Southold preservation advocates are seeking funding to stabilize the historic Plum Island Lighthouse, a popular tourist attraction that is losing a battle against time and the elements.
“It’s an icon of our history,” Ted Webb, a member of the Southold Town Historic Preservation Commission, said of the structure, which dates to the 1800s and has slowly been deteriorating on both the exterior and the interior, according to commission members, who said they are most concerned about the exterior damage.
The lighthouse was originally built in 1827, but the current structure was constructed in 1869 to replace it. It was deactivated in 1978, but when operational the lighthouse guided mariners through the waters of Plum Gut, located east of Orient Point. The structure is listed on both Southold’s and New York State’s Register of Historic Places and is one of eight lighthouses in Southold, home to more lighthouses than any other township in the nation.
“Lighthouses are icons of our history dating back to the American Revolution,” Webb said. “And each one out [in Southold] is very unique.”
The building has weathered over time due to erosion, but James Garretson , chairman of the commission, said that during the past few months the lighthouse's exterior has been “rusting out very, very badly,” with visible damage to the top portion, facets and the roof and lantern room.
“We’ve been more concerned in the last four to five months, because we’ve seen even more deterioration in that time,” Garretson said.
The cost to stabilize the lighthouse is about $100,000, according to project estimates the commission received.
While most of Southold’s lighthouses are privately owned, the one on Plum Island is owned by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which commission members said makes them responsible for maintaining the structure.
Laws passed in 2008 and 2011 that ordered the federal government’s sale of the island to the highest bidder sparked a legal battle between the federal agency and local environmental advocacy groups that sued the agency in July 2016 in an attempt to block the sale.
Commission members said they asked the agency last year to maintain the lighthouse, but Garretson said the commission was told the structure is not a priority for the agency.
Homeland Security spokesman John S. Verrico said Monday in a statement that the department has requested funding in the past for the preservation of parts of the lighthouse, “but has been unable to secure the specific appropriations necessary.”
“We continue to utilize qualified subject matter experts to document the Plum Island Lighthouse as well as the historic Ft. Terry in order to memorialize these important pieces of U.S. and departmental history,” Verrico said. “While we have no current plans or mechanisms to partner with any nonprofit organizations on the preservation or restoration of the lighthouse, we continue to welcome creative ideas on how we can better advance our preservation goals while being good stewards of both historic resources and the public trust."
Commission members have sought ways to raise money from other sources to stabilize the lighthouse. The commission asked the Southold Town Board this month about helping commission members seek state grant funding for the building.
Southold Supervisor Scott Russell told commission members at the board’s July 3 work session that town officials would talk with local legislators about possible grant funding for the structure.
Webb, who regularly conducts lighthouse tours for Cross Sound Ferry from Orient Point toward the lighthouse on Plum Island, said he hoped some kind of work could be done before further damage dims any hopes of saving the historic lighthouse.
“The loss to our history [would be] immeasurable,” Webb said. “Once a building like this . . . is gone, it’s gone forever and it’s gone for future generations.”
The Plum Island Lighthouse is one of eight lighthouses in Southold. The others are:
- Long Beach Bar “Bug” Lighthouse: built in 1870
- Orient Point Lighthouse: 1899
- Little Gull Island Lighthouse: 1806
- Race Rock Lighthouse: 1878
- North Dumpling Lighthouse: 1849
- Latimer Reef Lighthouse: 1884
- Horton Point Lighthouse: 1857
*Gardiners Point Lighthouse, built in 1854 on Gardiners Point Island, sunk into the sea after it was toppled in 1894 due to a storm. The site of the former lighthouse is now known as “The Ruins.”
Source: Southold Town Historic Preservation Commission