill Passage is only 0.2 miles wide with water depths of 30 to 50 feet. The Race, between Fisher’s Island and Valiant Rock, is about 1-1/2 miles with the depths up to 320 feet. Plum Gut, between Orient Point and Plum Island is a mile wide with water depths of 100 to 180 feet.

The importance of these Long Island Sound passages have long been recognized. The British effectively blockaded them, both during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, so as to prevent shipping to and from Long Island ports. During the end of the 1800s at the time of the Spanish American War, the United States spent huge sums in fortifying these passages with gun emplacements on Fisher’s Island, Fort H.T. Wright; Great Gull; and Plum Island, Fort Terry. These forts were also manned during World War II with observation posts and elaborate connecting communications.

This importance and the dangerous currents resulted in early decisions to have lighthouses at these passages. The earliest ones were at Little Gull, marking the entrance to The Race, Watch Hill for the entrance to Watch Hill Passage, and Plum Island for the Plum Gut Passage.

Today the sentinel lighthouses for Watch Hill Passage and Fisher’s Island Sound are Watch Hill, Latimer Reef and North Dumpling Lighthouses. Guarding The Race is Little Gull and Race Rock Lighthouses, and on either side of the Gut are Orient Point and Plum Island lighthouses.

The importance of these lighthouses during the 19th century can best be emphasized by the number of ships that passed by these lighthouses each day. Many of the lighthouse keepers would log more than 100 ships daily passing their respective lighthouses. Even with present navigation electronics, such as GPS, ship captains and pilots advise using these lighthouses as a reference and position check. Maritime Port Authority officials reported that more than 400 major ships entered and exited Long Island Sound through The Race in 2003. The number of smaller vessels, boats and ferries using these passages is almost too numerous to count.

What follows is a thumbnail description and history of each of these lighthouses, which act as sentinels to Eastern Long Island Sound Passages from the sea.

Watch Hill Lighthouse

(Established: 1808; Height above sea level: 62 feet; Automated: 1986)

The original Watch Hill Tower was established around 1745 during King George’s War. The original Colonial beacon was destroyed in a 1781 gale and was not replaced until the second lighthouse was erected in 1807. The act to establish the light was signed by President Thomas Jefferson in 1806. The light was a wood tower that had a bank of 10 whale-oil lamps. This structure was replaced with the present lighthouse in 1856, a three-story granite tower topped with a cast iron and glass lantern room. It was equipped with a fixed Fresnel fourth-order lens. The present lighthouse is maintained by the Watch Hill Light Keepers Association. The area of Watch Hill Passage has been the site of many shipwrecks, including Oliver Hazard Perry’s ship in 1812; the Steamer, Metis, with a loss of 117 lives; and a 3,192-ton ship, Leif Viking in 1962.

Watch Hill Light Station is noted for having two female keepers in succession. The first, Sally Ann Crandall, became keeper following the death of her husband in 1879, followed by Fanny K. Sckuyler, who was appointed keeper in October 1888.

Latimer Reef Lighthouse

(Established: 1884; Height of light above sea level: 55 feet; Automated: 1983)

The Latimer Reef Lighthouse has a unique and interesting history. The reef, located north of the eastern end of Fishers Island, was named after James Latemore who, during the Revolutionary War, set out in a skiff to spy on the British fleet at anchor in Fisher’s Island Sound. A lookout on one of the British vessels spotted Latemore’s small craft, gave the alarm, and a boat was lowered by crewmembers who took after Latemore. He ran aground on a reef, which was later named after him. The British seamen caught up with him, took him back to the ship and at sunrise he was hanged from one of the British frigates and later buried in the Sound.

Latimer Reef Light is the oldest cast-iron lighthouse still in service in the 1st Coast Guard District. In 1844 it replaced the lightship at Eel Grass Shoal, about 0.8 mile northwest of the present lighthouse. The lighthouse is a brick-lined, cast-iron tower on a cement-filled cast-iron foundation. It was constructed in this way because on unsheltered sites in the water where a masonry tower would be impractical or too expensive and where a structure of moderate size would serve the needs of navigation, cast-iron caissons, or shells, could be easily sunk and firmly secured. Besides the lighthouse, the site includes the remnant of a masonry dock and a protective band of riprap that encircles the foundation and extends northward for some 50 feet. The foundation of Latimer Reef Lighthouse rests directly upon the rock-bottom of the reef. Its cast-iron shell is composed of curved and flanged cast-iron plates, bolted together on the inside. The prefabricated plates were assembled on site and then filled with Portland cement, creating a heavy stable footing, 30 feet in diameter and 25 feet high. The inside faces of the foundation plates are corrugated, probably to ensure that the cement would not shift once it hardened. In the center of the foundation’s top, an area was left unfilled to provide a basement storage area. The tower takes the form of a truncated cone, 21 feet in diameter at the bottom and 18 feet in diameter at the top. Walls are curved cast-iron plates connected by bolts through internal flanges. Three stories held living quarters when the light was manned, and the fourth story served as the watch deck.

North Dumpling Lighthouse

(Established: 1849; Rebuilt: 1871; Height of light above sea level: 70 feet)

Ten years before the establishment of North Dumpling Lighthouse, area charts indicated that a light ship operated northeast of Flat Hammock and southeast of North Dumpling Island. From this position the light ship marked the entrance to Fishers Island West Harbor and served to direct traffic through Fishers Island Sound.

During Prohibition isolated coastal beaches and islands were often used as transfer points for illegal booze. It was general knowledge that some of the Maynards, as the residents of nearby Fishers Island were called, were actively partaking in bootlegging. In April 1923 the yacht Thelma-Phoebe was engaged in smuggling scotch when a storm swept it up on the south side of Fishers Island. By the time the Coast Guard had arrived on the scene, most of the vessel’s cargo had been “liberated” by the locals. In December of the same year, whiskey from another vessel had similarly disappeared when it too was shipwrecked in almost the same spot as the Thelma-Phoebe. It was not surprising, then, that after having reports of “strange lights” in the vicinity of North Dumpling Island, the light station’s keeper came under close scrutiny. Keeper Burk-hart was said to have been “running extra lights around the lighthouse, which were used as signals between the mainland, boats and Fishers Island. His accuser claimed that he had seen the keeper storing, delivering and selling liquor to the citizens of Fishers Island, and receiving loads from ships at night. Though the Coast Guard did observe a green flair, a rocket and sky signals from the island’s vicinity, investigators never found any evidence that connected the keeper to smuggling activities.

North Dumpling Island, in Fishers Island Sound, has had five owners since 1639 with the first change of owners in 1847 when the Winthrop family (descendants of Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) sold the property to the U.S. Government for $600. The red-brick, two-story lighthouse was constructed in 1849 and used until the beacon was moved to a steel tower and automated in 1959. The light was returned to the tower on the lighthouse in the 1980s, at the request of the fourth owner of the property, who oversaw extensive renovations of the house and island. The island’s present owner, Dean Kamen, invented the Segway two-wheeled scooter.

Race Rock Lighthouse

(Established: 1878; Height of light above sea level: 68.5 feet; Automated: November 1978)

Race Rock, located at the west end of Fishers Island and the eastern entrance to Long Island Sound, was considered one of the most dangerous obstructions to navigation on the coast. Rising from a depth

of 70 or more feet of water, several small spurs of rock break the water’s surface, while a large rock formation is covered with only 3 feet of water at low tide. During the early 1800s there was hardly a summer month that a vessel did not strike the rock reef with sometimes disastrous results.

The Gothic Revival-styled Race Rock Lighthouse marks a most dangerous location with perhaps hundreds of shipwrecks to its dubious credit, including the steamer Atlantic in which 45 people perished in November 1846. The beacon’s completion in 1878 marked the end of masonry lighthouses on wave-swept or water-bound sites. Most of all, it is a fitting monument to its engineers, Francis Hopkinson Smith and Capt. Thomas Albertson Scott. The construction on the “boulder” (really a ledge that is 3 to 13 feet below water) required seven years, thousands of tons of rip-rap and amazing persistence. Smith also built the government seawall at Governors Island, N.Y., and the foundation for the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

Little Gull Lighthouse

(Established: 1806 (Rebuilt: 1869); Height of light above sea level: 92 feet; Automated: May 1978)

Located at the eastern end of Long Island Sound, Little Gull Island marked the sound’s access to the open sea. The four-mile expanse between Little Gull

Island and Fishers Island, known as The Race, develops currents in excess of 5 knots, sometimes coupled with opposing winds or heavy onshore seas on a falling tide.

A survey of the island in 1803 described it as having about 1 acre of land above high water. The report further indicated that the island eroded very little over the years, and it was surrounded by rocky reefs that would help prevent encroachment of the sea. Some stones were available for the tower’s foundation, but for the most part, the report concluded, materials would have to be transported to the island by sea.

The first light on Little Gull Island, a 50-foot hammered freestone tower, was lit in 1806 in an effort to prevent the numerous wrecks that occurred in the hazardous waters where Long Island Sound and Block Island Sound meet. It represents one of the first efforts by the federal government to provide lighted navigational aids. The keepers of the original lighthouse overlooked naval activities between the Americans and the British that took place in the vicinity of The Race during the War of 1812. The British landed troops here in 1813, forced the keeper to extinguish the light, and removed the lamps to prevent its being relit. The present Little Gull Island Lighthouse was constructed in 1868, one of the last of the masonry structures built on the East Coast. Some of its design elements — the Italianate-inspired appearance, the distinctive door lintel, the cast iron central tower, stairs and watch deck floor — were the first glimpses of lighthouse architecture to come. The 9-foot-high, 4-1/2-foot-

diameter second-order Fresnel lens was originally installed in 1869.

Plum Island Lighthouse

(Established: 1827; Rebuilt: 1870; Height of light above sea level: 63 feet; Discontinued: 1978)

In 1826 Richard Jerome sold 3 acres of the 840-acre island to the U.S. Government for $90, and the first beacon, a 40-foot rough stone tower equipped with 10 lamps with reflectors arranged on two rotating copper tables, was constructed on Plum Island. In 1867 the masonry of the dwelling and tower were found to be soft and crumbling and the structures were leaking badly so in 1869-’70 the current masonry structure was built. This 131-year-old granite lighthouse marked the treacherous waters off the western point of Plum Island for many years. It had a 350,000 candle power light and a range of 14 miles before it was discontinued in June of 1978 and replaced by a small beacon. The lighthouse, located at the top of a rapidly eroding bluff, is in danger of being lost unless preventive action is taken to stabilize the slope. The lighthouse is one of two on Eastern Long Island on the “Doomsday” list. East End Lighthouses, the nonprofit group of which I’m president, has made the preservation, restoration, and relighting of this historic lighthouse its priority project.

Orient Point Lighthouse

(Established: 1899; Height of light above sea level: 64 feet; Automated: 1966)

The Orient Point Lighthouse, known as the Coffee Pot, was built in 1899 to mark the end of Oyster Point Reef and to guide mariners through the dangerous currents of Plum Gut. The lighthouse was designed in the shape of a truncated cone of curved cast iron plates bolted together. The foundation is a circular cast iron caisson filled with concrete resting on a leveled portion of the rocky Oyster Point reef. The brick-lined superstructure has a 21-foot diameter base and a height of 64 feet with three stories of living quarters. The construction of the lighthouse began in early 1898 and proceeded despite adverse weather conditions, harsh tides and an October 1898 gale that swept away the first and second course of plates. The structure, except for the riprap, was completed on July 4, 1899, but because of problems hiring keepers, its fixed red fifth-order light did not begin operation until Nov. 10, 1899. The light’s first keeper was Ole Anderson at an annual salary of $600. The Coffee Pot served as a manned beacon from 1899 to the 1960s, when it became an automated light. In 1970 the Coast Guard declared it unsafe for servicing personnel and uneconomical to repair, which evoked a strong protest from those who wanted to save the light. After a three-year hiatus, the cast iron caisson underwent a major renovation consisting of pumping concrete into the base, sandblasting and coating the structure with a preservative and epoxy.

Merlon E. Wiggin is president of East End Lighthouses Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the offshore lighthouses of Southold Town. He is the founder of the foundation that replicated Long Beach Bar “Bug” Lighthouse and started the Maritime Museum in the former Greenport Railroad Station. He holds a Coast Guard Masters License and is vice commander of the local Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla. He is also a certified Coast Guard lighthouse keeper for Boston Light.