Seeing the light has meant different things at the Fire Island Lighthouse over the years. But one thing is certain: It wouldn’t be possible without the lightkeeper.
A few times a year, the Suffolk County landmark hosts behind-the-scenes tours. The next is Sept. 9 and will be led by its current engineers, who maintain the light. The tour explores how the role of the lightkeeper has changed from the time the tower opened in the 1860s to now.
“The tour will shed light on the maritime history and the importance of lighthouse,” says Amanda Vaskas, a program director and volunteer coordinator at the site. “In this day of navigational technology [GPS], if not for a dedicated few who maintain them, these special structures would disappear forever.”
The Fire Island Lighthouse was once considered the most important light station on the East Coast.
Constructed in 1858, the landmark was the first landfall for transatlantic ships approaching New York Harbor at the turn of the last century. In the early years, the lighthouse keeper was responsible for keeping logs of everything that happened on the grounds. This individual also oversaw several “surfmen” from the United States Life Saving Service who protected and surveyed the waters. From 1878 to 1914, this group saved 721 ships and rescued 7,086 people. In 1915, the United States Life Saving Service was replaced by the Coast Guard.
“There were a lot of ships running back and forth,” says Peter Paquette, a volunteer with the National Park Service and a lighthouse tour guide. “Not just immigrants, but a lot of trade.”
As part of the 2 1⁄2-hour tour, visitors follow one of the present-day lighthouse keepers on his rounds — from the auxiliary generator and the lightkeepers’ quarters to the beacon in the lantern room of the lighthouse tower.
The tour, part of the larger statewide Path Through History program, also provides access to the historic boathouse and Fresnel Lens Building.
Visitors also have the opportunity to climb the 192 steps to the top of the tower and enjoy views of the Great South Bay.
The Lens Building is the latest addition to the grounds. It was last updated in 2011 and houses the original first-order Fresnel lens that sat atop the stone tower in 1858.
AN INSIDE LOOK
Eileen Jushchenko of Garden City made a visit to the lighthouse last month with her husband, two daughters and father. For her father, Patrick Harrington, it was as good a Father’s Day gift as any.
“I’ve been here a number of times because I am a Girl Scouts leader, but my father has never been here and he loves Long Island history and construction,” Jushchenko said. “He grew up in Ireland and was a builder, so I knew it was something he would be interested in.”
The Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed in 1982 and hosts tours from the perspective of the different members of the staff.
“We are always looking to spread the word of this fantastic icon here on Fire Island and also Long Island and New York State,” says David Griese, executive director of the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society. “History has a story in it, and it’s great when we can share those stories.”