BY ROBERT G. MULLER
While visitation at the island's three publicly available lighthouses (Montauk Point, Fire Island, Horton Point) is about 200,000 annually, many of these people leave without getting the most of their visit. It's not that the tour guides don't do their jobs - all three lighthouses are staffed by great people who love what they do and work hard to serve the public - it's simply due to the fact that very few take the time to prepare for their visits. I'm going to help you correct that right now. Take my advice, and I guarantee you'll enjoy your lighthouse visits more.
1. Take a little time to learn a little about the lighthouse's (and the area's) history before you go. A visit to LongIslandLighthouses.com is a nice start, if I do say so myself. This will allow you to appreciate some things before you even get to the lighthouse. For instance, knowing that the first Fire Island lighthouse was built a few hundred feet from the inlet might make for some interesting thoughts as you drive over the Robert Moses Bridge and see the six miles of island added to the west of that point since 1826. Or, on the drive to Montauk Point, you might notice Napeague, where the boat bringing the oil and glass to Montauk Point ran aground in late 1796, delaying the lighting of the lighthouse until the Spring of 1797.
2. Plan the timing of your visit to allow for the most enjoyment. An event at a lighthouse, such as the Clam Bake at Horton Point this July 20, might be best for some folks; it allows for socializing and the opportunity to ask questions of lighthouse experts. But for those who prefer solitude and quiet, a visit during the offseason might be best. Or perhaps something like a quiet sunset tour at Fire Island is your type of thing. Planning your visit based on an understanding of what will be going on there that day will make the visit more enjoyable.
3. Bring proper equipment. Dress properly. Lighthouse stations are generally exposed areas - Cold winter winds, or hot summer sun, can ruin your visit if you are not prepared. Bring binoculars. The view from the top will be enhanced by a good pair of binoculars. A field guide to birds will be handy at any lighthouse. A camera, with plenty of film, will allow you to back up the stories of great scenery you'll be telling your friends when you get back home or to the office.
Now that you've read a little of the lighthouse's history, planned for a day that will suit your personality, and gathered the proper equipment, you can do some things at the lighthouse to enhance the visit.
4. Notice the landscape around you as you approach the lighthouse. The landscape will help to make sense of the lighthouse's existence. It will also reveal an array of flora and fauna. Walk slowly, listen and watch. Enjoy the setting.
5. Look at the lighthouse as you approach and appreciate its aesthetic properties. The feeling of strength, majesty, and even defiance that is inherent in a lighthouse can be inspiring.
6. Before entering, walk around the lighthouse. Check out the flowers around Horton Point in the Spring, look at the Montauk tower from the bluff below (one of my favorite angles for photography), and view the Fire Island light from several angles. A lighthouse can take on a different "feel" when viewed from a different angle.
7. Once you get to the lighthouse's keepers' quarters, pause for a moment. You'll be entering through doors that generations of proud, hardworking lighthouse keepers used. Take a moment to think about what it was like to live there.
8. Lighthouse Touching: Many people have a technique that I find interesting. They like to touch a lighthouse when they visit. If you do so, please do so carefully, and with respect.
9. Inside the lighthouse, maintain your careful, respectful approach. Walk softly so that you don't increase wear on the floors, steps or landings. Don't touch anything you shouldn't.
10. Ask questions. You should have a tour guide or other volunteer available to answer your questions. Use that resource. Most of us appreciate the opportunity to share what we've learned, and even welcome questions to which we may not know the answer (it gives us an excuse to do more research).
11. Take home a gift for family or friends, or yourself. Not only do lighthouse gift shops supply nifty things, they are a source of funding to help preserve the lighthouses for many more to enjoy. You'll have a reminder of your fun experience and the feeling that you have done something to help.
I'm sure you're now eager to go try out these ideas. Fortunately, we have two wonderful lighthouses on Long Island that are open throughout the year:
1. The Montauk Lighthouse, a favorite of many and a popular destination, is New York's oldest lighthouse. This Spring, the lighthouse celebrates 205 years of serving the local community. Luckily for us, the lighthouse and the lovely museum within are open to the public. The museum contains the largest collection of Fresnel lenses on Long Island, the landscape is singular, and the birdwatching and fishing in the area are great. If you are a Long Islander and have never been to this lighthouse, hurry out before anyone finds out about you! Personally, I recommend a visit during the offseason, to avoid the crowds and traffic.
The Montauk Point Lighthouse
2. The Fire Island Lighthouse: Let me admit right up front that I have a special fondness for this light. I spent many summer days as a child fishing and boating under its gaze, and continue that relationship as a volunteer tour guide at the lighthouse now. Even with that admitted bias, I still feel its fair to say that this is one of the best destinations on Long Island. The lighthouse, the tallest in NY and one of the tallest in the nation, is open to the public for tours. And its the only one on Long Island where you are allowed to walk around the gallery - at 150 feet above the Atlantic Ocean! The view is great, the tour guides are friendly, and the museum in the keeper's quarters is currently undergoing a major renovation. A leisurely walk along the boardwalk from Robert Moses State Park to the lighthouse is filled with the sound of crashing waves, the smell of salt air, and the sights of wildlife, varied flora, and beautiful scenery. Great sunbathing, fishing, birdwatching and more surround the site. Special events are conducted at the lighthouse, with my favorites being sunrise and sunset tours, and the annual Lantern Light Tour in October (I'll be at Station One again this year).
The Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society
631-661-4876 or 631-321-7028
With any of the organizations above, it's always best to check for schedule changes. Calling ahead could save you time and aggravation.
For the most complete listing of lighthouse events on Long Island, bookmark the events page at LongIslandLighthouses.com and check it often. I frequently update the page to reflect new events and schedules.
Robert G. Muller, author of "Long Island's Lighthouses: Past and Present," was the Founding President of the Long Island Chapter of the US Lighthouse Society, and is its current Historian and Preservation Coordinator. He is the creator of the LongIslandLighthouses.com web site and a volunteer at several area lighthouses. Bob conducts lectures on the lighthouse history of Long Island, narrates cruises, leads tours, and has written articles for magazines and newspapers. He has been featured in Newsday and Long Island Boating World, quoted in the New York Times, and appears in the Long Island Lighthouses program that appeared on News12 Long Island.