This year, the Orient Point lighthouse, known affectionately as the Coffee Pot, turns 120. Bob Allen, who gives lighthouse cruise tours with the East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation, has a special connection to local lighthouses like the Coffee Pot, as his great grandfather, William H. Follett, was a lighthouse keeper, as was his father, William E. Allen. As the Coffee Pot turns 120, Allen looks back on the history of the lighthouse, as well as what it’s like to give tours and enrich people on the often unknown history behind these majestic structures.
If lighthouse keepers were still common today, would you have liked to be one?
If lighthouse keepers were still common, and being from a lighthouse family, my answer is “yes.” The work that lighthouse keepers did to keep ships safely off the rocks and sand bars besides guiding them into ports is very rewarding and in my great grandfather’s day on the lighthouse, they always had boaters come to his lighthouse asking for a tour and he always obliged them like I would have done. Plus, can you imagine the sunsets and sunrises that lighthouse keepers have seen over the years? It must have been outstanding.
How do you feel your perspective, coming from a family of lighthouse keepers and mariners, informs the way you narrate your tours?
As the great grandson of a lighthouse keeper and the son of a lighthouse keeper, my tours are very personal, as I talk about the daily work my family’s work on the lighthouse which means I narrate my tours with my family in mind. A lot of people think the lighthouse keepers only turned on the light at night and off in the morning. They didn’t realize that lighthouse keepers were also the handymen of the lighthouse, keeping the lighthouse in shape with repairs each and every day. I make my tours as personal as possible, telling my visitors on my tours about what it was like when my great grandfather and my dad, as his assistant, performed their duties on the lighthouse. I also show the people on my tours family pictures that I have blown up to 8x10s to show them what life was like on the lighthouse.
Your cruises offer options to see multiple lighthouses, or an in depth look at Bug Light. Which do you prefer, and which have you found cruisers get more out of?
My tours to various lighthouses is of interest of course to people who want to see different lighthouses. But the popular tour seems to be when people actually land on a lighthouse, as we do when we land on the Long Beach Bar “Bug” Lighthouse. When everyone is on the lighthouse, after my narration, they get to walk around an actual lighthouse and by doing so they feel what the lighthouse keepers felt when they worked on a lighthouse. I enjoy bringing people on our lighthouse to talk about its history and my families history running the light. People on my tour always are interested when I talk about my great grandfather and my dad getting trapped on the lighthouse during the hurricane of 1938.
Do you feel any nostalgia as the Coffee Pot turns 120 this year?
The Coffee Pot, or as we now know it as a “sparkplug” lighthouse, has a great history—but that history could have been a sad one when the Coast Guard wanted to blow it up in 1970. But the residents of Orient protested so loud, the plan was forgotten and instead they fixed it up. There is a lot of history on the Orient Point light, and some escapes, of ships who almost hit the lighthouse and of people from the lighthouse who were lost when the sea acted up in Plum Gut. The lighthouse was located in a very dangerous place at the end of the Oyster Ponds Reef. In fact, the Orient Point light was one of the first prefab lighthouses built in this area and on my tours I do enjoy talking about its history. The people of Orient can be proud looking out at the lighthouse knowing a lot of their families saved this light and as a result it is one of the most photographed lights on the North Shore on its 120th anniversary.