Digest>Archives> August 2000

The Endangered Cedar Island Lighthouse

By Robert G. Muller


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Throughout American history, light stations have helped create and safeguard thriving ports, making navigation safe for personnel and cargo. Unfortunately, the communities they helped to build have abandoned many of these stations, where dedicated keepers kept the lights and made rescues. The Cedar Island, NY, light station is one such station.

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The port of Sag Harbor was considered by many to be the most important town on the eastern part of Long Island in the early to mid 1800s. The port’s growth was primarily due to a thriving whaling industry. Ever-larger sailing ships had to navigate a small channel between Cedar Island and Shelter Island to get to Sag Harbor. By 1838, there were 29 whaling ships registered in Sag Harbor and 20 “employed in the coasting trade and cod fisheries.”

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Prior to 1838, there were only buoys to mark the channel, some of which were known to be off station at times. Lights were reportedly often hung upon poles on Cedar Island to help mark the channel. It was eventually decided to put a permanent light on Cedar Island and, in August of 1838, the Town of East Hampton sold the three-acre island to the federal government for $200.

A wooden lighthouse, with a tower on top of the dwelling, was built on the north side of Cedar Island in 1839. The lantern room was given Winslow Lewis lamps and reflectors, as required by the contract.

The December 1850 report to Congress from the general superintendent of the Light-House Establishment, Stephen Pleasanton, contained a report on the Cedar Island Light from the captain of the supply vessel that had visited the light that June. The report stated “with the exception of the house being leaky, it is in good order. Lantern is very leaky.” Four of the nine lamps and two of the reflectors were replaced at this time. The report 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.” This was the first mention of the erosion that would continue to plague the small, and getting smaller, island.

In the 1850s, the lighthouse received a Sixth Order Fresnel lens, emitting a fixed white light. This was part of a systematic replacing of the area’s old Winslow Lewis lamps with Fresnel lenses. Another wave of lighthouse improvements hit the Long Island area in the late 1860s, as many of the poorly built Pleasanton-era lights were rebuilt. Cedar Island would receive one of these sturdy new structures in 1869. This new light was built about 120 feet southwest of the old lighthouse, presumably to help it resist the forces of erosion that were battering the north side of the island.

The new lighthouse was built of granite, like its contemporaries at Plum Island and Old Field Point, but was given a different layout than its two cast-iron towered brethren. The Cedar Island Light was built as a two and one half story L-shaped structure with a four story square tower nestled in the middle of the L. The structure was built upon a granite pier, giving the entire station an appearance of strength and texture.

Original plans were for the new lantern to receive a Fifth Order lens, but the Sixth Order lens was transferred from the old tower and appears to have remained there for the remainder of the lighthouse’s active life, casting its light out from a perch 45 feet above mean high water (According to the 1907 Light List, the light had a range of about 11 miles, while the 1929 List gives the range as 9 miles).

By the turn of the 20th century, the erosion problems first mentioned 50 years prior had become a serious concern on Cedar Island. The three-acre island was now a one and one half acre island. This prompted the depositing of 6600 tons of riprap around the north and west sides of the island between 1903 and 1907.

A January 31, 1908, newspaper article on the erosion on the island stated that “[t]he government in 1906-7 tried to save the island by building, a stone break-water, expending several thousand dollars, but the tides run strong, and the waves are high and heavy in winter storms. The big tide of a few days ago flooded the lighthouse station, but the... stone dwelling house and bell platform held secure.”

In 1934, the Cedar Island station was once again a part of a wave of lighthouse activity on Long Island. This time, the wave was to decommission the old lights and replace them with automated skeleton towers. Like its fellow Long Island lighthouses at Old Field Point, Horton Point, and Shinnecock Bay, the Cedar Island lighthouse was now out of a job. A black skeleton tower, built upon the most southerly part of the riprap pier, would henceforth cast the Cedar Island Light, from a height of 48 feet.

A decision was made to auction off the now-surplus island. A survey conducted in June of 1936 showed that the high water line had reached the middle of the base of the lighthouse. Notes on the survey state that the “entire island is made up of beach gravel” and the “size and shape of island is continually changing as a result of erosion and accretion.” The island was now down to .947 acres. The grove of cedar trees that had given the island its name had been washed away by erosion, high water, and storms.

The lighthouse and remaining island, except the skeleton tower and immediate area, were sold at auction for $2002 in 1937. The next year, the infamous September hurricane struck the Sag Harbor area with great fury. This hurricane, which caused so much destruction throughout New England, filled in the strait between Cedar Island and the South Fork of Long Island, turning Cedar Island into Cedar Point. Ironically, the hurricane, which had caused so much havoc at many area lighthouses, stabilized the sands around the lighthouse, perhaps saving the lighthouse from falling into the sea.

The property was sold in 1943, and remained private property until 1967, when Suffolk County purchased it as parkland. The abandoned lighthouse, sitting at the end of a long peninsula, was a prime target for vandalism, and has remained so to this day. At one point in the early 1970s, it was proposed that the Cedar Point park superintendent and his family occupy the lighthouse, but the theft of the lighthouse’s generator cancelled that plan.

One early June evening in 1974, an eighth grade girl named Susan, one of the park superintendent’s daughters, was watching the sunset when she noticed a strange glow in the area of the lighthouse. She found a pair of binoculars just in time to see the roof of the lighthouse burst into flames. The fire had been caused by a spark cast by the welding of plates on the doors and windows to keep vandals out. This was another irony in the history of the Cedar Island Lighthouse.

The lighthouse was now an empty granite shell devoid of its ornate oak interior and its roof. The County, it turned out, had forgotten to insure the light, so no funds were available to restore the historic structure. A new roof was put on, but no further work was done to preserve the lighthouse.

Several restoration efforts have been contemplated, with one group in the late 1980s actually having the building leased to them, but the light still stands at the end of Cedar Point Park, beaten and burned. It is the constant victim of vandalism. Vines and even cedar trees grow in the cracks between its granite blocks. Pigeons are the only occupants of the lantern room that once cast a fight for the good of mariners and commerce. A 1902 brick oil house, the only other surviving structure from the station, has been neglected and vandalized to the point that it will probably not survive to see a preservation effort ever take place.

With the restoration of the Plum Island Lighthouse looking like a reality in the near future, the Cedar Island Lighthouse may soon be the only unrestored lighthouse in the Long Island, NY area. Perhaps then, the lighthouse can gain enough public attention to once again dream of a future as dignified as its past.

The Cedar Island Lighthouse is located in Suffolk County’s Cedar Point Park, on Long Island’s south fork. The lighthouse may be reached by a 30-minute walk along a sandy peninsula in the park. The exterior is visible, but the interior has been sealed. Visitors should be careful of poison ivy and ticks.

About the author: Robert G. Muller is a member of the Board of Directors of the East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation in Greenport, NY and the creator of the LongIslandLighthouses.com web site. He guides tours, narrates cruises, conducts public and private slide presentations and maintains an electronic-mailing list on the subject. Mr. Muller would like to thank Mike Seewald and Bob Scroope for their help with this article, and continued support of Long Island’s lighthouses.

This story appeared in the August 2000 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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