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Item of the Week: Inside the Gardiner’s Island Lighthouse

Thu, 05/18/2023 - 10:38

From the East Hampton Library’s Long Island Collection

This cross-section elevation drawing from 1856 shows the lighthouse that illuminated Gardiner’s Island. It stood just over two stories tall on a sandy beach of little Gardiner’s Point Island from December of 1854 until early 1894.

The primary structure was raised on stilts, with the beacon itself sitting 33 feet above the sea supported by a cylindrical brick tower. Lighthouses are intended to illuminate only the coast where the shoreline posed the greatest danger to ships and sailors, but many lighthouses have an attached dwelling meant to house those maintaining the light — the lighthouse keeper.

This drawing includes several rooms for the lighthouse keeper’s living quarters, as well as the oil room, tower, and the lamp. Other views of the Gardiner’s Island Lighthouse are at the National Archives and give further detail to the structure’s floor plan and measurements.

The lamp worked with a small Fresnel lens, which uses cuts in the glass surrounding a flame, breaking the light like a prism and creating a single focused beam rather than a scattered glow. The beam from a Fresnel lens reached farther than a standard lens, giving warning of the approaching shoreline earlier than a traditional lighthouse beacon.

A late-winter storm in 1894 brought the little lighthouse down, sweeping the sand out from under its stilts and causing a collapse in the dwelling portion. Following the storm, reports out of Brooklyn and Manhattan spread rumors of the lighthouse keeper’s “young son Frank” having died. Genealogies and census records suggest the newspapers were confused about both Frank’s identity and his fate: Josiah Miller (1832-1905), the keeper, had no sons.

Frank was probably Josiah’s cousin. The East Hampton Star reported that Frank survived the lighthouse’s collapse. He was alone in the building because Josiah refused to remain at the light overnight, given the well-known danger the foundation’s condition posed.

The lighthouse was never repaired, and Gardiner’s Point Island was used by the United States military for target practice during World War II.

Moriah Moore is a librarian and archivist in the East Hampton Library’s Long Island Collection.

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