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The Cedar Island Lighthouse

BY ROBERT G. MULLER On March 23, Suffolk County and the Long Island Chapter of the US Lighthouse Society will announce a joint effort to preserve the endangered Cedar Island lighthouse. The public is invited ...

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On March 23, Suffolk County and the Long Island Chapter of the US Lighthouse Society will announce a joint effort to preserve the endangered Cedar Island lighthouse. The public is invited to attend this announcement, at Cedar Point County Park in East Hampton. I'll give more information about this event at the end of this column but, first, let's review the proud history of this lighthouse. The following article first appeared in the November 2001 issue of The Long Island Light Keeper. It appears here, in an updated form, courtesy of the Long Island Chapter of the US Lighthouse Society.

History of the Cedar Island Lighthouse

In the early to mid 1800s, the town of Sag Harbor was generally considered the second most important town on Long Island, second only to Brooklyn. The whaling industry had brought great fortune to the area and, to this day, the town touts itself as being "Built by the Whalers." For many years, the Cedar Island lighthouse helped those whalers.

In 1838, Sag Harbor boasted 20 vessels "employed in the coasting trade and cod fisheries" as well as 29 whaling ships. By comparison, Greenport, at that time the second most popular whaling port on Long Island, had seven whaling ships sailing from port.

Getting in and out of Sag Harbor could be hazardous to mariners. Cedar Island stood between the South Fork of Long Island and Shelter Island, posing a hazard to ships entering and leaving the port. The federal government realized this and, on August, 20 1838, purchased the three acre Cedar Island from "the Trustees of the Freeholders of the town of East Hampton" for $200.

In 1839, the government spent $3480 to build a lighthouse on the north side of the island. It was a wooden structure with a tower and cast iron lantern room on top.

On June 20, 1850, a supply ship made its annual visit to Cedar Island. At that time, Keeper H.L. Fordham was in charge of the lighthouse. The ship's captain, Captain Howland, reported in his log that: "[w]ith the exception of the house being leaky, it is in good order. Lantern is very leaky." He also noted that "[a]n attempt has been made to protect the island from washing away by a wooden fence or breakwater. I am fearful it will not prove effectual."

On July 1, 1851, the Cedar Island light had a listed effective range of 12.5 miles. Its nine lamps with fourteen-inch reflectors cast this light from a height of 32 feet above sea level.

The annual report of the Light-House Board for 1855, at which time the cost of whale oil was $2.25 per gallon, stated that the Cedar Island lighthouse had received a new illuminating apparatus. This made the Cedar Island lighthouse the first Long Island lighthouse, with the possible exception of the new Gardiner's Point light, to receive a Fresnel lens. The lens installed was a 270-degree Sixth Order lens, with Argand lamp, to replace the nine lamps and reflectors.

The 1858 annual report indicated that the Cedar Island light showed a fixed white light from a sixth order lens 34 feet above sea level. Oddly, it lists the range as ten miles, 2.5 less than the old lamps with reflectors. The tower on top of the keeper's quarters was painted white.

In April 1861 Nathaniel Edwards took over as keeper of the lighthouse. When he passed away in June of 1862, his wife Mary took over as keeper until a new keeper was assigned in September. Mary Edwards was not done with lighthouses, though. She later married Charles Finch Sherman, and was his assistant keeper at the Execution Rocks lighthouse in 1873-74.

Although we do not have too many details about the first lighthouse, we do know that the 1839 lighthouse at Cedar Island was, in essence, a wooden house with an iron lantern on top. The particular type of design used at Cedar Island has been noted for having insufficient support for the weight of the tower, which may have caused the wooden structure to sag. We cannot say for sure that his was the case at Cedar Island, but the lighthouse would be rebuilt in 1868, less than 30 years after the building of the first lighthouse.

Congress authorized the rebuilding of the lighthouse on March 2, 1867. An appropriation of $25,000 was made for the purpose. Fifteen thousand dollars were spent on the lighthouse's construction in 1868, and another $9992.62 to complete the lighthouse in 1869.

The 1870 annual report stated that "The rebuilding of this station is completed and the old structure removed. A 5th order lens will be placed in this tower as a substitute for the 6th order which was in the old tower." Despite the mention of the 5th order lens, subsequent documents would always report the presence of a sixth order lens at Cedar Island.

In 1882, a "fog bell, struck by machinery, was established" at the station. The "machinery" mentioned was probably a Steven's Fog Bell Apparatus, as illustrated in the July 1881 Instructions to Light-Keepers. This mechanism was, essentially, a wind-up clockworks mechanism that caused a large sledgehammer to strike the fog bell.

In 1902, the brick oil house that still resides at the station was built. Many of these oil houses were built on Long Island about this time, including the extant ones at Plum Island, Montauk Point and Shinnecock Bay.

By 1903, the erosion that had been first documented in 1850 had reduced Cedar Island to about 1.5 acres, a loss of half the island in less than 70 years. At this point, riprap began to be placed around the north and west sides of the island to protect it. By 1907, over 6000 tons would be placed. Much of this riprap is still visible at the site.

The 1908 Light List listed the fog signal as "a single blow every 20 sec[onds]."

The 1930s saw several Long Island lighthouses decommissioned. Like the lighthouses at Shinnecock Bay, Horton Point, and Old Field Point, the Cedar Island lighthouse had the light removed from its tower. A skeletal tower, which still stands, became the keeper of the light at Cedar Island in 1934.

In 1936, the island was surveyed. By this time, the island had been reduced to less than one acre, its grove of cedar tress long since washed away by the encroaching waters. The high water line had approached so close as to half encircle the pier upon which the lighthouse was built. It must have seemed that the shifting Long Island sands that had plagued the island for years would soon deposit the old lighthouse into the sea.

The island and lighthouse were sold for $2002 in 1937 to Phelan Beale, a Manhattan lawyer. One year later, in 1938, the infamous September hurricane struck Long Island, reeking havoc throughout the area. In a bizarre act of fate, this horrible storm would be the savior the Cedar Island lighthouse had long awaited. The storm filled in the strait of water between Cedar Island and the south fork of Long Island, stabilizing the area sands. Cedar Island now became Cedar Point.

The lighthouse remained in private hands until 1967, when it was purchased to become part of Cedar Point County Park.

After 40 years of private ownership, the lighthouse still was intact, its hardwood interior having the appearance, as one visitor put it, of a mansion. Unfortunately, that changed in June of 1974, just before sunset, when the lighthouse caught fire. Its location at the end of a long sandspit made it too difficult to receive help in time, and the interior and roof of the lighthouse burned away, leaving only the granite shell and cast iron lantern room.

The County sealed the doors and windows and built a new roof. The lighthouse has remained in essentially that state in the 27 years since. Along with the lighthouse, one other building from the light station remains: the 1902 oil house. This building, historically important in its own right, has suffered at the hands of vandals, and many of the bricks that make up its walls have been torn away.

Today, the lighthouse, beaten, burned and even threatened by damage from trees and vines growing in the spaces between its granite blocks, awaits help. Fortunately, Suffolk County and the Long Island Chapter of the US Lighthouse Society have teamed up to protect this important Long Island landmark.

For the first time in many years, it appears that the Cedar Island lighthouse may once again stand proud. Although there are no longer any whaling ships to guide, a restored Cedar Island lighthouse will be a poignant reminder of the area's rich maritime heritage.

March 23 Cedar Island Lighthouse Preservation Kickoff

Join me on Saturday, March 23, at 11AM, to celebrate the beginning of new hope for the Cedar Island Lighthouse. Suffolk County and the Long Island Chapter of the US Lighthouse Society will make several announcements regarding the effort and there will be comments by dignitaries, a walk to the lighthouse, a raffle, merchandise for sale, free refreshments, and more. Contact the Chapter at 631-207-4331 or for more information.

Directions to Cedar Point County Park: Montauk Highway east to Stephen Hands Path in East Hampton. Turn north and continue to Old North West Road. Bear left and continue to Alewive Brook Road. The park entrance is nearly 100 yards down the road.

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 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.