'Family' of volunteers preserves Fire Island Lighthouse

From left, Diana and Al Rosenblum and Gayle From left, Diana and Al Rosenblum and Gayle Haines are among the 134 volunteers at the Fire Island Lighthouse, whose administrator is Dave Griese, at right. The lighthouse is open 362 days a year. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

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If you park at Robert Moses State Park Field 5 and take the 15-minute boardwalk stroll to the Fire Island Lighthouse, you'll probably be greeted upon arrival with a hearty "Welcome!" from the lighthouse staff.

You'll be escorted up the 182 stairs to the top of the tower, with pauses to look out windows along the way. You'll be shown the carefully preserved miniature cannon the United States Life-Saving Service -- predecessor of the Coast Guard -- used to shoot rescue ropes to stranded ships.

You'll be shown the original, 18-foot-tall First Order Fresnel lens that used an ingenious system of prisms to make the light from wicks burning in whale oil visible 20 miles away. And, of course, you'll be invited to visit the gift shop.

All this hospitality comes courtesy of the 134 volunteers of the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society -- they range from college students to retirees -- who teach visitors about the plentiful history at the lighthouse, one of Long Island's most popular attractions.

"People feel part of the family," said David Griese, administrator of the lighthouse and one of only two full-time paid staffers. "They accomplish something for themselves, and they're meeting needs we have."

The volunteers said they sign up because they want to contribute to the community, or because they've always been curious about the structure or simply for something to do. They stay on because they develop strong friendships with fellow volunteers, enjoy their interactions with visitors and feel part of a fascinating history.

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Preservation societies and volunteers are common at lighthouses on Long Island and elsewhere, but Fire Island's are especially well established, said Jeff Gales, executive director of the nonprofit U.S. Lighthouse Society, based in Hansville, Washington, which aims to educate people about lighthouses and help with their restoration and preservation.

"Many lighthouses around the nation are being preserved through volunteer help," Gales said. "If the Fire Island Lighthouse has 134 volunteers, then that is very impressive and higher than most other lighthouse organizations."

Views and visitors

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The Fire Island Lighthouse is an especially nice place to be a volunteer. The top of the tower offers spectacular views in every direction: the rolling Atlantic to the south, Great South Bay to the north, the roadless communities of Fire Island to the east, and, on a clear day, the Manhattan skyline to the west.

Volunteers said it's also nice to donate time to a popular attraction. Thousands of fourth-graders climb the 182 steps in the tower every year as part of their local history curriculum. Tourists visiting Manhattan find their way to the tower, too.

"In four years, I've spoken to people from 41 different countries," said Harold Stumme, 70, a retired U.S. Merchant Marine captain and volunteer at the lighthouse.

Stumme, who lives in Islip, said he passed the Fire Island light "countless" times with the Merchant Marine, and his experience piloting container ships gives him an extra measure of authority among visitors. "You get different questions when you say, 'My experience is out on the ocean,' " he said.

The lighthouse is open daily at 9:30 a.m. most of the year and closes between 4 and 6 p.m., depending on the month. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter but is open New Year's Day. Admission to the tower ranges from $2 for members and $4 for seniors, children 12 and younger and active-duty military members, to $7 for adults.

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The modern version of the lighthouse is a thoroughly volunteer endeavor. It was concerned private citizens who first saved it from the wrecking ball in 1979, then formed the Preservation Society in 1982 and raised the $1.3 million to keep its beacon lit and the site open to the public.

In 1984, the lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of 19 lighthouses on Long Island, among them the Execution Rocks Lighthouse in Sands Point, the Orient Point Lighthouse, the Little Gull Island Lighthouse off Fisher's Island and the Montauk Point Lighthouse, the oldest in New York State. At Montauk Point, visitors can see an interactive light display that features all the lighthouses on and around Long Island.

The first lighthouse on the Fire Island site was 74 feet tall and was erected in 1826. It soon became clear that a taller light was needed to serve the ships going to and from the booming port of New York. The present structure was completed in 1858, with sturdy, 11-foot-thick walls at its base and the state-of-the-art, Paris-built Fresnel lens at its top.

By 1973, a blinking light atop the water tower in the traffic circle at Robert Moses had become the principal navigational aid for the area near Fire Island Inlet, and the lighthouse went dark. By the end of the decade, there was talk of tearing it down.

Enter Thomas F. Roberts III of Bay Shore, a banker and star golfer, who formed the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society and led the drive to restore and relight it.

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Fashion maven Liz Claiborne and her husband, Arthur Ortenberg, who had a summer home near the lighthouse in Saltaire, raised and matched corporate contributions, but the effort to save the structure also had a large local grassroots component. Residents of Bay Shore and Babylon held clambakes, aluminum can drives and black-tie dinners.

The money raised got the light back on in 1986, turned the keeper's quarters into a visitor center and launched what has become one of Long Island's most popular destinations for tourists and school groups.

"The volunteerism of getting things done was a common theme," said lighthouse administrator Griese, 67, of Sayville. "It was the foundation of lighthouse preservation, which continues to this day."

 

Training for the tower

Lighthouse volunteers take part in an orientation session and are issued a manual about how to explain the structure's features to visitors. Refresher sessions are held in the spring and fall, Griese said. Some positions, such as tower tour guide, require more training than others. Volunteers also care for the interiors of the buildings, including interpretive exhibits and objects on display. National Park Service staff maintain the grounds.

The lighthouse operates on an annual budget of about $200,000, which covers two full-time salaries and a few part-timers, the inventory of the gift shop and basic maintenance costs, like paper goods for the restrooms. Its revenues include sales at the gift shop, tour admission fees and fundraising, including the annual Barefoot Black Tie Dinner Dance held at the lighthouse and scheduled this year for Aug. 9.

The lighthouse draws about 110,000 visitors a year, Griese said, although that number includes people who wander in from the beach for the bathroom. But even they tend to hang around and look at the exhibits in the visitor center, he noted.

About 17,000 visitors and 7,000 schoolchildren climb to the top of the lighthouse each year. Though there is a fee for that, admission to everything else is free, including the visitor center, the Life Saving Service boathouse and the newest attraction, the Fresnel Lens building, which opened in 2011.

Modeled after the old building that housed the steam generator that provided the lighthouse's first electricity, the Fresnel Lens building is a big point of pride with the staff. It was built with a $400,000 state grant, $600,000 worth of donated building materials and labor donated by Long Island trade unions, and $200,000 raised by the preservation society.

A plaque declares the building is dedicated to "the spirit of volunteerism." And it often leaves visitors duly impressed.

"Before I came here, I had never heard of a Fresnel lens, nor did I care," said Bette Berman, 69, of East Northport as she gazed at the lens' elegant prisms and watchlike gear mechanism. "Now I know the physics of how it works."

Berman, a retired teacher with the Middle Country School District, started as a volunteer in 2001, briefly became an employee, then joined the lighthouse's seven-member board, an unpaid post, in 2011.

Volunteering at the lighthouse "keeps you young, it really does," she said. "You have a place to go, and the people here are wonderful."

The camaraderie among the polo-shirt-wearing lighthouse staff was evident after superstorm Sandy in 2012. The storm had wrecked the road to Field 5 and swept away the boardwalk to the light. Restoring access took months, but the staff stayed in touch, said Lynn Dunlop, volunteer coordinator for the lighthouse.

"We had a group of volunteers who got together for breakfast every Sunday because they missed each other," she said.

 

SIGN ME UP

Volunteer posts at the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society include leading school groups, teaching visitors about the Fresnel lens and the former United States Life-Saving Service, giving nature walks and performing office and maintenance work. For information about volunteering, contact volunteer coordinator Lynn Dunlop at 631-661-4876 or visit fireislandlighthouse.com.

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YOU MIGHT CONSIDER . . .

The Huntington Lighthouse Preservation Society runs tours of the 48-foot structure at the entrance to Lloyd and Huntington harbors. "We're always looking for volunteers," said Pam Setchell, president of the society. The group needs tour guides and people skilled in fine woodworking or wrought-iron restoration. It's especially helpful if they can drive a boat, since the lighthouse is on a small island. Contact: 631-421-1985; info@huntingtonlighthouse.org.

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The Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities doesn't manage lighthouses, but it does look after three remarkable properties from the 1700s: Joseph Lloyd Manor in Lloyd Harbor, the Sherwood-Jayne farm complex in East Setauket, and the Custom House in Sag Harbor. The society also runs hikes and festivals, and advocates for the preservation of historic places. Contact: 631-692-4664; splia.org.

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For more volunteer information and opportunities, contact the Long Island Volunteer Center at 516-564-5482; longislandvolunteercenter.org.

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