BY ROBERT G. MULLER
East of Plum Island lie two small islands, further extensions of the North Fork of Long Island. The easternmost, and smaller, of these two islands borders The Race, one of the most dangerous waterways in the Northeast. The Race is a main avenue for the tidal waters of the Long Island Sound. Like Plum Gut, The Race acts as a venturi for these waters, causing them to reach speeds of up to six knots. A rocky bottom adds to the turbulence, and winds, especially if combined with poor visibility, can make matters much worse.
The many shipwrecks in that waterway caused the government to consider action early on. The two Gull islands, named for the many terns, called Fish Gulls at that time, which nested in the area, were bought from Benjamin Jerome in 1803 for $800. A lighthouse was built on the 3/4-acre Little Gull Island in 1805. Israel Rodgers was appointed its first keeper on July 1 of that year. This whitewashed stone 50-foot tower, made of "smooth hammered freestone" with a wooden stairway, was built to help guide ships through the dangerous waterway, but it would not be an easy task on this desolate, lonely island.
When the War of 1812 came to eastern Long Island, the British paid a visit to the lighthouse at Little Gull Island. They demanded that keeper Giles Holt extinguish the light. The keeper refused, and the British removed the illuminating apparatus from the lantern.
On September 23, 1815, a hurricane hit the area. Keeper Holt was ashore at the time, but his wife and four children were in the keeper's quarters at the tiny island. As the storm raged on, the keeper could do nothing but hope and pray that his family would survive the storm. When the storm subsided, and the keeper returned to the island, he must have had mixed feelings about what he saw. The raging waters of the storm had half undermined the keeper's quarters, leaving it hanging over a bank, and the waters had come within four feet of the tower itself. Fortunately, his family had weathered the storm and was well.
The proven vulnerability of the light station to storms caused the government to erect a 100-foot diameter wall around the tower and keeper's quarters in 1817. Work began in May and continued through August. One of the workers on the wall was a young man named Henry Thomas (Tom) Dering. Tom's father was Henry Packer Dering, local collector of customs, and thereby superintendent of lighthouses, and first postmaster for the town of Sag Harbor. Tom kept a diary during his time on Little Gull Island, beginning with a short history of the light station. He noted that the cost of the first lighthouse was $15,000 and commented on the area:
"The tides around the island are rapid and dangerous and the navigation for boats rude and unpleasant. The well water is brackish and rain water is used for drink. The Great island contains twelve acres of land but is little improved."
Tom also described the wall he was building, which cost $24,500:
"By three commissioners appointed to take a survey of the island it was proposed by them to build a circular wall of 300 feet in circumference and 100 diameter at the top. The foundation sunk on a level with low water mark seven feet thick at the bottom of the wall and 3 1/2 at the top. The outside course of stone laid in mortar and bolted with two copper bolts; the height of the wall 22 feet. On top of the wall a railing four feet high."
Early in the journal, Tom's youthful excitement to be on the island was evident. His mood changed as time passed, though. His August 4 entry shows this: "This wall will soon be finished to the joy of every man on the Island certainly to the joy of Tom Dering." On August 11, he recorded that he "wrote my name in the lanthorn." The last entry in Tom Dering's journal, dated Tuesday, August 19th, recorded the inscriptions from two graves on Great Gull Island dating 1814.
Tom Dering would go on to replace his father as the local collector of customs and superintendent of lighthouses. He would, in 1826, become responsible for the building of the first Plum Island lighthouse, on the island just west of where he had spent four months nine years earlier.
The keeper at Little Gull when Tom Dering was the local superintendent was Frederick Chase, a notable Shelter Island resident. In addition to being a ten-year keeper at Little Gull (after being appointed by John Quincy Adams), Chase also served as Justice of the Peace of Shelter Island, Town Supervisor and School Trustee. He had a large farm on the northwest part of Shelter Island and today his family name can be seen in several places on the island.
In an 1838 government report, the Little Gull light was described as being "of great importance to vessels approaching or passing through 'The Race,' or going into Gardiner's Bay." It's fixed-white lighting apparatus, which had been installed in January, consisted of "fifteen lamps, with parabolic reflectors, which are arranged around two circular tables - eight upon the upper, and seven upon the lower table; the vacant space below being towards Plumb Island. The reflectors are 13 1/2 inches in diameter, and average in weight two pounds six ounces; they are supported firmly by brackets, which project from the tables. The tube glasses are only six inches long, and are so placed that the smoke from the lamps collects upon the upper part of the reflectors." The keeper's quarters at the time was a wooden building with seven rooms.
In June of 1850, a supply ship captain noted that the lighthouse had received a new lantern and illuminating apparatus. It still used 15 lamps, but these were now located within 15-inch reflectors. The captain lamented the fact that the new lantern was not larger, as this would have allowed for even larger reflectors. The captain also complained of the lack of a crane for unloading supplies, as this "would facilitate our business, for now we have to parbuckle it up very high steps, and it not only slow work but hard work."
By 1855, three years after the formation of the Light-House Board, A. Ludlow Case, Inspector for the Third Light-House District, reported that the lighting apparatus at Little Gull was "very much worn, and I have to recommend that it be replaced by a lens apparatus of not less than a third-order, to illuminate the entire horizon." Little Gull did receive the recommended lens two years later, but this lens would only serve for 12 years.
When the winds of change blew across the Long Island area in the years following the War Between the States, Little Gull Island received a new lighthouse. The new tower was built of large granite blocks, like the other new lighthouses being built in the late 1860s, but it was not to be a small square building like those others. Little Gull's importance for safety in The Race, combined with the low elevation of the island, dictated that the new tower be tall, and its exposure to heavy winds, rain and, potentially, waves made a round construction more feasible. The brick-lined tower was built to a height of 81 feet, with four staggered windows to light the cast iron stairway. During the building of the new tower, which was completed in 1869, the light at Little Gull Island was displayed from a wooden "bell-frame."
The base for the new tower would be Tom Dering's 1817 wall. You can still see this wall serving, 185 years after its construction.
This new tower was given a powerful second order Fresnel lens that mariners would be able to see as they passed between Montauk Point and Block Island on their way to the Long Island Sound. The light's characteristic was set as a fixed white light, as it had always been and always would be.
New keepers' quarters were also built. This was a large two-story Victorian structure, large enough to house three keepers and their families, made of brownish stone, with granite arches over the windows and on the building's corners.
In 1929, Edgar M. (Ned) Whitford became the head keeper at Little Gull Island. Keeper Whitford's family would spend summers at Little Gull and winters in Rhode Island. His son Ed notes that "we traveled back and forth aboard the old Army 'L' boats and of course Dad knew everyone there was to know from Greenport to Fisher's Island to New London." Life on the island was fun for the children, who learned to row a boat before they learned to ride a bicycle.
The hurricane of 1938 hit Little Gull Island hard. The storm waters reached about 40 feet high, to the second story of the keepers' quarters. Keeper Whitford is said to have used mattresses to try to soak up the water on the second floor. The storm swept the island clean and filled the harbor with rocks and sand. Even the power boat (deemed the USS Useless by Keeper Whitford because of its frequent refusal to start) and rowboats were lost in the storm.
The "majestic old mansion," as Ed Whitford has described the 1868 keeper's quarters, was destroyed by fire in 1944 and replaced by a bland one-story building.
Nearby Great Gull Island was used by some early keepers for gardening and grazing animals. When the Spanish American War broke out, Fort Michie was built on the island, and is the only fort in the area given a disappearing gun. According to records, the keepers of Little Gull made many trips to Great Gull Island, and assisted the troops there several times when storms damaged piers, or boats were lost. Great Gull Island is now owned by the American Museum of Natural History and is used for studies of Common and Roseate Terns. Boaters in the area during nesting season are greeted with a cacophony of tern calls.
In 1978, the light at Little Gull Island was automated, ending 172 years of lightkeeping tradition on the tiny island.
Today, the lighthouse and fog signal at Little Gull Island still help local mariners navigate the treacherous waters of The Race. The fog signal in fact, often sounds even when there is no fog. Fortunately, there are few people around to complain about it.
The tower's old second order lens is on display at the East End Seaport Maritime Museum in Greenport. It is a fine example of a French fixed second order lens (the rarest of imported orders).
Although the names of Derings, Chases, Whitfords (including Dixie Dugan!) and others no longer echo off the granite and stone of Little Gull Island, the lighthouse still stands as a monument to a long tradition of proud lightkeeping on Long Island.
(Special thanks are owed to Ed Whitford, Van Field, and the John Jermain Library for their contributions to this article.)
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.