FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: Montauk Point Lighthouse was first US public works project

The Montauk Point Lighthouse. (Photo: Pamela Bednarik/U.S. Coast Guard)FreightWaves Classics profiles the Montauk Point Lighthouse.

The Montauk Point Lighthouse. (Photo: Pamela Bednarik/U.S. Coast Guard)

William Kidd, also known as Captain Kidd, was a Scottish sea captain who was commissioned as a privateer and was also a pirate. Following a trial that heavily involved politics, he was executed in London in 1701 for murder and piracy. Stories swirl that Captain Kidd buried treasure in two ponds that are near the foot of where the Montauk Point Lighthouse now stands. This supposedly took place around 1699, and the two ponds are called “Money Ponds” today.

Captain Kidd in New York Harbor, in a c. 1920 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. (Image: Wikipedia)
Captain Kidd in New York Harbor, in a c. 1920 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. (Image: Wikipedia)

Early history of the lighthouse

Pirate lore aside, the Montauk Point Lighthouse was commissioned by President George Washington in 1792 and the Second U.S. Congress authorized its construction. The Montauk Point Lighthouse was the first public works project of the United States of America.

Although commissioned by President Washington and authorized by Congress, the man most responsible for getting the lighthouse approved and built was Ezra L’Hommedieu, a lawyer who represented the New York Chamber of Commerce who had been a member of the Continental Congress prior to the American War for Independence. 

Ezra L'Hommedieu (1734–1811), as painted by Ralph Earl. (Image: New York Historical Society)
Ezra L’Hommedieu (1734–1811), as painted by Ralph Earl. (Image: New York Historical Society)

When he promoted the importance of and need for a lighthouse, L’Hommedieu pointed to New York City’s leadership role among the American ports that then existed. He stressed that New York City “was first among American ports in the volume of its foreign commerce.” L’Hommedieu also pointed to New York City’s key role in the transatlantic trade between the U.S. and England. Despite the fact that the Revolutionary War had only ended a decade before, England was still the young nation’s largest trading partner. By 1797, New York City’s harbor was handling one-third of the U.S. trade with other nations. Whether in the 1790s or today, international commerce was (and is) essential to the economic health of the United States. 

L’Hommedieu and three veteran sea captains traveled to the east end of the-then sparsely populated Long Island to assess where a lighthouse should be located. Using their navigational expertise, the sea captains identified the area near Montauk as a particularly dangerous shoreline that needed a lighthouse to help guide ships safely through those waters and toward New York Harbor. 

Interestingly, the need for a lighthouse was more critical during the winter months due to the prevailing winds that blew during that season. Ships powered by sails were more vulnerable to the stronger-than-usual northerly winds that would often blow at gale force. Ships approaching from sea needed a lighthouse at the end of Long Island to guide them safely along the south side into New York harbor.

The Montauk Point Lighthouse in an earlier period. (Image: New York Public Library)
The Montauk Point Lighthouse in an earlier period. (Image: New York Public Library)

Construction of the lighthouse

In addition to finding the best site for the lighthouse, L’Hommedieu also designed it. As noted above, although the lighthouse was authorized by Congress on April 12, 1792, actual construction did not begin until June 7, 1796. 

The first Montauk Point Lighthouse was finished on November 5, 1796. The lighthouse was also the first built in New York state. In early April 1797, lighthouse keeper Jacob Hand lit the wicks in the lamps in the tower, and the lighthouse went into operation. It was manned by civilian keepers until World War II, when the U.S. Army took control.

Located at the very tip of eastern Long Island, the lighthouse’s tower is 110-feet, 6-inches high. The current light was installed in July 2001. Its beam is equivalent to 290,000 candle power and flashes every five seconds. It can be seen at a distance of 19 nautical miles, considerably further than the first light lit by Jacob Hand.

From the lighthouse there are 360° views of Block Island Sound, the Atlantic Ocean and points west. Located in a relatively desolate area when first built, the area around the Montauk Point Light has grown considerably since then. Montauk Point State Park is now located adjacent to the lighthouse property. The hamlet of Montauk is part of the Town of East Hampton in Suffolk County, New York. 

As the eastern sentinel for New York Harbor, the lighthouse was a key reason for the port’s importance to the nation’s commerce. Montauk Point Lighthouse is the fourth-oldest active lighthouse in the United States, and was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2012 (one of only 12 lighthouses with that distinction). 

The Life Saving Station Crew on Montauk Island in 1906. (Photo: Montauk Library)
The Life Saving Station Crew on Montauk Island in 1906. (Photo: Montauk Library)

Further construction

About 64 years after its initial construction, the Montauk Point Lighthouse underwent a significant renovation in 1860. Among the changes, two new levels and a larger lantern were added. The two new levels increased the tower’s height from 80 feet to 110-feet, 6-inches (which is its current height). A Fresnel lens that was 12-feet high and 6-feet in diameter (and also weighed approximately 10,000 pounds) was installed. 

In addition, the current keeper’s dwelling was built next to the lighthouse tower, while the first dwelling that dated to 1796 was torn down. 

Additional renovations continued. In 1873 a steam-powered fog signal was installed, followed by a fog signal building in 1897. In 1903 a fixed red range-light was added to the watch deck of the lighthouse’s tower. The range-light was to warn ships of Shagwong Reef, which is a navigational hazard about 3.5 miles northwest of the lighthouse. However, a hurricane that hit Long Island on September 21, 1938 severely damaged the range-light. (The practice of naming hurricanes did not begin until 1953.) The damaged light was removed on July 1, 1940 at the same time that the lighthouse was electrified. The first Fresnel lens was replaced in 1903 with a bi-valve Fresnel lens. This lens was in service until February 3, 1987; it was subsequently replaced by an airport beacon with “a strength of 2.5 million candela.”

The light from the 3.5-order Fresnel lens, which served from 1903 to 1987 (and is located in the Montauk Lighthouse Museum. 
(Photo taken in September 1970, by Mike and Joan Abelson.)
The light from the 3.5-order Fresnel lens, which served from 1903 to 1987 (and is located in the Montauk Lighthouse Museum.
(Photo taken in September 1970, by Mike and Joan Abelson/Montauk Facebook page)

World War II

Following the entry of the United States into World War II, the lighthouse became part of the Eastern Coastal Defense Shield and was manned by the U.S. Army. The last three civilian light keepers left the lighthouse in the spring of 1943. The Army opened Camp Hero adjacent to the lighthouse in 1942. It had two 16-inch gun batteries of two guns each, and a battery of two six-inch guns. (The 16-inch guns were the same size as the largest guns on the nation’s largest battleships of the time.) The casemates, gun emplacements and concrete fire control towers were built at what is now Shadmoor State Park, and are still visible 80 years later.

Following the end of World War II, the United States Coast Guard took over the operation and maintenance of Montauk Point Lighthouse. The Coast Guard operated the lighthouse until it was automated on February 3, 1987. 

In May 1987, the lighthouse museum was opened to the public; it is operated by the Montauk Historical Society, which had leased the property from the Coast Guard. Nearly 20 years later (September 30, 1996), President Bill Clinton signed legislation into law that transferred the lighthouse property to the historical society.

The Montauk Point Lighthouse. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)
The Montauk Point Lighthouse. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

The impact of erosion

When the lighthouse was built in 1796 on Turtle Hill, it was 300 feet from the edge of the cliff. Today, due to the effects of shoreline erosion, it is now 100 feet from the edge. At the end of World War II the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a seawall at its base; however erosion continued. 

The Coast Guard considered a plan to demolish the lighthouse in 1967 and to replace it with a steel tower further from the edge of the bluff. This plan came under strong protest, and U.S. Rep. Michael Forbes authored legislation that transferred the lighthouse to the Montauk Historical Society so that the lighthouse would be preserved. The legislation was passed by Congress.

While there have been several different efforts to slow the erosion over the past 55 years, it has continued. The latest Corps of Engineers contracted work is underway.

A painting of the Montauk Point Lighthouse. (Image: Smithsonian American Art Museum)
A painting of the Montauk Point Lighthouse. (Image: Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Legacy

The early lighthouses of the United States were built primarily along the Atlantic Ocean. They were not only beacons meant to protect ships and their crews, but to also help maintain the nation’s critical international commerce. The Montauk Point Lighthouse has served those purposes for over 225 years. There is no doubt of the lighthouse’s significance to New York’s maritime commerce in the early Federal period.