What To Do: Go To The Montauk Lighthouse

Montauk Lighthouse
Montauk Lighthouse, Photo: Oliver Peterson

When people think of Montauk, one of the first things that come to mind is the Montauk Point Lighthouse. As the oldest lighthouse in New York State, and the fourth oldest active one in the country, the 110’ 6” tower has long been an icon of Long Island’s maritime history. To celebrate its significance for the United States, in March of 2012 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar designated it as a National Historic Landmark. It is only the 13th site on Long Island and the 11th lighthouse in the country to achieve this honor.

The lighthouse was authorized by the Second Congress in 1792, under President George Washington. The government purchased the land for $250 dollars, and construction started and ended within just five months in 1796. It was desperately needed, as its main purpose was to guide ships approaching New York City from Europe. In their press release about the recently selected National Historic Landmarks, the National Park Service (NPS) emphasized the impact of the building. “Among seacoast lighthouses still in existence, the Montauk Point Lighthouse (Long Island, New York) was the most important for the nation’s foreign trade during the first eight decades of the United States lighthouse service.”

Upgrades in 1860 brought the lighthouse to a higher standard and established the keeper’s dwelling that stands today. Originally all white, the tower’s single brown stripe was not added until 1899. The lighthouse was operated by a series of civilian keepers until World War II, when it was taken over by the U.S. Army and used as part of the Eastern Coastal Defense Shield. Camp Hero, a fortified military base, was opened in 1942 next to the lighthouse’s strategic location. The United States Coast Guard took over the operations after the war until 1987, when the station was automated, and the Montauk Historical Society established the Montauk Point Lighthouse Museum.

However, the structure has not always experienced smooth sailing. Persistent erosion of the bluff has continually threatened the building, and in 1967, the Coast Guard planned to tear it down and replace it with a steel tower. Dan’s Papers’ very own Dan Rattiner found out about the plan, and started a movement to save the historic symbol from destruction. After two protests and much letter-writing, as well as a successful erosion control project sparked by Giorgina Reid of Rocky Point, the Coast Guard decided to preserve the lighthouse.

Reid and her husband carried out their erosion-stopping work until 1986, and others brought the process to completion in 1998. Throughout these extensive measures to reduce erosion, public support has remained strong for the preservation of the landmark. In 1996, President Bill Clinton transferred the lighthouse property to the Montauk Historical Society, and the organization provides insight into the history of the structure to this day. The lighthouse is still actively in use through an agreement with the United States Coast Guard.

The recent NPS designation insures the lighthouse against natural disaster and enables the Montauk Historical Society to receive technical advice from the NPS. Erosion control projects continue to prevent the threat, which has almost completely ceased. Thanks to their work, the lighthouse’s history is far from over: the light continues to flash every five seconds, a beacon of the rich history of Montauk.

The Montauk Point Lighthouse is located at 2000 Montauk Highway in Montauk (just take Route 27 until it ends). Open daily through Sept. 1,10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., until 7 p.m. on Saturdays. Admission: Adults $9, Seniors $8, Children $4. Parking in the Montauk Point State Park Parking Lot $8, 8 a.m.–4 p.m. 631-668-2544, 1-888-Mtk-Point. montauklighthouse.com. [email protected].

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