Pulse of the Peninsula: Saving the Stepping Stones Lighthouse


Invariably, performers at the Steppingstone Summer Concerts comment on the spectacular setting, the priceless view that makes each of us feel like a millionaire.

Indeed, for many of us concert-goers, it doesn’t even matter who is performing, it is just so delightful to be there, listening to music and looking out at the dazzling scene.

And a significant part of that is the Stepping Stones Lighthouse. It is vital to navigation in this part of the Sound, that looks so deceptively sanguine in the sunset. The importance of a lighthouse to settlement and economic development cannot be overstated.

Closest to our shore here on the Great Neck Peninsula, the Lighthouse has become a unifier for our identity, which is otherwise a long geographical stretch of a dozen political demarcations – even though the lighthouse serves both shores and an entire region of mariners.

Great Neck has an important mariner history – largely because of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, but also because of the lighthouse.

And so it has fallen to us to save the Lighthouse.

It may surprise you to learn that the lighthouse is actually threatened. Though the brick structure, which dates from 1876 (one of the oldest structures still standing in our area), has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2005, the federal government is content to knock it down and replace it with a green light on top of a steel tower.

It turns out that being on the National Register only means you are registered, not that you are a protected landmark.

The Town of North Hempstead is now the official “steward” of the lighthouse, but is unable to take on the responsibility of the necessary repairs. 

With great urgency, then, the Great Neck Historical Society has sprung to action in organizing a Save the Lighthouse crusade. 

The Great Neck Park District, which probably has the closest kinship to the Lighthouse, has come to the aid of the crusade, and is undertaking emergency measures to stop the deterioration, mainly from a hole in the roof caused by a collapsed chimney.

So now we have three entities working in close partnership to Save the Lighthouse. But that is just the beginning, with the park district undertaking emergency repairs, the Town trying to win grants and promising to undertake the ongoing maintenance once the restoration is complete, and the historical society taking on the responsibility of mounting a region-wide effort to raise the funds to Save the Lighthouse. 

This is actually a wonderful opportunity for our community: a cause to rally around. 

Communities love their lighthouses. Everywhere you go, it seems, there have been valiant efforts and wonderful stories of a community rallying to save their lighthouse. I recently visited the New Castle lighthouse in New Hampshire, which played a role in the Revolutionary War, where the community saved the lighthouse and now volunteers host tours. 

Similarly, in Newport, R.I, you can become “Keeper for a Day,” overnighting on the island if you contribute to their fund to preserve the lighthouse. Cape May, N.J., is another. 

Still another community that has saved its lighthouse is Fire Island, where the lighthouse for decades was the first evidence of land for seafarers crossing the vast Atlantic Ocean from Europe. 

Completed in 1858, it was threatened with demolition in the 1980s, prompting locals to form the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society in 1982, which raised over $1.2 million to save and restore the Lighthouse. Now, you can climb to the top and visit a marvelous small museum.

Huntington Lighthouse is yet another example. Originally built in 1857, that structure was replaced in 1912 with a magnificent Beaux Arts style makes the light look like a small castle. It was manned until 1939 and fully automated in 1949. Since then, the structure was allowed to deteriorate for decades until it was threatened with demolition, altogether (like ours). 

But the community rallied together and in 1985 formed Save Huntington’s Lighthouse. This group claims to be the first private group in the country to successfully take over and restore an offshore lighthouse. Now known as the Huntington Lighthouse Preservation Society, the group continues to enlist volunteers and raise funds for ongoing restoration and preservation work.

And actually, our lighthouse has a twin that looks almost the exact same: The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse dates from 1874 and was manned until the 1950s. In 1982, the Athens-Hudson Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed to restore and maintain the lighthouse and turn it into a destination that could be visited.

Our lighthouse is following a similar trajectory to these others. Now it falls to us to save our lighthouse.

Lighthouses come with a sense of mystique and drama. And ours is no different. In fact, it is a character in “Keeping the Good Light,” a young adult novel by Katherine Kirkpatrick, who grew up on City Island. 

She describes what it was like living in a lighthouse, based on her meticulous research, as Alice Kasten, president of the Great Neck Historical Society related at an August 13 meeting devoted to launch the fundraising campaign.

There is even an Indian legend connected with “Stepping Stones” – the boulders that make that part of the Sound so shallow and treacherous for sailors, and why the Lighthouse is so vital.

“An old Native American legend tells of how the Siwanoy Indians duked it out with Habboamoko, the devil, for possession of Connecticut,” The Coast Guard’s site relates. 

“While Habboamoko had many tricks, the Siwanoy, through their own potions and wizardry were able to back the old devil up against Long Island Sound. 

Things looked rather bleak for Habboamoko, when he happened to look over his shoulder at low tide toward Long Island and noticed a trail of stepping stones. He danced across the rocks and fled to Long Island. So angry at the Siwanoy was he, that he flung every boulder he could find back across the sound. His aim was not true, but his power was strong and the boulders were flung as far as Maine, littering New England with rock formations.”  (See www.uscg.mil

“Perhaps due to the legend, or the deadly nor’easters which sneak up on the sound, Colonial maps of the area named Long Island Sound, ‘Devil’s Belt,’ and the reefs skipping across it, ‘Devil’s Stepping Stones’.”

During the 1860s, shipping commerce through Long Island Sound greatly increased, and with it, the need for a lighthouse to define a clear channel. Congress appropriated $6,000 in 1866 for a light station to replace a buoy on Hart Island, about one mile north of Stepping Stones. 

Difficulties arose in obtaining land on Hart Island, and in 1874, the Lighthouse Board opted instead to build the light station at Stepping Stones, which lies about 1,600 yards offshore.

Construction of the lighthouse, in the Second Empire style began in 1875, by Irish bargemen and stonemasons from Throggs Neck. 900 tons of boulders were barged to the site to form the foundation on the reef, which lies just below the water’s surface. 

The riprap foundation, encased in rough-hewn blocks, has a base diameter of 48 feet, and the lighthouse rises to a height of 49 feet above sea level.

“On March 1, 1877, Findlay Fraser lit the fifth-order Fresnel lens for the first time. The original characteristic of the light was fixed red, an appropriate choice for the Devil’s Stepping Stones. 

In 1932, the light was changed to a fourth order-Fresnel lens with a fixed green light. A modern optic, which produces a flashing green light, was placed in the lantern room when the lighthouse was automated in 1964.”

There is always a mystique about lighthouse keepers. The USCG site mentions Ernest Bloom, who served from April 20, 1910 and was awarded the Lighthouse Service’s efficiency pennant for the meticulous manner in which he maintained the lighthouse. Keeper Stephen Holm, who served at Stepping Stones in the early 1920s, is credited with rescuing several unfortunate mariners. 

And if we thought we had a cold winter in 2014, on February 9, 1934, the mercury hit 14 degrees below zero, preventing Keeper Charles A. Rogers from rowing ashore for supplies. 

The cold did not let up and then on Feb. 20, a blizzard dumped 17 inches of snow, the worst storm since 1888. 

“Trapped and with only two days worth of food for his small family, Rogers hung the flag upside down on March 1 hoping someone would notice the distress signal. 

Captain Sioss of the tug Muxpet spotted the signal and gradually broke the Muxpet through the ice to the lighthouse. The captain offered Rogers food, but Rogers refused stating that it was the Lighthouse Service’s responsibility, and asked that the depot at St. George, Staten Island be notified of the situation. Shortly after being apprised of the situation, the depot dispatched the lighthouse tender Hickory to the station with supplies.” 

(Interestingly, after years of fundraising and effort, The National Lighthouse Museum (lighthousemuseum.org) has opened at the machine shop of the former United States Lighthouse Service Depot, a few hundred feet south of the St. George Ferry Terminal, as reported in the New York Times, August 14). 

This is still a treacherous channel, with a hidden reef, and the lighthouse’s faithful beam is still necessary to guide mariners.

In 2006, the Coast Guard “excessed” the lighthouse but offered it at no cost to eligible entities, including federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, and educational organizations. 

The Town of North Hempstead along with five non-profit organizations (Asian Americans for Equality in Manhattan; Beacon Preservation Inc. of Ansonia, Conn.; Crabber Cup of Greenwich, Conn.; Historic Preservation Society of America of Washington, D.C.; and Korstad Marine Preservation Society of Brooking, Conn.) submitted letters of interest, but all but the town withdrew their applications, deciding it was too big an undertaking. 

“There is renewed interest on the part of the town to work to make this happen,” North Hempstead Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth said. “One of the things we made clear is that this will be done not by using local taxpayer dollars, but by looking for grants, having public-private partnerships, by going out to people who have interest in seeing lighthouses restored….The town is proud to be working with everyone to make this happen.” Federal agencies who give grants also want to see collaboration, which is happening here already. 

The Town of North Hempstead, as the steward, will take care of ongoing maintenance.  

“Once we have funds and can go forward, the town has staff and ability to be the steward of construction and renovation,” Bosworth said.

The Great Neck Historical Society is taking the lead for fundraising, but the Great Neck Park District is taking upon itself the important role of making necessary emergency repairs, and has offered to provide staging area for the restoration.

Great Neck Park District Commissioner Robert Lincoln (who is also a board member of the Great Neck Historical society), described the structural problems, what the park district will do initially, and what the long-term project would entail, in order to achieve the ultimate goal of opening the Lighthouse to guided tours.

“A condition of the federal government giving lighthouses to public entities is that they have educational component; but if they are sold to a private individual or an organization, the government doesn’t care.” 

 The short-term goal is to raise $50,000, which can be matched in kind. But overall, the entire restoration project might cost anywhere between $2 and $4 million (no engineering study has been done in order to establish how much repair is needed).

But, Lincoln insisted, the structure is sound and the repairs are do-able.

The most immediate problem comes from the collapsed chimney which has opened a hole in the roof. There is also a need to construct some kind of floating dock because now access is limited and tricky. The goal is to make repairs to stabilize the structure and stop further deterioration. Then the longer-term project of restoring the building so that it can actually be visited, can begin.

But this requires funding to initially do the emergency repairs necessary to stop the deterioration, and then later, to restore it to its former glory.

Lincoln is hopeful of getting a matching grant from the National Park Service, if $50,000 can be raised by October.

There are plans to reach out to yacht clubs and marinas throughout the North Shore as well as around the Sound and across to City Island, where there is also a nautical museum. I’m thinking that alumni of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, many who have gone on to very successful careers, will also have a soft spot for their time sailing and boating around the lighthouse.

At a time when we bemoan the loss of sense of “community,” saving the Stepping Stones Lighthouse –  our lighthouse – could be the cause that rekindles that sense of community.

To get involved, contact the Great Neck Historical Society, greatneckhistorical.org, or email Greatneckhistorical@gmail.com. (You can make donations at the greatneckhistorical.org site; go to “News Page” and follow the links).


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