At the Montauk Lighthouse, a Restored Beacon Shines Again

Good morning. It’s Monday. Today we’ll find out why a crucial component in the oldest lighthouse in New York State has just been replaced with one manufactured in 1902.

Credit…James Barron/The New York Times

For more than 200 years, the Montauk Point Lighthouse at the eastern end of Long Island has pulsed like a huge swirling star in a tall bottle. Now, in an era when ships can track their positions with ever more precise marine navigation tools, the lighthouse is a throwback.

So is the lens that has just been installed in the glass-walled lantern room atop the lighthouse. The lens is a huge, upright glass dish that spins on its edge and focuses the rays from an LED into a single intense beam. It turns six times a minute. It flashes every five seconds.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, flash.

The lens is not new: It is the very one that beamed light on the water around Montauk from 1903 to 1987, when the Coast Guard removed it. The replacements required less maintenance, but some Montaukers grumbled that they were dim.

“I would go there at night to take photographs of the lighthouse, and the lights on the outside of the building were brighter than the light in the tower,” recalled Mia Certic, the executive director of the Montauk Historical Society. The group owns the lighthouse, commissioned by President George Washington in 1792 as one of the new nation’s first public works projects and built by John McComb, the architect who later designed Gracie Mansion.

The lens — named after the French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel — made its comeback a couple of weeks ago through a pilot program with the Coast Guard and the historical society. Over the next couple of years, the society will collect data for the Coast Guard about the lens, one of 50 in service at lighthouses overseen by the Coast Guard as official aids to navigation.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, flash.

Certic said that Fresnel’s lenses improved safety in the days of kerosene-fueled lighthouses, when sailors mistook distant lighthouses for far-off boats and “didn’t realize they were heading for land,” often with deadly results. In the 1820s, Fresnel figured out how to position concentric grooves in the glass to generate a more powerful beam of light.

“It was a revolutionary invention,” Certic said. “The incidents of boats slamming into the shoreline dropped immediately,” as lighthouses in Europe and eventually in the United States installed Fresnel lenses. (Fresnel’s name is also known in theaters, where the principles of optics that he worked out are used in some stage lights.)

Mia Certic, the executive director of the Montauk Historical Society, which is involved in a pilot project with the Coast Guard to collect data on the lens at the Montauk Point Lighthouse.Credit…James Barron/The New York Times

The lighthouse in Montauk, the oldest in New York State, got a massive Fresnel lens in 1860, Certic said, but as the 20th century dawned, officials decided that the lighthouse needed a different one. In 1902 a manufacturer in France made the recently reinstalled lens. Its first tour of duty lasted 84 years, until cost cutting doomed it.

“The Fresnel lens gives the best light any lighthouse could hope for, but it does require maintenance,” Certic said, and in the 1980s the Coast Guard moved to automate lighthouses. The concern was that Fresnels in unmanned lighthouses would not get the attention needed.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, flash.

The Fresnel lens was taken out of the lantern room and did not go far: It was placed in the museum at the base of the lighthouse and remained there through the 1990s, the 2000s and the 2010s.

“People missed it,” Certic said — among them officials of the historical society who, she said, campaigned to convince the Coast Guard that the Fresnel lens should be resurrected.

For the pilot project, the historical society assured the Coast Guard that the group was willing to keep detailed records that could be used to draft new protocols for maintaining Fresnel lenses in lighthouses. Beyond that, the society had the lens restored and installed a new gear system, along with a new steel pedestal. Most of the work was paid for with a $100,000 grant from the Ludwick Family Foundation of Glendora, Calif. One of its trustees spends time in Montauk, Certic said.

The historical society also promised the Coast Guard that someone would be on hand at the lighthouse, as in the days of shipwrecks and smugglers’ stories.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, flash.

Sensors now switch the light on at nightfall and off at daybreak. And the lighthouse keeper — Joseph Gaviola, a former bank chairman who is the board president of the historical society — said he played an “ambassadorial role” at a destination for 100,000 visitors a year, “as opposed to real keepers of the past.”

“I wouldn’t want to be compared with the people who carried whale oil up the steps,” he said.


Enjoy a mostly sunny day in the low 50s. At night, it’s mostly clear, with temps dropping to the low 30s.


In effect until Dec. 8 (Immaculate Conception).

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Credit…Katie Currid for The New York Times
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Arts & Culture

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One last thing

Dear Diary:

I moved to New York City in 1976 from my home in South Carolina with the goal of becoming a freelance photographer.

I packed all of my worldly belongings in a U-Haul truck and headed north. My wife, who was pregnant at the time, followed in our VW camper van.

Eight months later, our son, Nicholas, was born at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village.

The next few years were a whirlwind of excitement and adventure. We lived first in the Village, on Jones Street.

Nicholas was a colicky baby, and I endured many disapproving stares as I carried him, screaming, through the night streets of the Village in hopes of calming him.

Three years later we moved over to Brooklyn Heights, which felt almost like the suburbs. We were on Henry Street, and then later on lower Court Street.

A second child followed in 1982, but this Southern boy was growing discontented raising a family in the big city, no matter how much I loved living there.

Every time I returned to La Guardia from an out-of-town assignment, seeing the New York skyline through the window of a yellow cab on the way home stirred my heart and soul. But the truth was, I needed more elbowroom.

So in 1987 we decided to leave. A moving company loaded up most of our stuff, and we packed our Isuzu Trooper as tight as we could and still leave enough room for the four of us.

There was one thing we had to do before saying our final farewell to the city.

Crossing Manhattan on Canal Street, we pulled up next to a Sabrett cart and ordered four dogs. I got mine with mustard and kraut.

— Charles West

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.

Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.

Melissa Guerrero and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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