Like other former Coast Guard keepers, Joseph W. Dupras, Sr. has many fond memories of his lighthouse service years. As a 19-year-old, fresh out of boot camp, Joe’s first duty assignment in August of 1980 was at Montauk Point Lighthouse on Long Island, New York. It was a family station and the Officer-in-Charge, BM1 Paul K. Driscoll, was there with his wife Linda and their two children. Paul and Joe became good friends over the next couple of years that they served together, but it was the interesting events of that first year of 1980-81 that proved to be so memorable for them.
It started with an idea to create a large Christmas cross for the upcoming holiday season. Joe recollected recently, “The cross idea began just after Thanksgiving of 1980. Officer-in-Charge Paul Driscoll thought it would be good to put a Christmas cross up on the bluff next to the lighthouse. We were thinking about maybe using wood timbers or some other material. As we discussed different options, Paul also talked with two of his friends, Eric and his brother Dave Ernst, who lived locally and had construction experience. They knew of a large amount of rebar that was surplus or could be donated.
“Well, we had a welder on-site at the station and Eric or Dave had welding certification. Over the course of a week or more, we built this almost twenty-foot-tall and ten-foot-wide cross. I don’t remember the exact weight but it must have been hundreds of pounds. The day we put up the cross was cold and windy, about 20 degrees out. The wind was blowing about twenty-five knots (it was always windy at the light) and the wind chill was quite low.
“It took the full station crew of myself, OIC Paul Driscoll, Engineer Lou Alvarez and Seaman Dana Saunders, along with Eric and Dave Ernst to raise the cross and secure it into the ground with guy wires to steady it in the wind. It was a big struggle to do it. It reminded me of the statue of the men raising the flag at Iwo Jima. We then wired up and covered the cross in Christmas lights.
“Over the next weeks, we heard from many fishing vessels off the point that they enjoyed seeing the cross lit up for Christmas. Also, some ships offshore had been commenting on it. Chatter came through on the marine radio we monitored about it looking good. So, we felt really good that we made a little brightness for that year’s holiday!
“A couple of months later in January of 1981, when the Iranian hostages were released, we somehow heard that the first point of land they would see on their flight into New York would take them directly over Montauk Point Light. We came up with the idea of putting a large ribbon around the catwalk at the top of the light just below the lens room.
“Paul Driscoll’s wife, Linda, sewed the ribbon out of bedsheets she had dyed yellow and made a large bow in the middle of it. This took her quite a few days. We had painted on the ribbon ‘Welcome Home.’
“It was another cold winter day in freezing temperatures with the wind howling when we attached it on the railing. It took quite a long time to get it to adhere and stay there. The District Commander gave us permission to do it, and before we knew it, the PR office at headquarters wanted to get a photo shot of it from a helicopter to put on the cover of the Commandant’s Bulletin. Another good idea we had!”
But this was not the end of their enthusiastic inspiration. Plans had been brewing for several months to convert a couple of rooms in the large keeper’s house to create a museum space that would house artifacts and historical displays about the lighthouse. According to Paul Driscoll, the motivation for this particular idea came from a group of grammar school children who were visiting the lighthouse. After climbing the 110-foot tower and looking at the 3.5 order clamshell lens, one little boy was entirely unimpressed and said to Paul, “Is that it?”
Paul recounted, “There were two ways I could have handled it. I could have thrown the little curmudgeon out the door, or maybe considered that he had a point.” So Paul and his crew of four other keepers went to work and started contacting local artists, museums, and Coast Guard headquarters to round up the necessary items to create the historic displays.
By the time they were done, a large wall painting of Montauk Lighthouse graced one wall while a surplus 4th order Fresnel lens with a hand-crank clockwork was brought over from a warehouse in the district headquarters on Governor’s Island. Eight oil lanterns came from Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, and handmade ship models were provided by the Long Island Ship Modeling Association. There was even a small painting of the Pharos of Alexandria near the entryway and a whale’s backbone suspended from the ceiling.
The famous story of a German submarine crew landing near Montauk during WWII was told through a model of the U-boat and portraits of the men saboteurs. There were also several historic photos depicting U.S. Lighthouse Service activities and a chart layout discussing the prevention method used to arrest the erosion of the surrounding bluff.
On May 23, 1981, the “Montauk Marine Display” was formally dedicated with Coast Guard district personnel and local dignitaries in attendance. OIC Driscoll predicted that 2000 people would tour the museum before year’s end. Now there wouldn’t be any more comments from visitors asking, “Is that it?”
But one special visitor brought the year to a very memorable end. Famous model and fashion designer Cheryl Tiegs, who lived in the area, paid the lighthouse and crew a visit during the Montauk Fall Festival that year. According to Joe Dupras, there was horrible weather that weekend, so the Festival was like a ghost town. As a result, Cheryl, and her husband at that time, photographer Peter Beard, showed up with a Coast Guard publicity escort at the lighthouse unannounced.
What better way for the keepers to end the year than being up close and personal in a photo shoot with a famous model! This was one time when they were glad for inclement weather and isolation. Truly, this was a year of good cheer to remember at Montauk Point Lighthouse.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2019 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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