National Lighthouse Day is celebrated annually in the United States on August 7th. This holiday marks the day in 1789 when Congress approved an act to establish and support lighthouses, buoys, beacons, and public piers. Since that time, the United States has constructed more than a thousand lighthouses, light stations, range lights, and pier head lights.
The Cartographic Branch of the National Archives, located at Archives II in College Park, Maryland has a vast collection of lighthouse plans, drawings and schematics. The records, which are located in RG 26: Lighthouse Plans and Maps, are among the most popular and most often requested records. Not only do these records provide a wealth of information about everything from the foundations of the lights to the lens types, to details such as iron work and window types, the drawings and paintings of the lights are sometimes quite beautiful.
One such eye-catching illustration of a lighthouse depicts the lighthouse at Montauk Point. Located in the town of Easthampton, on the easternmost tip of Long Island, the lighthouse has kept watch over the south side of New York Harbor for over two centuries, and continues to do so to this day. Be sure to take a moment and zoom in on the image below, dated 1796, where you will find fascinating details about the surrounding countryside and also be able to see at least one tall ship in the background.
The Montauk Point Lighthouse is the fourth oldest active lighthouse in the United States and was the first lighthouse to be built in the state of New York. The construction the lighthouse was authorized by the second United States Congress in 1792, under President George Washington. The act, which is quoted below, outlines the the building of the lighthouse and provision made for payment of lighthouse staff.
Lighthouse on certain conditions to be built on Montok Point in State of N. Y. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That as soon as the jurisdiction of such land on Montok Point in the state of New York as the President of the United States shall deem sufficient and most proper for the convenience and accommodation of a lighthouse shall have been ceded to the United States it shall be the duty of the secretary of the treasury, to provide by contract which shall be approved by the President of the United States, for building a lighthouse thereon, and for furnishing the same with all necessary supplies, and also to agree for the salaries or wages of the person or persons who may be appointed by the President for the superintendence and care of the same; and the President is hereby authorized to make the said appointments. That the number and disposition of the lights in the said lighthouse shall be such as may tend to distinguish it from others, and as far as is practicable, prevent mistakes.
Approved, April 12, 1792.” (1)
Construction on the lighthouse began on June 7, 1796 and was finished only six short months later, on November 5, 1796. The lighthouse’s foundations are sunk 13 feet deep and are 9 feet thick. Constructed of sandstone, the light originally stood 80 feet tall. However, the light underwent a major renovation project in 1860 that added two levels and 30 feet, bringing it to its current height of 110.5 feet tall. At the same time, a new first order Fresnel Lens that was 12 feet high and 6 feet wide replaced the original eight whale oil lamps that were lit for the first time in April of 1797 by Jacob Hand, the first light keeper (2). The original keepers dwelling from 1796 was demolished and a new keepers dwelling was built adjacent to the light during that same project.
Other elements would be added to the light as time marched on. In 1873, a steam-powered fog signal was installed and a fog signal building followed in 1897. Originally solid white in color, a single brown stripe was added to the light in 1899. In 1903, a red range-light was added to the watch deck to warn boats about a dangerous nearby reef, but that light was severely damaged in 1938 by a hurricane and was removed when the lighthouse was electrified in 1940. Also, in 1903, the huge first order lens was replaced by a 3.5 order Fresnel bivalve lens, which was left in place until 1987, when the light was replaced with an airport beacon (3).
The light continued to operate under civilian light keepers until WWII, when its operation was taken over by the Army during WWII. In 1946, next to the lighthouse, the Army opened Camp Hero and put in place two gun batteries, which are still visible today. Later on, in 1946, the Coast Guard took over the lighthouse and operated it until it was automated in 1987 (4).
Today, due to the effects of shoreline erosion, the lighthouse now sits less than 100 feet away from the edge of a cliff. When it was originally constructed, it was 300 feet away from the edge. During the 1960s, the Coast Guard considered tearing the lighthouse down and constructing a steel tower further inland, but the public outcry was so great that the lighthouse was saved. Very soon after, Congress passed a bill which turned control of the Montauk Point Lighthouse over to the Montauk Historical Society. On July 7th, 1969, the lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places and on March 2nd, 2012 it was officially designated as a National Historic Landmark (5).
(2) Montauk Point Light. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montauk_Point_Light#cite_note-nrhpinv_ny-9
(4) William G. Tyrrell (May 1969). “National Register of Historic Places Registration: Montauk Point Lighthouse”. New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
(5) Henry Osmer, “Montauk Point Lighthouse Awarded National Landmark Status”, Lighthouse Digest, Sep-Oct 2012, accessed 4 December 2012