When I was just finishing high school in New Jersey, my dad bought White’s Montauk Pharmacy, a store “at the end of nowhere” as my New Jersey friends told me. But I went with the family.
When dad took us out to the Montauk Lighthouse, I was struck by how beautiful it was. It was also, because the drive out ends in a loop road, a surprise presentation. You’d head around the loop with the woods on both sides, and, suddenly, the lighthouse would appear. Then, as you completed the loop, it withdrew again into the woods.
One day, standing in front of my dad’s store, a car full of tourists pulled up and the driver asked me which way was it to the lighthouse. I told them. Six miles that way, straight out of town. Twenty minutes later, this same car pulled up and the driver asked, how much farther is it? They’d gone out there, come around the loop and come all the way back without noticing it.
Hmm. I published the account of this in this weekly newspaper I had founded that year, and the story became the talk of the town.
Seven years later, in 1967, fishing around in my mind for a story for the next issue of the paper, I decided to write about the erosion tearing away at the cliff in front of the lighthouse. Line drawings made of it around 1800 show a huge promontory of land protecting the lighthouse from the sea. Knowing the height of the lighthouse as 110 feet, I did some measurements. The Light had been 300 feet from the edge when it was built. I also recalled a news item from the year before that said the Light was now 68 feet from the cliff’s edge, whereas the year before that it had been 72 feet. That meant the lighthouse would fall into the sea about 1988. What was the Coast Guard doing about it?
I called the Coast Guard at the lighthouse. They had a crew living out there then. An ensign told me it didn’t matter how many feet it was, because earlier in the year the Coast Guard had issued an order to abandon it. They were now surveying to build a steel tower about 300 yards back from the point. It would have a blinking light at the top operated by remote control. That would work just as well.
I made further phone calls and learned the lighthouse, once abandoned, would be declared surplus property and sold if anyone wanted it. If nobody did—and they predicted nobody would—it would be dynamited down.
I was horrified.
I also learned, by calling the Coast Guard at their headquarters on Governor’s Island in New York, that they were on a tight budget and were abandoning lighthouses up and down the coast. They also mailed me a copy of the admiral’s order for Montauk. (This was not only before the internet, it was before FedEx and UPS and even before fax. And, of course, it was before Google. You couldn’t just learn what you wanted to know by Googling. It took days of reading in libraries.)
In the East Hampton Free Library, I learned the name of the lighthouse architect, where the stones came from (Maine), and that the contractor was a Frenchman named Ezra L’Homedeiu. Then I learned something astonishing. The lighthouse was ordered built by George Washington in 1792. It might have been the first lighthouse built in America. I couldn’t prove this, but the dates worked, it would take a huge effort to prove it otherwise, and I did not have the luxury to do that.
What I did also learn, at this time, was that I had an important fact wrong in an article about the shipwreck of the schooner John Milton, which had come ashore in Amagansett in 1858 with great loss of life.
The Montauk Lighthouse gave off certain pattern flashes. And until 1858 it was the only lighthouse on the East End of Long Island. But that year, a second lighthouse—the Shinnecock Bay Lighthouse—had been built, and that second one was assigned the Montauk flash pattern while that at Montauk had changed. The captain of the John Milton therefore saw what he believed was the Montauk Light, came around the point, or so he thought, and crashed full speed into Amagansett. I had assumed, and many people assumed at that time, that this newer lighthouse was the Fire Island Light. There was no other, we thought.
But in my office shortly after learning what the Coast Guard had in store for the Montauk Lighthouse, a friend told me that he’d seen a photograph of a Hampton Bays lighthouse in a barbershop where he had his hair cut. It was in the middle of being dynamited. The top half had broken off and was at a 30-degree angle. There was a puff of smoke where the dynamite was exploding halfway up. It was in the act.
My friend knew I was going to call for a Save the Montauk Lighthouse protest in the paper. He could borrow this photo. I could reproduce it on the front page with my article.
A lighthouse at Shinnecock? I read up on that at the library. It was dynamited in 1948. It had been built in 1858, the year the John Milton came ashore. My article about the shipwreck was wrong. It was the Shinnecock Light, not the Fire Island Light.
And so, on August 31, 1967, crowds of people in Montauk came to a great protest at the Lighthouse to save it. Assembly leader Perry B. Duryea spoke. A band featured majorettes twirling flaming batons. There were fire engines, Scottish bagpipers and a crowd estimated at 3,000, a number never equaled at a protest in Montauk since. Everyone came carrying lanterns, flashlights, candles, torches and sparklers. After the protest, for more than a year, a woman named Georgina Reid from Mount Sinai came out every Sunday with volunteers to plant grassed terracing on the cliff face. And in the end, the Coast Guard relented and rescinded their order. Now they would lead the fight to restore it.
Ten years later, in 1977, I bought a house in East Hampton next to a small fishing camp on Three Mile Harbor Road owned by a man named Miller. One day, I met him while both of us were mowing our lawns. He was John Miller, he said, and he worked for GE in Syracuse and came down to his fishing camp in East Hampton for a month each summer. “I was born and raised in the Montauk Lighthouse,” he told me. “My dad was the lighthouse keeper.”
“Must have been pretty lonely there,” I said.
“Yup,” he said. “I like solitude.”
And he excused himself and went back to mowing. I haven’t spoken to him since.
Around 1990, the Coast Guard leased the lighthouse to the Montauk Historical Society. The Coast Guard would shine the light. But other than that, the lighthouse was Montauk’s. In the summer, the Historical Society offers tours of the lighthouse, and they even have a Lighthouse Weekend there. And at Christmas they have a display of lights.
From the Historical Society, I learned that the Montauk Light was not the first in America. It was the fourth. The first is in Massachusetts.
After that came Google. And if you want to know more, you know where to go.