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Jun 25, 2012 2:03 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Shinnecock Lighthouse Will Receive Long Overdue Recognition

Jun 26, 2012 4:49 PM

Two days before Christmas in 1948, a small group of people in Hampton Bays braved frigid temperatures to watch the felling of a giant.

The Shinnecock Lighthouse, which towered nearly 170 feet over Ponquogue Point, fell to the earth with a crash that was reportedly heard and felt some 3 miles away. Despite its sad end, the lighthouse went out with a bang instead of a whimper.

Sixty-four years later, when grants for historic markers became available, the Southampton Town Board, at the urging of local historians, decided to mark the site where the lighthouse once stood. “This was one we really thought was long overdue,” said Southampton Town Historian Zachary Studenroth.

On Saturday, July 7, at 11 a.m., the marker will be formally unveiled just outside U.S. Coast Guard Station Shinnecock on Foster Avenue, near where the lighthouse once stood.

The Shinnecock Lighthouse, also known as the Ponquogue Lighthouse and the Great West Bay Light, was commissioned in 1853 when the first Lighthouse Board determined that a light was needed in the 67-mile span between the Fire Island and Montauk Point lighthouses. It was decided that Great West Bay, now known as Shinnecock Bay, was the perfect location.

Construction of the lighthouse began in 1857. The foundation, which was made from a mixture of concrete, pine logs, grillwork and blocks, was more than 10 feet deep to ensure sturdiness during the most severe storms. The Shinnecock Lighthouse withstood the 1938 hurricane after standing for 80 years, while the skeletal light tower that replaced the original light in 1931 was completely destroyed in the storm.

More than 800,000 bricks were used to construct the tower. Masons built it brick by brick, using pine cut from nearby woods that they fashioned into scaffolding that was built up as work progressed.

A First Order Fresnel fixed lens—one with a steady beam of light that did not blink or flash—was put into place toward the end of construction, and the light was lit for the first time by keeper Charles A. Conley on January 1, 1858. Combined with the Fire Island and Montauk lights, a 110-mile portion of the East Coast was now safe for navigation.

While the addition of the lighthouse at Great West Bay was a godsend for mariners along this portion of the coast, in the first few months after its erection, it inadvertently caused one of the worst maritime disasters in the history of the East End.

The 1,445-ton John Milton, with its 33-man crew, was making its way back to New York after a 15-month voyage around Cape Horn to San Francisco, and after stopping off in Peru to pick up a load of guano, it headed home, unaware that a new lighthouse stood between the established lights at Fire Island and Montauk. Ship-to-shore communication was nonexistent in 1858, as was ship-to-ship communication with the exception of “gams,” when two passing whaling ships would meet on the open ocean and tie up to exchange news, mail, food and drink.

Mistaking the Shinnecock Lighthouse for the Montauk Light, Captain Ephraim Harding headed north, thinking he was heading into open water by widely rounding Montauk Point. Instead, he crashed on the rocks several miles west of the Montauk Light on February 19, 1858. All on board perished. A monument to the sailors lost on the John Milton is located in the South End Burying Ground in East Hampton.

For the next 73 years, the Shinnecock Lighthouse helped guide mariners along the South Fork’s coast. It had many keepers and was routinely painted and updated. According to a memoir by Alice Thomas, whose father, George, was the last keeper of the Shinnecock Lighthouse, every day was a busy one: “Work for the keepers was never ending. Each morning at 8 a.m., the three keepers assembled in the hallway and proceeded up the tower, usually carrying a scuttle of coal, a 5-gallon can of kerosene or other supplies. The ‘light’ was a lantern fueled by kerosene, and the wick had to be trimmed and bottom filled [with fuel]. All glass and brass in the lantern room was polished daily.”

Early photographs and postcards depicting the lighthouse show pastoral scenes with horses and cattle grazing in the fenced-in area around the light and the keeper’s dwellings.

Hampton Bays resident Richard Casabianca, who was instrumental in helping obtain the historic marker, has familial ties with the lighthouse. His great-grandfather Waldo Penny was assistant keeper at Shinnecock with Alice Thomas’s father, George. His great-aunt Shirley Penny and his grandmother Hope Penny Lester lived in the dual keepers’ dwellings on either side of the lighthouse. The western dwelling was for the head keeper, and the assistant keepers had the eastern; The buildings were attached to the tower by a covered walkway.

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Great article, Ms. Shaw.
By PBR (4956), Southampton on Jul 2, 12 12:30 PM
Mr. Casabianca, we share a common sentiment.

Thanks for that "last word"...
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Jul 2, 12 6:18 PM
What a nice Christmas present that must have been for everyone...
By PQ1 (167), hampton bays on Jul 4, 12 5:45 PM
1 member liked this comment