The Story Of the Montauk Point Light House

Photo by Augustus Mac

    Montauk Point and its sturdy old tower are the sources of much history and the scene of many marine disasters. The Indian name for Turtle Hill, upon which the lighthouse stands. is "Womponamon," an Algonquan word meaning "to the east" The proud Montauk tribe gave their name to the region and ruled the surrounding tribes. Their sachems called councils by lighting fires on Womponamon, and many of the tribesmen came to them in dugout canoes large enough to hold 18 paddles.
     During the American Revolution. eastern Long Island and Montauk Point were occupied by the British. The Royal Navy kept a huge fire burning on the bluff overlooking the sea to serve as a beacon for the ships of the squadron that blockaded Long Island Sound. During the winter of l780- 8l, a good part of the British fleet lay in Gardiner's Bay, including the H.M.S. . "Royal Oak," flagship of Vice Admiral Arbuthnot, The British were keeping an eye on the French fleet, sent to aid the American colonies, then at anchor in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island.
     On January 22, 1781, the British received a report that three ships of the French fleet had left Newport and were within range of the British fleet Vice Admiral Arbuthnot Sent three frigates in pursuit of the French: the 1487 ton H.M.S. "Culloden." a 74-gun vessel, 161 feet long with a beam of 46 feet and a draft of 16 feet, sister ship of the "Royal Oak": the H.M.S. "Beford"; and the H.M.S. "America." A heavy northeast snowstorm sprang up and made pursuit impossible. The "Bedford" was dismasted. The "America" was lost for several days in the storm. And the "Culloden." despite the efforts of her skipper. Captain George Balfour, was blown onto S.kagwonggonac (Skagwong for short) Reef which ripped her hull open. Somehow. Captain Balfour managed to get his ship off the reef and sailed her, hole and all. into the smoother waters of Fort Pond Bay where she promptly sank off the eastern headland at the entrance. Apparently, the entire crew of 600 was rescued.
     Built at Deptford, England in 1747. the "Culloden" had seen service in the battles of Minorca (1756). Gibraltar (1759). and elsewhere in 1762 and 1778. Her name came from the Battle of Culloden (1746) when the troops of Charles Edward Stuart ("Bonnie Prince Charlie") were defeated by the Duke of Cumberland's army. After she sank, her masts were salvaged and used by the "Bedfbtd" which had been towed into Fort Pond Bay after the storm has subsided. The "Bedford" was once again made seaworthy on March 9, 1781 and most everything of value had been salvaged from her, the "Culloden" was burned to the waterline The headland has ever since been known as Culloden Pointand At low tide, the ship's timbers are visible even today, making it an interesting spot for scuba divers to visit
     After the struggle for independence was over, the new American Government realized that if it was to exist' it would have to stimulate trade with other nations. In order to do this, it would have to eliminate some of the hazards along the coast and make the principal ports of New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore more easily accessible to world commerce. Montauk Point was certainly one of the most dangerous areas on the new trans-Atlantic trade route. Records show that the rock-studded point projecting out into an often fog-ridden Atlantic Ocean took a heavy toll of shipping during the early years of settlement in the New World. A vehement group of shipmasters and owners protested that along the more than 100 miles of Long Island's southern, treacherous, Atlantic hammered shoreline there was no haven for vessels. A shipmaster who cleared Coney Island and headed east from New York Harbor had only six small. shallow inlets between him and Montauk Point. Wrecks of brigs, sloops, ketches, and schooners lay in the surf on Fire Island, on the long, exposed beaches at Quogue, Southampton, East Hampton, and on Montauk Point itself.
     In 1792, to prevent this loss of ships and trade, Congress appropriated $255.12 to buy land upon which a lighthouse was to be built to warn passing mariners of the perilous rocks at Montauk Point' Three years later, President George Washington signed the authorization for the construction of the light.  A contract was awarded to New York bricklayer, John McComb, Jr. McComb's bid of S22,300 was the lowest offer of the four bids that were received. Also in his favor was the fact that he had already built a successful lighthouse at Cape Henry, Virginia in 1791. McComb was later commissioned to build also Old Field Point Light, Port Jefferson, New York in 1799.
     Work on the light began almost immediately. Heavy blocks of sandstone were hauled to Montauk in horse drawn wagons. McComb ordered a 13 fl deep foundation dug into the crest of Turtle Hill. At its base, the lighthouse was to have a 28 ft diameter with walls nine feet thick. At the top of the 80 ft, octagonal tower, the walls were to be three feet thick. The contract also called for the construction of a two-story keeper's house and a vault for "nine strong Cedar Cisterns" which would store the necessary oil for the beacon. It should be noted that at this time in history, it was only possible to build lighthouses on land. It was not until 1878 with the construction of Race Rock Light near Fishers Island, New York and Minot's Ledge Light (1850-1860) near the southern entrance to Boston Harbor Pass, that the construction of wave swept lighthouses was possible. The construction or Race Rock Light presented a formidable challenge to engineers and it represents a major break-through and accomplishment in lighthouse building.
     When Montauk Point Light was first lit in 1797, it burned whale oil. Whaling was a growing industry at the time. and for more than hair a century Montauk Point's lantern used fuel from the huge mammals. By the late 1850s, however. whales began to be scarce as ships ranged the globe in search of them. For a time. Montauk Point Light was forced to burn lard oil when whale oil was unavailable. With the discovery of petrolium came kerosene which was cheaper and easier to obtain than whale oil. In the 1860s. finally, the light was converted to a kerosene wick permanently.
     Because of its location, Montauk Point Lighthouse stood, to some extent tent, as the symbol of the New World for almost a century. In 1886, it was upstaged by the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Lieutenant George M. Bache, U.S N., noted in his report of 1838: "(1t) is passed by all vessels approaching Long Island Sound from seaward, and is a good point of departure for those leaving the Sound."' Thus, Montauk Point Light has been the first welcoming beacon to the New World for travelers sailing from Europe to New York. With independence, the flow of immigrants from Europe to the United States increased, transatlantic trade boomed and New York became the preferred destination for ships carrying settlers or merchandise. Montauk Point Light, like the Statue of Liberty, symbolizes the United States emergence from a colonial enclave to an independent trading nation which opened its arms to the millions of Europeans who saw it as the promised land. Most recently, the light was the first welcoming beacon for the returning American hostages from Iran in 1981. The lighthouse sported a giant yellow ribbon wrapped around the deck beneath the lantern and was created by the officer-in-charge, BM1 Paul Driscoll, his family and crew members. On the ribbon was printed in large letters the greeting: WELCOME HOME.
     Since 1797. then, Montauk Point Light has safely guided mariners around treacherous reefs and shoals which surround her jagged coast- line. Indian canoes, whaleboats, revenue cutters, and smuggler's ships (then as now) passed the lighthouse during the early days of operation. During the War of 1811, British men-of-war prowled beneath the reassuring beacon. Schooners, brigs, and all manner of sailing craft used the light as a guide. Today, fast, sleek nuclear ships glide under this historic light's 'winking eye high atop Turtle Hill.

Early Keepers of the Light
     Jacob Hand - Appointed November 4.1796. Hand was reprimanded by Thomas Jefferson for nepotism. He wanted his son to succeed him without taking a competitive examination.
    Jared Hand - Appointed January 28, 1812. Jacob's son apparently passed the competitive examination to be appointed on his own merits.
    Henry Baker - Appointed February 24. 1814 and His annual salary was $333.33.
    Patrick F. Gould - Appointed May 9.1832
    John Hobart  - Appointed October 29, 1849
    Silas P. Loper - Appointed August 17.1850
    Captain Jonathan A Miller - Miller was injured in a naval engagement during the Civil War. He served as keeper from January 1, 1865 to May 13.1869 and December 3,1872 to October 15,1875
    Captain John E. Miller -The son of Jonathan. Miller was a member of an old East Hampton family  and was a New York City policeman for 23 years before he was placed in charge of the light at Montauk Point He served as keeper from May 16, 1912 to 1929.
    For many years Montauk Point Light was a desolate, often inaccessible place, and the early keepers of the light, their wives and families led solitary and very lonely lives There was only one rock road leading from the Point to East Hampton, the nearest village 20 miles away, and during the winter months, snowdrift's usually made the journey to it impossible. Children were taught their school lessons at the light by their: mothers. A few visitors during the summer made the job of the keeper a little less lonely. Although his work was often tedious, it had its advantages if he liked bass fishing which was excellent at the Point. Life at the light continued this way until the early 1900s when the new motor cars brought droves of visitors to the light and created new problems.
     Wives replaced keepers at tending light when they died or when they were called to other duties such as rescue work. Such was the case in December 1856, when the brig "Flying Cloud" ran aground on the rocks at Montauk Point and Patrick T. Gould, the keeper climbed down the face of the bluff in a gale to save the crew from drowning in the surf. He was awarded a gold medal by the grateful Lifesaving Benevolent Association of New York. The inscription on it told of his "courage and humanity saving from inevitable death the crew of the brig "Flying Cloud," wrecked on Montauk Point December 14.1856." However, apparently nothing was mentioned of his wife's role in maintaining the light during her husband's heroic rescue efforts.

Two Tales: the "John Milton" and the "Washington"

     The construction of Ponquogue (Shinnecock) Light with a steady beam in January 1858. and the changing of the Montauk Point Light from a steady beam to a flashing signal (which it has to this day) at the same time were blamed for one of the worst 'wrecks that ever took place off the south shore of eastern Long Island. It was a rare error made by the Lighthouse Board. To make matters worse, there was no way to notify ships at sea about these changes. As to be expected, tragedy struck soon thereafter. Since 1797. Montauk Point Light had been the only beacon. casting a steady beam, on that lonely wind swept 76 mile stretch of coast between Fire Island Light and Montauk Point.
     Captain Ephraim Harding had sailed from New York on the 1445 ton full rigged ship "John Milton" on December 6, 1856, bound for San Francisco via Cape Hornand On the way home, he stopped at the Chincha Islands off Peru and loaded a cargo of guano. When he reached the south shore of Long Island again on February 18, 1858, he ran into "strong gales and a thick snowstorm," which he recorded in the ship's log. As he proceeded east along the south shore the snowstorm continued unabated. There was, of course no way for him to know that Montauk Point Light had changed its characteristic from a steady beam to a flashing one or even that a new light had been built at Ponquogue which now cast the steady beam.
     When Harding reached Ponquogue Light and saw its steady beam, he mistook it for Montauk Point Light and, after sailing on his course a bit farther, he steered his vessel to port and headed north, believing he was in the open water of Block Island Sound. He was not, The "John Milton" crashed on the rocks before dawn on Saturday February 20, 1858, about five miles west of Montauk Point Light, all sails set. There were no survivors of the 33 persons aboard. Men, spars, sails and cargo were found subsequently in hideous confusion, encased in ice. "She melted like a lump of sugar," an old man, first on the scene said of the "John Milton" years later. When dawn came the ship's bell could be seen poised upon two beams projecting from the bow of the wreck, all that remained of the vessel. There, swaying with every swell of the waves, according to a contemporary newspaper account,"... it tolled out the requiem for the departed." Later, the bell was bought and given to the Session House in East Hampton where it rings to this day.
     The bodies of Captain Harding, three mates and 18 sailors washed ashore on the beach, along with their pitiful belongings, their personal letters and daguerreotypes of their loved ones whom they expected to see again so soon. The dead were carried to East Hampton in wagons. Reverend Stephen L. Metshon preached the funeral sermon. Twenty-three of the men were buried in a common grave in the Old South End Burying Ground, and a stone was erected above them by public subscription.
     Captain Henry Babcock, skipper of the whaling ship "Washington" out of Sag Harbor, returned from a long voyage to the Pacific about the same time the "John Milton" foundered on the rocks on February 20th. He too had received no word of the change of lights at Montauk Point or of the new light at Ponquogue. He sailed along the same southern coast of Long Island toward Montauk Point as Captain Harding did. There, he planned to turn to port and head west to Sag Harbor. When he raised Ponquogue Light, he refused to accept its steady beam as belonging to Montauk Point Light. He had taken a reading of the sun at noon and believed that the light which appeared to be Montauk Point Light had been made too soon. He was worried and called a conference with his officers and crew.
    Everyone on board the "Washington" was eager to get to Sag Harbor. They favored nothing but the quickest possible passage at hand they argued "There is no other light but Montauk on this part of the coast" but Captain Babcock was, fortunately, a man of great wisdom and strong will. He sensed something was wrong and refused to give into the admonitions of his men. Instead, he gave the order: "Tack ship and stand ashore!" His judgement proved to be correct when a second lighthouse was raised and positively identified as Montauk Point Light but for his decision. the "Washington" would have gone to the same watery grave as the "John Milton" had earlier.
    Captain Babcock eventually was keeper of the light for many years at Montauk Point after he retired from whaling. It pleased him, we are told, to stand on the bluff at Turtle Hill on a fair summer day and look down at the rocks below which almost claimed him, as they did Captain Harding and his crew, when he sailed the "Washington" home years ago.

Recent Disasters

    During World War II three American ships were sunk by Nazi submarines near Montauk Point: the 5031 ton "Maiden Creek" went to the bottom on December 31, 1942: the 1371 ton "Wilmington" and the 5303 ton "Black Point" were lost on May 5, 1945and A British vessel, the "H.M.S. Mattawin." was sunk by two Nazi torpedoes just 20 miles southeast of, the Iight She went down in three minutes. Fifty-three seamen perished in this disaster, but 39 escaped to safety in two life boats.
    As the needs of, maritime shipping changed the lighthouse at Montauk Point was further modified. Sometimes the weather forced changes. On one occasion during a freezing winter gale the light's barn was blown into the sea. Another time, the front porch of the keeper's house was swept away. Thus, buildings were improved upon or added to as the years passed. In 1860. the lighthouse was rebuilt and the tower increased in height to 108 feet which it remains to this day. Eventually, the light was converted to electricity. Later automatic fog signals, a watch tower and radio beacon were installed. In 1939, the Lighthouse Service was combined with the United States Coast Guard which then took charge of the operation of the light.
    Although times have changed, the tower in use at Montauk Point today is basically the same one that McComb built in 1797. Every year it is whitewashed, and its distinguishing day signal, a red band, is renewed with metallic paint. Super highways have made a visit to the lighthouse a pleasant drive, a welcome change from horse and buggy days when a single hole-ridden dirt road made travel difficult if not impossible. Thousands of sightseers annually picnic at beautiful Montauk State Park and visit its historic adjacent beacon. However wonderful this may seem, the flood of visitors to the top unwittingly have contributed to the problem of erosion which threatens to destroy the very land they enjoy. Montauk Point Lighthouse is one of the few remaining 18th century American Lighthouses still standing. It is also one of the best known American lighthouses. Standing a majestic 169 feet above the pounding Atlantic Ocean, it continues to serve seafarers as faithfully as it has for nearly two centuries.
    The Montauk Historical Society took custody of the lighthouse on Friday, September l2, 1986, in a colorful ceremony which brought school children and their parents. military personnel in full dress, prominent citizens and the United States Coast Guard to the bluff at the tip of the Island. Petty Officer Wand Gene Hughes, the 32nd and last keeper of the light, led the formalities that "disestablished" the U.S. Coast Guard Light Station at Montauk Point and put the future of the site in the hands of the Historical Society. The Society  leases the property from the federal government free of charge and assume responsibility for all maintenance.
    Plans for the lighthouse, according to Richard White, chairman of the lighthouse committee, include a museum in which, among other things, the Historical Society hopes to display the classical Fresnel lens which have been moved downstairs from the tower. A DCH-224 has replaced it in the lantern room. The Coast Guard has agreed to leave the Fresnel lens on site.  Two apartments in the lighthouse building will be occupied by a patrolman from the Long Island State Parkway Police and the museum's curator. The Society charges an admission fee for the museum, which is open weekends in the spring and fall and six days a week at the height of the season, the summer months.
    Montauk Light inspired Walt Whitman to write six lines subtitled "From Montauk Point" in 1888 as part of his most famous poem Leaves of Grass.

"I stand as on some mighty eagle's beak, Eastward the sea absorbing, viewing (nothing but sea
and sky), The tossing waves, the foam, the ships in the distance, The wild unrest, the snowy.
curling caps-that inbound urge and urge of waves, the shores forever . . . .

For anyone interested in Long Island Lighthouses Please visit the Page of Robert G. (Bird) Muller
called Long Island Lighthouses Past and Present
Some of what is offered on this page is: (as taken from the table of contents)
  • Introduction to Long Island's Lighthouses
  • The North Shore - Stepping Stones*   Sands Point*   Execution Rocks*    Cold Spring Harbor   Huntington Harbor   Eaton's Neck*   Old

  • Field Point*   Stratford Shoal (While Stratford Shoal is a Connecticut light, it is viewed by many on their way to and from Long Island.)
  • The North Fork - Horton Point*   Long Beach Bar (Bug Light)*   Gardiner's Point*  Orient Point*   Plum Island*    Little Gull Island*

  • Fisher's Island - Race Rock*   North Dumpling*   Latimer Reef (This is another CT light which happens to be near Long Island.) Block Island - North light and Southeast light (These lights, while actually in Rhode Island, are listed here because of their close proximity to Long Island.)
  • The South Fork -  Montauk Point (includes the museum)*   Cedar Island*   Shinnecock Bay*
  • The South Shore - Fire Island*
  • Chronological Listings of Long Island Lighthouses
  • The Fresnel lens*
  • Long Island's Keepers

  • And much more . . . . . .

    Also don't miss the Montauk Historical Society  - Montauk Lighthouse information Page (631-668-2544. Outside of the area, call 1-888-MTK-POINT).

    - An Interesting Web Site to visit -

    Specializing in the field of United States Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. More particularly, it aims to provide various governmental agencies, historical groups, restoration contractors and collectors with information and original artifacts relating to lighthouses, life-saving stations, etc. in their area.
    They have literally thousands of items and pieces of information, from vintage photographs to architectural plans, reports, books and original apparatus and equipment. In addition, we provide research services on the subject, and can offer quality copies of some items (ex. architectural plans) for use by contractors of historical groups to aid in preservation efforts.
    The catalogue comes out every 10 weeks and contains 200-300 original artifacts, plans, books and information. Catalogues are by subscription, which is refundable with your first order. If you would like to receive future issues. They also maintain want lists as Items come and go quite quickly, so that we can keep an eye out for your particular wants.