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Fire Island lighthouse back on line

Students from the Stony Brook University Southampton campus

Students from the Stony Brook University Southampton campus marine biology class stand at the base of the Fire Island Lighthouse after completing the climb while on a school trip to the lighthouse. (Nov. 1, 2013) Credit: Steve Pfost

The Fire Island Lighthouse weathered a double whammy of superstorm Sandy and the federal government shutdown that kept its museum and tower shut for almost a year.

But the lighthouse reopened its doors to visitors last month, in time for its 155th anniversary.

On a recent blustery day, a group of marine biology students from Stony Brook University's Southampton campus clambered up the 182 narrow steps to the top.

"I was a little bit scared. I'm a bit claustrophobic," said senior Liesel Benecke as she took in the vista, with Manhattan's Freedom Tower visible in the west.

A confluence of forces had kept the lighthouse closed. Dave Griese, administrator of the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, said "it was almost like the skins of an onion."

Flooding in the basement during Sandy destroyed about $10,000 in merchandise and displays, said Patti Stanton, the society's administrative assistant.

Then, bridge closures, dune restorations, and storm damage to the boardwalks that connected to parking lots kept the lighthouse inaccessible. In April, the 168-foot-tall structure underwent a delayed restoration project to repair previous cracks in the tower, replace some 50 stairs to the top of the lighthouse and ironwork on the roof.

After that project, school groups started visiting the museum in September again, but the top of the lighthouse was still closed. Then, the federal government shut down on Oct. 1, closing the lighthouse again because it is located in the Fire Island National Seashore park.

"We were ordered off the property," Stanton said.

On Oct. 12, the lighthouse resumed normal tourist operations.

The society held birthday festivities Saturday to celebrate the lighthouse's 155th anniversary. Its first lighting was Nov. 1, 1858, with an original First Order Fresnel lens that stood 18 feet tall and broadcast up to 21 miles into the ocean with white flashes every minute. Given its position, Griese said, the lighthouse was likely the first sign of America that immigrants sailing from Europe to Ellis Island would have glimpsed.

The lighthouse was wired for electricity in 1938, after decades of using fuels such as lard oil, whale oil and kerosene. Due to technological improvements in boat navigation, the Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse in 1974. The preservation society was formed in 1982 and raised more than $1.2 million to save and restore the building. The lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. It was restored to use as an "active aid to navigation" in 1986.

In 2006, the society took ownership and control from the federal government, including buying the two current 1,000-watt bulbs for $600 each. "It's a success story as far as the people coming together in a partnership," Griese said.

One of its goals, volunteer Anna LaViolette said, is to carefully guard the lighthouse's long history. LaViolette, who keeps watch over the original Fresnel lens stored in an adjacent building and has worked with the society for 16 years, gazed at the tall, patterned lens.

"I just think it's beautiful," she said. "This is the Mona Lisa of lenses."

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