BY ROBERT G. MULLER
The lighthouse at Horton Point has one of the longest histories of any Long Island lighthouse. Although it only served as a manned station from 1857 to 1933, a total of 76 years, its history reaches back as far as 1756 and continues on today.
In 1756, a young Colonel George Washington is said to have been on his way to Boston when he stopped in the area that is now Greenport. He reportedly visited the site of the present lighthouse during his time in the area, and discussed the need for a lighthouse with Ezra L'Hommidieu (almost forty years later L'Hommidieu would help Washington determine the site for the Montauk Point lighthouse). The waters off the point contained both sand bars and a rocky shoal, making the area a danger to the increasing number of ships using the area.
When George Washington became the first president of the young United States, he did not forget the need for a lighthouse on Horton Point. He commissioned a lighthouse for the spot, but the land was not available. The lot, part of the original land grant of Barnabas Horton, one of the founders of Southold in 1640, would not become available until 1855. It was then that Charles and Hannah Payne sold the site to the government. The building of the lighthouse quickly followed. William Sinclair, a Scottish immigrant who was to become its first keeper, oversaw the construction of the lighthouse.
When finished, in 1857, the structure consisted of a two-story, Federal style dwelling and a 58-foot square tower. Connecting the tower and dwelling was a cut-stone arched windway.
A climb to the top of the tower required that one scale the 29 wooden steps on its spiral staircase and two ladders of 11 steps each. The design of the tower dictated that the outside of the lantern could only be reached by an iron staircase outside the service room. The iron lantern room was designed with 10 panes of glass and the 10-sided roof was adorned with 10 rainspout covers that were shaped like gargoyle heads. Inside the lantern, a Third Order Fresnel lens exhibited a fixed white light. From the top of the tower, over 100 feet above sea level, it was possible to see the light at the Great West Bay lighthouse on the south shore of Long Island, built at about the same time as Horton Point.
About 1880, a porch was added to the dwelling and the windway was closed in. Above the windway quarters were built for the assistant keeper. A corrugated steel oil house was also built at this time. This is the way the lighthouse appears today.
The lighthouse continued on as a good place to be a keeper until 1933, when the light was turned off. It was replaced by an automated light on a skeletal tower 50 feet closer to the edge of the bluff. In January 1934, the Southold Park District bought the grounds from the Commerce Department for one dollar. The light's last keeper, George Erhardt, who had been an assistant keeper at Orient Point in 1903 and had come to Horton Point in 1919, stayed on in residence at the light until the hurricane of 1938.
During World War II the tower was used as a lookout by the Civilian Defense Corps and military units. After WWII, the light remained dormant for many years.
In 1990, an intense restoration effort, conducted mostly by Southold Historical Society volunteers, got under way. The tower was repaired, both inside and out and the light was returned to the tower that had cast a light from 1857 to 1933. The skeletal tower was demolished and the Coast Guard donated a flagpole to be erected on the base of the skeletal tower.
A nautical museum was opened on the first floor and the light became a popular attraction. The Southold Historical Society tried to reclaim the original Third Order Fresnel lens, but it had been lost by the Coast Guard while in storage. An early 1850s Fourth Order lens was given in its stead for the nautical museum to display. These days the museum contains a myriad of local maritime and lighthouse artifacts, including some of the original keeper's logs.
When the light was returned to the lighthouse in 1990, an FA 251 optic was installed with a characteristic of one green flash every ten seconds. This was accomplished by a six sided lens rotating at one revolution per minute (rpm). In April of 1999, the rotating mechanism failed. The Coast Guard, lacking a replacement one rpm mechanism, installed a 2 rpm mechanism and replaced three of the green panels with black panels, keeping the characteristic at one flash every ten seconds. The optic was changed again in 1999 to a VRB-25 optic, the new standard lighthouse optic, with the characteristic remaining the same.
Today, the Horton Point lighthouse flashes its green light out to mariners in the Long Island Sound and educates and entertains thousands of visitors each year. Concerts occasionally take place on a stage in a small depression on the property that acts as a natural amphitheater. The lighthouse is open weekends from Memorial Day through Columbus Day. Visitors can call the Southold Historical Society at 631-765-5500 for more information or to arrange a special tour.
Want to become a Long Island Lighthouse Expert? Visit www.LILighthouseSociety.org and sign up for the Long Island Lighthouse Expert Certification Course.
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.