It’s no surprise that the highlight of a visit to the Fire Island Lighthouse is climbing the 182 steps to the top of the tower, which reopened recently after being closed for more than five months for repairs.
But a trip to the top is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg — the lighthouse building and grounds also give visitors the opportunity to wander the former lighthouse keeper’s quarters, see a chunk of the hull of a shipwreck, learn about the zipline-style technique rescue workers used to carry sailors and passengers from a sinking ship safely to the shore, be awed by the enormous original lens that used to beam across the Great South Bay before the lighthouse converted to electricity, stand beside a whale jawbone, and more.
The lighthouse is open year-round and offers special events during the fall including evening tower tours, lightkeeper behind-the-scenes tours, tree trimming and a visit from a flying Santa.
Here are six things to do or see on a visit:
Fire Island Lighthouse
WHEN | WHERE Tower is open 10 a.m. with last climber admitted at 3:30 p.m. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. Located at Fire Island National Seashore; park at Robert Moses Field 5.
COST Everything is free except for climbing the tower, which costs $10, $5 ages 12 and younger. Children must be at least 42 inches tall to climb. Check your local library; some offer free passes to climb the tower.
INFO 631-583-5901, fireislandlighthouse.com
Climb the tower
“That’s our No. 1 attraction,” says Tony Femminella, executive director of the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, which operates the lighthouse. Climbers are rewarded with a 360-degree view of the Fire Island towns, the Robert Moses Causeway bridge, the ocean waves, and, on a clear day, Manhattan. What’s great about the Fire Island Lighthouse, Femminella says, is that people can exit onto the outdoor platform and walk completely around the tower; not every lighthouse offers that, many only have windows at the top.
“Is there an elevator in that thing?” jokes Donna Virapen, 50, a loan officer from Bellmore, upon arrival at the lighthouse. Alas, there is not, but climber Matthew Durso, 30, a social studies teacher from Garden City, points out that landings along the climb offer a window and signs with interesting stories or fun facts about the lighthouse. “You had a break at the windows to take a breather,” Durso says. Pick up a certificate of completion at the bottom.
Peruse the museum at the base of the tower
“This was the old keeper’s quarters. This is where they lived,” Femminella says. Downstairs was a parlor and kitchen, and upstairs housed the bedrooms. The museum has artifacts, photographs and an audiotape that tells about the children who lived there, narrated in children’s voices.
“We’re not a children’s museum, but we still have interactive displays for the younger ones,” Femminella says. Those include a digital puzzle that lets children piece together the lighthouse tower (a bell dings as each piece is set in the right position), a room finder that has them match each room to where it belongs in the lighthouse station, and multiple displays that challenge kids to find such items as seagulls, shoes, a cribbage board and a baby doll.
Enter the Lens Building
Sending out a light was the purpose of the lighthouse, to alert sailors to the shoreline and thereby prevent shipwrecks. The Fresnel Lens Building, which opened in 2011, is set next to the site of the original lighthouse from 1826, which was shorter than the current lighthouse and allowed a light to be seen 14 miles out at sea. The taller lighthouse opened in 1858 and allows light to travel more than 20 miles. The newer tower was electrified in 1939, and the old Fresnel lens, which was powered by oil, is now housed in the Lens Building, towering over and dwarfing visitors. A film explains how the light and prisms worked.
See a piece of a shipwreck
The tower couldn’t prevent every accident. “Submerged sandbars, wind and waves pushed ships off course toward shore,” Femminella says. A new addition to the lighthouse grounds is a piece of the hull of a shipwrecked vessel that experts think might have been the Savannah, which ran aground on the eastern end of Long Island in 1821 and washed up in the same approximate area. “It didn’t actually sink; it got stuck in sand,” Femminella says. The Savannah was a steam engine built by the Savannah Steam Ship Company to travel across the Atlantic to England and back. Last fall, Hurricane Ian unearthed a chunk of hull, and it was brought to the lighthouse property. Experts can judge its age by the fact the hull was pieced together with old-fashioned nails made of wood, and they think it was the Savannah because of the remaining copper sheathing that they knew was used on the ship, Femminella says.
A QR code on the outdoor piece allows visitors to get more information. “I’m very interested in history,” says James McHale, 36, a police officer from Massapequa who snaps a photo of the code during a visit with his wife, Virginia, 35, nurse practitioner, and their two children, Maggie, 5, and Nora, 4.
Visit the boathouse
Walk along a path adjacent to the lighthouse to reach the boathouse. In front of the boathouse is the skull and upper cheekbones of a juvenile humpback whale that washed up in August of 2018, Femminella says. Enter the boathouse to see how members of the U.S. Lifesaving Service rescued sailors and passengers on a sinking or stranded ship. Rescuers would first send up a signal flare from land to alert the ship it had been seen, Femminella says. Then, rescuers would pull surf rowboats and equipment onto the beach. If the surf was too rough for them to paddle out to a wreck, they would use a cannon to shoot a projectile pulley line to the ship and the sailors would secure it to the boat’s mast. A breeches buoy would be sent out zipline-style to pick up sailors and passengers and haul them to land. If needed, rescuers could also put a surf car on the line that fit eight to 10 people at a time, Femminella says. A surf rowboat, breeches buoy and surf car are all on display in the boathouse.
Check out the gift shop
Back in the tower building, a gift shop offers such items as Fire Island-themed tapestries for $65, a stained-glass depiction of the lighthouse for $60, lighthouse jigsaw puzzles for $20, beach glass necklaces with a lighthouse charm for $18, lighthouse caps for $20 and more. It also sells water, Italian ices and other snacks and has restrooms.
Special events include Evening Tower Tours at 6 p.m. on Sept. 29 and 4 p.m. on Nov. 25, $25 per person, reservations required; Light Keepers Behind the Scenes Tour, 9 a.m. Oct. 14 and Dec. 9, $20 per person, reservations required with limit of 10 people each session; Robert Moses performance actor 1 p.m. Oct. 14 in Lens Building, free; Tree Trimming Event from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 25, bring a handmade ornament related to sea, nature or lighthouse to hang on tree, free hot chocolate and cookies; 21st annual Reenactment of the Flying Santa, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Dec. 9, free.
The lighthouse is a 20-minute walk along a boardwalk path from the parking lot of Field 5 at Robert Moses State Park. Don’t feel up to the stroll? The Fire Island Pedicab service will operate from 9 a.m. to dark on weekends through Thanksgiving, says owner Justin Galbraith. Four or six-seat pedicabs are pulled by a driver on a motorized bicycle and transport riders back and forth along the packed-dirt Burma Road for $5 per person each way from Field 5 to the Lighthouse. “The ride was absolutely awesome,” says Donna Virapen, 50, a loan officer from Bellmore, who rode with her mother, Rosemin Henry, 82, her son Sauliman, 12, and her grandson, Samson, 13. 516-402-4175, fireislandpedicab.com.