Digest>Archives> November 2010

Lost Photos of a Lost Light with a Tragic End

Where Are They?

By Timothy Harrison


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Photograph of an original sketch of the Gardiners ...

It’s hard to believe that so many sharp and clear photographs exist from the United States Civil War, that took place from 1861 to 1864, but photos of the Gardiner’s Island Lighthouse that stood until 1894, an amazing 30 years after the Civil War ended, seem to be nonexistent. Could it be that no one took any photos or have they have been misplaced or thrown out? Interestingly, during this same time frame in history, there are many photographs of lighthouses from locations more isolated than or as remote as Gardiner’s Island.

On and off for the past 20 years we have been searching for photographs of the lighthouse that is also known Gardiner’s Point Lighthouse, Gardiner’s Point Island Lighthouse and Gardiners Island Lighthouse. Some spellings also show it as Gardners. During all this time we were only able to locate one photograph of the lighthouse in a government publication. However, that photo was taken from such a distance, that even with today’s modern technology; we were unable to enhance the photo by zooming in on it.

The lighthouse, built in 1855, was reported to be in such poor condition that the lighthouse keeper Jonathan A Miller did not even want to be there. But he was required to fulfill his duties. He would have been better off if he had resigned.

The lighthouse had been built of stone on a point of land that extended far into Gardiner’s Bay. In 1892 the point of land was cut in two by heavy seas from a storm. Eventually the land, which was mostly a sand bar, got smaller and smaller.

An early lighthouse keeper complained to lighthouse officials in Washington. But nothing happened. Perhaps the Lighthouse Board, which ran our nation’s lighthouses at that time, was so cumbersome, that his concerns were bogged down in bureaucratic paperwork, floating from one board member to another. Whatever the case, the keeper resigned; feeling that life at the lighthouse was just too dangerous.

The keeper was replaced by Jonathon Miller, but Miller soon realized, as did most of the mariners in the area, that the lighthouse structure, and conditions there, was not safe, especially for such a heavy structure sitting on sand that could shift without notice. A decision from the Light-House Board was finally made to rebuild the structure. However, it would have to wait.

As the winter months of the 1893-94 began to creep in, Miller felt it was simply too dangerous to keep his family at the lighthouse and he moved his family from the island to the mainland. However, his son, Frank, stayed with him. Whether Miller’s son made the decision himself to stay on the island to help his father or if Miller asked his son to stay and help him, will never be known.

Also, whether the storm on that fateful night in February 1894 was a violent one or if it was just a typical February winter storm is not clear. But, the waves washing up against the lighthouse finally undermined the unstable sand bar that the lighthouse stood upon.

The entire structure shifted and within seconds the stone keeper’s house with its attached tower groaned, shook and then crumbled to the ground in a pile of bricks. We can only imagine the horror and panic that Miller and his son went through in those final few short seconds. Miller survived, but his son was crushed to death.

It was passing ships that first saw the lighthouse was gone and went to the rescue and sent word to the mainland about the disaster.

However, the real story here is that again, another lighthouse keeper’s family paid the ultimate price. The lighthouse was never rebuilt.

Editor’s Note: If anyone can locate and send us a good close up photograph of the lost Gardiner’s Point Island Lighthouse, we’ll give you a complimentary two year subscription to Lighthouse Digest.

This story appeared in the November 2010 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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