Turning a Montauk Beacon Into a Landmark

Lighthouse high on Turtle Hill's importance to early trade was key to winning new status
painting of the Montauk Lighthouse
In 1796 this painting of the Montauk Lighthouse was submitted to the government with a request for payment from the man who built it. Montauk Historical Society

    On May 24 in Washington, D.C., a committee of 15 historians, a few expressing surprise at the findings presented in a 50-page nomination document, unanimously decided to accept the Montauk Lighthouse as a National Historic Landmark — a structure of not only regional importance, but a beacon of great significance to the United States as a whole. The reason had a lot to do with the wind.
    Prevailing winds turned out to play an important role in winning over the national heritage committee of the National Park System Advisory Board, said Robert Hefner, an historic preservation consultant. Mr. Hefner began working with the Montauk Historical Society’s Montauk Lighthouse committee back in 2006, and toiled on after nominations were twice rejected.
    “It was an amazing odyssey,” Mr. Hefner said of the research that finally did the trick — the trick being the argument that would prove the Light’s national significance. It would not be the fact that the Montauk Light was authorized by President George Washington, the second lighthouse to be commissioned, the first being the Cape Henry light outside Baltimore Harbor.
    “It had always been looked at as a lighthouse, and lost out to Cape Henry, which is more architecturally intact. The Montauk Light was renovated in 1860,” Mr. Hefner said.
    No, the key to its significance lay in its importance to the pre and post-Revolutionary War trade between New York and England, with a volume of imports and exports far greater, Mr. Hefner’s research showed, than was realized in modern times.
    The evidence was found in the archives of the New York City Chamber of Commerce going back to 1792. Part of Mr. Hefner’s odyssey involved a frustrating, yearlong wait before being allowed to examine the chamber’s records. They had been given to Columbia University in 2005, uncataloged and in boxes. He was told he was the first researcher to delve into the collection.
    What he found was the extent to which the chamber had cooperated with Tory merchants when New York was occupied by the British during the Revolution. 
    After the occupation, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton warned against penalizing the Tory merchants or otherwise disrupting the new nation’s trade relations with its former mother country.
    England’s Industrial Revolution was under way, and the agrarian-based society of the U.S. was dependent on it. In addition, duty on imports was about the only source of revenue at the time. To protect it, Mr. Hamilton also talked Congress into establishing a revenue cutter service — an agency that later evolved into U.S. Coast Guard — to frustrate smuggling.
    In 1792, the New York City Chamber of Commerce clamored for a lighthouse to be built at Montauk in the interest of protecting the ships that sailed back and forth between the U.S. and England, and, of course to gird the companies that insured them.
    But why Montauk? By the time of the Revolution, mariners were already finding the entrance to New York Harbor with the help of the Sandy Hook Lighthouse located below the New Jersey Highlands. 
    Mr. Hefner discovered that in 1792, the year the New York chamber requested a Montauk light, Ezra L’Hommedieu, designer of the Lighthouse, took three veteran sea captains to the East End of the South Fork to share their navigational and ship-handling wisdom. In this case, they focused on Long Island’s 125-mile lee shore.
    In the age of sail, the most dangerous shore was a lee shore, that is, a shore that was downwind from a ship. In heavy weather a lee shore was often impossible to “claw off” of. The South Shore of Long Island is dotted with the wrecks of ships forced aground in this way.
    Mr. Hefner’s research showed that during the summer months, when the prevailing wind was from the south, as it continues to be, ships sailing from England would head well south of Long Island’s lee shore and look for the Sandy Hook Light (and later, the Navesink Light on the New Jersey Highlands and the Barnegut Light farther to the south).
    But in winter, when the prevailing wind blew from the north, often at gale force, sailing ships could take a more northerly and faster course that required less tacking. Until the Nantucket Light Ship was anchored in 1853 to warn mariners of dangerous shoals, the Montauk Light fixed a ship’s position and proximity to its destination.
    “In the bad season of the year, when it was more dangerous and the nights were longer, they would come to Montauk,” Mr. Hefner said. The wind factor was borne out in the Treasury Department’s annual commerce and navigation reports.
    In 1792, Congress authorized construction of the Montauk Light. It was completed in 1796 under the direction of John McComb, with the help of a large quantity of rum for the 50 workers. The Light, atop the headland known as Turtle Hill at the tip of Montauk Point was 85 feet above the ground, and the ground 71 feet above the sea. This put the whale-oil-fueled beacon 156 feet above sea level, making it one of the most effective on the coast as the years passed.
    By the time the Montauk Light was built, New York City was first among American ports in the volume of its foreign commerce. By 1797, the harbor was handling a third of the nation’s trade with other countries.
    While the wind factor certainly made the Montauk Lighthouse important during the age of sail, Mr. Hefner’s nomination document would need to prove its relative significance nationwide as the age of sail was ending and other lighthouses were added along the coast.
    The booming trade between Liverpool and New York was curtailed by the War of 1812, but after the Treaty of Ghent, New York quickly surpassed other U.S. ports with imports of manufactured goods, Mr. Hefner found.
    The port grew even faster with a new innovation, a trans-Atlantic packet service whose regularly scheduled comings and goings attracted shippers. France also got into the act by the 1830s, with regular shipping between Le Havre, a manufacturing center, and New York. Coastal packets distributed European goods from New York along the coast to southern ports. The packets returned with cotton, tobacco, rice, and naval stores for export, again from New York.
    In this way, New York Harbor grew to national importance, and along with it its eastern sentinel, the Montauk Lighthouse.
    Except for the north-to-south packet runs, growth of trade from New York Harbor continued through and after the Civil War. In 1870, the commerce and navigation report recorded that 75 percent of all goods imported from Great Britain and 89 percent of all goods from France — representing 44 percent of all U.S. imports — entered this country through New York Harbor following the same sea routes.
    Mr. Hefner was able to show that not even the advent of steam engines would alter the importance of the Montauk Lighthouse, until about 1895 when the new-fangled engines were trustworthy enough to chart a more straight-line route without fear of the lee shore. Then the Fire Island Lighthouse built in 1858 became the landfall of choice.
    Until then, sea captains who had spent most of their careers on sailing ships had a healthy mistrust of the new technology. Even when in command of ships with auxiliary sails, they kept marking their westward progress via the Montauk Light.
    It wasn’t a change of course so much as a change in trade that marked an end to New York Harbor’s early halcyon days. By 1870, U.S. manufacturing was coming of age. Imports of British and French goods began to fall off.
    Mr. Hefner’s nomination document based the Montauk Light’s national significance on its service between 1797, the year it was first lighted, to 1870, about the time U.S. manufacturing was taking over and British and French imports were falling off.
    On May 24, Mr. Hefner traveled to Washington to make a presentation of his findings before the 15 historians, college professors, and Department of the Interior officials who needed convincing. Twenty other properties were up for landmark consideration during three days of meetings. With him were Richard F. White, chairman of the Lighthouse committee, Eleanor Ehrhardt, a committee member, and Brian Pope, an assistant site manager at the Lighthouse.
    “They voted right in front of us,” Mr. Hefner said on Friday, a hint of the initial surprise in his voice. The nomination will now be passed to the National Historic Landmark committee’s advisory board, and if approved by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Mr. Hefner’s six-year research odyssey will have made the Montauk Lighthouse quite a bit taller. ­