Fire Island, New York
The "This Little Light of Mine" series by Harbour Lights are miniature versions of the Harbor Light's lighthouses.
The name Fire Island is of uncertain origin, and if you happen to climb the Fire Island Lighthouse on a warm summer day, your guide just might relate one of the following three plausible theories behind the name as you pause at the landings to catch your breath.
Each fall, the poison ivy, which accounts for 30% of the vegetation on the island, turns a brilliant red, making the island appear as if it were on fire.
For many years, whalers used to build fires on the island’s beach to render whale blubber into oil. Scheming pirates lit fires on the beach to lure ships ashore so they could pillage the valuable cargo.
While each of these possible explanations is grounded in fact, there is one more that seems to carry more weight. Many place names around New York are Anglicized versions of older Dutch names; for instance, Brooklyn was formerly Breuckelen. The Dutch word for four is vier (pronounced “fear”), and an English map from 1798 labels four islands in the area as “Fier Islands.” Although the present-day Fire Island was labeled as East Beach on that 1798 map, it’s easy to see how the name Fire Island likely evolved from “Fier” Island.
The first Fire Island Lighthouse was an 85-foot-tall octagonal tower, built using Connecticut River blue stone, whose purpose was to mark the entrance to Fire Island Inlet and the eastern entrance to New York’s lower bay. The tower had a round soapstone deck for the lantern, with a hole bored in the middle for access to the lantern room from below. Installed inside the lantern room was a Winslow Lewis chandelier, with 18 lamps set in 15-inch spherical reflectors, that revolved once every 90 seconds to produce a flashing light at a focal plane of 89 feet. The station cost $9,999.65 to build – 35 cents under budget – and opened in 1826.
One early keeper named Felix Dominy became better known around Fire Island for his skills as an innkeeper than as a lightkeeper. He started to hone his hosting skills while on the job at the lighthouse, as a local superintendent named Edward Curtis noted in 1843: “Dominy entertains boarders and company in his dwelling at the Island and devotes so much of his time and care to that, and other business personal to himself, that the public charge committed to him, is not faithfully exercised; his Light House duties are made subordinate objects of attention.” Dominy was relieved of his duties as keeper and subsequently became a full-time innkeeper on Fire Island and nearby Bay Shore.
While still employed as keeper, Dominy wrote a letter to his son describing an accident that occurred while he was tending the light:
One night I went up in the lt. House to trim the lamp & walking back wards fell down the trap door until my right foot reach’d the stairs & thought at first my leg was broken crawled up & laid down on the floor for a while & got partly over it & hobbled down. Tis about 10 days & I have got pretty much over it my knees is a little stiff it was so lame for 2 days I was obliged to use a cane & once in a while it made me fairly hallow out loud now I can run quite spry.
Shortly after the Lighthouse Board was formed in 1852, it set about upgrading the nation’s navigational aids. The Fire Island Lighthouse was considered inadequate, and in 1857 Congress approved $40,000 to build a replacement. Lieutenants J.C. Duane and J. St. C. Morton were put in charge of the project along with the construction of the new Shinnecock Lighthouse also on Long Island. Built about 200 yards northeast of the first one, the second Fire Island Lighthouse stands 168 feet tall, more than double the height of its predecessor. The stone from the original lighthouse was used to construct the terrace on which the new lighthouse was built. The base of the second tower slopes outwards for increased stability, and inside, a 192-step, spiral staircase leads to the watch room. The ascent is interrupted every 26 steps with a landing from which an arched window affords a view of the surroundings. The new tower commenced operation on November 1, 1858, showing a white light focused into eight revolving beams by a first-order Fresnel lens.
The handmade bricks of the tower were covered in a protective cement coating that was given “an agreeable cream yellow colour.” It wasn’t until 1891 that the lighthouse received is present distinctive black and white stripes. At the base of the tower, an impressive residence was constructed for the head keeper and his two assistants.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1894 called Fire Island Lighthouse “the most important light for transatlantic steamers bound for New York. It is generally the first one they make and from which they lay their course.” Due to this importance, the board decided to purchase a giant bivalve lens with a 9-foot diameter that the French had displayed at the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago for use at Fire Island. The lens was fitted with an electric arc light, so in 1896 a coal-fired steam power plant was built next to the lighthouse. A tramline was also built between the tower and a dock, intended to bring coal shipments to the station. After all this preparatory work, the installation of the lens was cancelled after a lightship was deployed off Fire Island. The bivalve lens was eventually installed at Navesink, New Jersey, where it can still be seen today.
Over the years, the lighthouse’s exterior was becoming damaged by water seepage, and in 1912 a large crack was discovered in the structure. To strengthen the tower, it was wrapped in round iron bands and steel mesh and then coated with a layer of cement. The first-order Fresnel lens was replaced in 1933 by the lens from the decommissioned Shinnecock Lighthouse. The new lens was much lighter allowing it to be rotated at a higher speed to produce a flash once every 7.5 seconds instead of once every sixty seconds. The light was finally converted to electrical power, using an underwater cable from the mainland, when the Coast Guard assumed control of the station in 1939. In 1952, the Fresnel lens was removed and a Crouse-Hinds beacon, consisting of two lights stacked one on top of the other, was installed in the lantern room. This apparatus is now on display at the lighthouse.
Fire Island was only accessible by boat until 1964, when a bridge was built to connect the island to the mainland. The Fire Island Lighthouse was originally much closer to the inlet, but littoral drift has added several new acres to the western end of Fire Island over the years. This new acreage was removed from the Fire Island Station and transferred to the State of New York in 1924 and is now part of Robert Moses State Park. On December 31, 1973, the Fire Island Lighthouse was decommissioned; its role having been assumed by a flashing strobe light atop the water tower at the nearby park.
After the lighthouse was discontinued, the steel mesh, placed around the tower in 1912, rusted from exposure to the elements as the cement coating crumbled away. By 1981, the empty and decaying tower was declared unsafe and not worth repairing, and was scheduled to be torn down. The following year, the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed to raise funds to save and restore the lighthouse. The lighthouse and grounds were transferred from the Coast Guard to the National Park Service, which then leased the property to the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society.
After a million dollars had been raised for its preservation, on May 25, 1986 the Fire Island Lighthouse was reactivated with a modern plastic lens, and a visitors center was opened. The next year, the exterior of the tower was covered with waterproofed concrete, and in 1989, the lighthouse was opened to the public. Over the next five years, more renovation took place, culminating in a grand opening celebration on May 15, 1994.
For years, the first-order Fresnel lens from the Fire Island Lighthouse had been exhibited at the Franklin Institute, a museum in Philadelphia. In 2000, the lens was taken off display and relocated to a warehouse, prompting calls to return the lens to Fire Island. On March 27, 2007, the 9,000-pound, 16-foot-tall lens arrived at Fire Island National Seashore in the form of 900 pieces packed inside twenty-one crates. Exhibit space still needs to be constructed for the lens, but the necessary funding is already secured. The over 100,000 visitors that annually call at the lighthouse, which is now maintained and operated by the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, now have one more reason to make the trek.