A long overdue plaque has finally been installed where the long lost Shinnecock Bay Lighthouse once stood at Ponquogue, Long Island, New York.
Built in 1857-58 as the Great West Bay Lighthouse, the name was changed in 1893 to the Shinnecock Bay Lighthouse to better reflect the name of the bay where the lighthouse stood. However, nearly all of the locals referred to it as the Ponquogue Lighthouse, which many local people also spell as two words: Pon Quogue.
A few days before Christmas in 1948, the 150-foot tall lighthouse was destroyed by the United States Coast Guard in one of the most unwarranted acts of deliberate destruction in the history of United States lighthouses.
Richard Casabianca, a Hampton Bays Long Island resident whose great grandfather, Waldo Penny, was an assistant keeper of the lighthouse in the 1920s, said that the new plaque provides him with satisfaction and perhaps a bit of justice. In referring to the deliberate and planned destruction of the lighthouse, he said, “A lot of people were hurt by it for a long time.”
It was at Casabianca’s urging that Zachary N. Studeroth, Historian for the Town of Southampton pursed the establishment of the historical marker. Support was then secured from the Landmarks & Historic Districts Board and the Hampton Bays Historical Society and it was paid for by the Town of Southampton, New York.
Proving that people shouldn’t hold the current Coast Guard responsible for the Coast Guard of the past, when the plans for the historical plaque were being made, D. J. McCarthy, the Commanding Officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Station at Shinnecock Bay, suggested that the dedication of the plaque be part of an Open House Ceremony at the Coast Guard Station. He wrote, “This is to say that I and members of Shinnecock Station are pleased to learn of a local effort to install a heritage marker honoring the existence of the (unfortunately demolished) Shinnecock Light and, by extension, thereby also honoring the many who served before us at this site . . .”
Present at the unveiling of the commemorative plaque was 89-year-old Hope Penny Lester who once lived in one of the keeper’s homes as a child. She recalled the many times that she climbed the 178 steps to the top of the tower to watch her father polish the brass. She said that the new plaque made her proud, but also brought back many memories of life at the lighthouse. It also brought back, as she said, the memory of the “stupid destruction of the tower.”
There are still a number of people alive today who were among the 200 or more who were on hand nearly 65 years ago when they felt the earth tremble as the giant tower smashed to the ground. One such person, Ken Mades, said he remembers the tears in his grandfather’s eyes as he stood next to him when the lighthouse came down.
Memories like that were also reported in the local newspapers at the time. One was John H. Sutter, who wrote on December 23, 1948, “There were tears in the eyes of many . . . who stood around watching the old landmark pass away, powerless to save the old building.”
Brenda Berntson, president of the Hampton Bays Historical Society, said at the recent unveiling of the historical marker plaque, “The destruction of the lighthouse took a piece of our hearts.” She went on to say “This is a loss that never should have happened.” Her remarks show how deep the feeling of the loss of the lighthouse is to this day, nearly 65 years after the lighthouse was destroyed.
John H. Sutter, mentioned previously, also wrote in his 1948 editorial, “We did our best to arouse the people here to the need for action to save it, but in vain. Thus passes a landmark that will be missed by thousands ashore and by those who still used the old Ponquogue Lighthouse as a guide to bring them safely to land from the sea.”
Reports of the time said local residents picked up the thousands of bricks to use in the building of fire-pits, garages, and sheds. Estimates at the time said the tower was built with one million bricks. Amazingly, after 64 years there are still small pieces of crumbled bits of red brick and shards of thick glass still lying scattered around on the ground. This was evident as a local Coast Guardsman showed a piece of glass from the lantern that he had found on the ground.
Interestingly, one of the bricks from the Shinnecock Lighthouse made its way to Maine, where it is now on display at the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland. Somehow, the 4th order Fresnel lens that was once in the tower made its way to the Pacific Coast and is on display at Rusty’s Pizza Parlor in Santa Barbara, California.
At the end of the ceremony dedicating the new plaque that memorializes the Shinnecock Bay Lighthouse, Brenda Bernston read the following ode to the lighthouse that was recently written by John Vitti:
This house we heard once traced
Pathways across skies shining a guiding light.
This house before a guzzle was placed
Alone to stand against storm and night.
How tall you stood through wreck and disaster,
Glancing your gaze where no hope knew.
Where this house fell before here and after,
The vision died but the spirit flew.
You met your end composed solid and set;
The strength of seven men struggled for breath
To break your body for that fatal farewell regret,
Still frozen in photograph you hover before death.
Now barren this field remembers the watchman,
Go tell a stranger, here stood the brightest star in heaven.
Interestingly, John H. Sutter, also wrote a similar, yet different, sonnet about the lighthouse; however his was written in 1948, within hours after the lighthouse fell.
For many years I used to sit and watch out my window,
The flashing of a great light that set my heart aglow.
And I know that far at sea ships that would pass by
Could see that flashing light, the same as you and I.
For nearly a century that light of which I speak
Was the beacon of safety that sailors all did seek.
They knew it would guide them true when it they did sight,
Safely to their home port – through the darkness of night.
Then came the day when the word went out that its job was done.
And its light would be dimmed at the rising of the sun.
They said that it was dangerous and might tumble down,
Yet it stood a mighty hurricane from its foot up to its crown.
But now the great light is no more, gone beyond recall;
We did our best to save it and with tears we watched it fall.
Good for another hundred years – that’s what the debris showed,
But all we have is the memory
of when the Ponquogue Light glowed.
We are positive that if the Shinnecock (Ponquogue) Lighthouse were still standing today, the historic structure would be a popular tourist destination serving as a boon to the local economy. Yet all we have today is a plaque. Sadly, most people don’t drive miles just to see a historical marker, but it is now there -- to help us all remember the tall giant that was so needlessly destroyed.
Richard Casabianca may have summed it best when he said that he hopes the sign reminds people that sites and structures give us our communal culture and story, but their loss is final and wasteful. “Imagine how our lives might be enriched if it were still standing.”
Although the new plaque honoring this majestic structure may bring a closure of sorts to those in the community where it once served, and a history lesson to those who follow, let it also be a warning that there are many lighthouses standing today that may soon have a plaque where a lighthouse once stood.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2012 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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