Shining Light on The Fire Island Lighthouse
Photograph by Tara Gruber
SHINING LIGHT ON THE FIRE ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE
by Tara Gruber
The Fire Island Lighthouse is a notable landmark located on the Great South Bay of Long Island. Throughout the years, many visitors have claimed to experience paranormal events and ghost encounters. However, what is the history of the Fire Island Lighthouse and more importantly, who is haunting this location? Many locals have visited this lighthouse before or have at least spotted it while driving down Ocean Parkway or crossing the Robert Moses bridges. The lighthouse is one of 20 on the island and even though it may not be the first lighthouse built here, it does stand the tallest at 168 feet. The need for the lighthouse came after the American Revolutionary War when New York became one of the busiest ports in the country. Many ships heading toward New York sailed to the port parallel to the southern coast of the island. Fire Island was part of this shoreline. The area was very dangerous for ships, sandbars laying only a few feet below the surface. Often, the most dangerous portion of a ship’s trip would be near this shoreline. Many shipwrecks took place because of how treacherous it was. Before lighthouses existed, bonfires would be set on the beach to alert sailors of areas that included shallow water and to direct them to a safe passage. It is believed that “Fire Island’ was given its name because of these fires.
Lighthouses on the island’s coast did not come about until the Coast Guard assumed jurisdiction over them in 1939. Montauk Lighthouse was the first federally funded lighthouse in America. Construction of this lighthouse was finished in 1796. However, the Fire Island lighthouse wasn’t built util the year of 1826. The Fire Island lighthouse was originally created from red brick and painted over a pale yellow. The white and black stripes were added on about 33 years later. The first fuel used to ignite the lamps in the lighthouse was whale oil. Lard oil, mineral oil and kerosene were also used until eventually electricity reached the lighthouse in 1938. Eventually the decision was made to reconstruct the lighthouse because of its lacking height. A new lighthouse was completed in 1858, which still stands today. All that remains of the original lighthouse is a circular pile of stones and bricks.
The Fire Island lighthouse was decommissioned as an aid to navigation in the 1970’s. The new navigational aid that took its place was a “small flash tube optic” that was positioned atop the Robert Moses State Park Water Tower. After the lighthouse was decommissioned, the Coast Guard had given the National Park a permit to use the lighthouse tract. The major function of the Park Service was to prevent further deterioration of the buildings. In the years following, a group formed in efforts to save the Fire Island Lighthouse. This group was made up of mostly baymen. The strobe light that was created in its place was not of use to boaters on the Great South Bay and only shone seaward. Eventually the group was successful, and the lighthouse was restored to its 1939 condition. The lighthouse was relit and reinstated as an official aid to navigation.
In 1996, the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (FILPS) made an agreement with the Park Service that they would take over maintenance and operation of the lighthouse. Today, FILPS has complete ownership of the lighthouse and continues to work to maintain it.
Now after reading the history of the Fire Island Lighthouse, there is something very crucial left out. What about the Fire Island Lighthouse keepers? There is a long list of documented Fire Island Lighthouse keepers ranging from 1827 to 1941. Often, there were several keepers on duty at one time. The most important job of the lighthouse keeper was to keep a light burning clean and bright. They also had to keep a lookout for fog and operated a fog signal. When a lighthouse keeper wasn’t tending to the navigation aid, they were carrying out housekeeping duties. The job was demanding, and these keepers were left in solitude for long periods of time. It wasn’t uncommon for a lighthouse keeper to go mad or in some extreme cases, fall victim to suicide. This leads us to the lore surrounding the Fire Island Lighthouse. The story goes as follows. During the reconstruction in 1857, a lighthouse keeper named Nathaniel Smith lived near the lighthouse with his daughter and wife. The family lived in harsh conditions. It was a cold winter and they were put up in a small shack with no one but each other. Nathaniel’s daughter fell ill during the harsh winter and a doctor was called. The girl became gravely ill in the passing days and the doctor took days to arrive. By then, it was too late. Nathaniel’s daughter had passed, and he was heartbroken. His daughter was taken to Sayville to be buried, but Nathaniel couldn’t even say his goodbyes because he had to tend to his duties at the lighthouse. Nathaniel was so torn up about losing his daughter and couldn’t take the pain any longer. He ended up taking his own life in his living quarters next to the lighthouse. He was found when locals noticed that the lighthouse wasn’t lit and came over to investigate. Legend states that you may hear the caretaker’s pacing footsteps echoing throughout the lighthouse, Nathaniel’s spirit frantically trying to find help for his dying daughter. Some have also heard maniacal laughter while visiting the lighthouse or have witnessed a ghostly figure holding a rope in the nearby area.
Although this is quite the spooky story, after doing some research, the real lighthouse keeper’s name who looked out for the tower during its reconstruction in 1857 was named Benjamin Smith, not Nathaniel Smith. Benjamin was the lighthouse’s head keeper from 1853-1861. Benjamin didn’t kill himself, but it seems that a lighthouse keeper succeeding Smith named Hugh Walsh may have. This might be where this legend started. Hugh Walsh hanged himself while he was incarcerated at Kings County penitentiary. He was serving a 6-month sentence for beating his wife in a drunken rage.
The Fire Island Lighthouse has a very interesting history and has been through a lot over the years. As you know now, some claim it to be haunted. It is definitely a beautiful location on the island and we highly recommend you go visit! Whether it is to engage with some ghosts, learn some local history, or to just admire its beauty. It is worth the visit.
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