Last summer, newly retired high school English teacher Angela Reich decided it might be fun to work at the iconic tower across the Great South Bay.
"I'm at the beach anyway," she said she recalled thinking at the time. "I might as well volunteer at the lighthouse."
Sure enough, the work was fun and the visitors were a pleasure to interact with. But there was also an unexpected benefit: an education in Long Island's seafaring tradition.
"I really didn't realize what the maritime history of Long Island was -- and I'm a native Long Islander," said Reich, 58, of Brightwaters.
It's a common phenomenon among lighthouse volunteers. Learning about the storms, shipwrecks and heroic rescues that took place on Fire Island, they find themselves online or in libraries, soaking up the history -- and sharing it with lighthouse visitors and each other.
"Everybody here does that," Reich said in the lighthouse conference room, where staff members have coffee and eat their brown-bag lunches. "We all sit around this table and talk about what we've read and what we've learned."
One incident in particular so fascinated Reich that she hopes to write a book about it: the wreck in July 1850 of the Elizabeth off Point O'Woods, which claimed the life of Margaret Fuller, the pioneering feminist and journalist, at age 40. She spends long hours researching Fuller in Long Island libraries, the New York Public Library and the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan. "I became fascinated by the Long Islanders who were involved in the aftermath of this wreck," Reich said.
She has developed an appreciation for ship captains who navigated with "nothing but their eyeballs and a telescope and the stars. It's incredible to me how brave these people were."
Reich said that, by and large, visitors to the lighthouse are "interested in history, they love the beach, they're wowed by what they find here. Last week I had a couple get engaged at the top of the lighthouse. People love this place."
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.
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; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
For more volunteer information and opportunities, contact the Long Island Volunteer Center at 516-564-5482; longislandvolunteercenter.org.