Sunday, October 23, 2016

Cedar Island Lighthouse Fire 1974

While researching Cedar Island Lighthouse a discrepancy kept coming up. Some sources said that it was burned by vandals, but others, particularly the U.S. Lighthouses site reports that Suffolk County accidentally set the fire with a welding torch spark while securing the property.  I wondered, what really happened? 
A visit to the Long Island History room at the East Hampton library was in order. The library has digitized the East Hampton Star from 1918-1968. The online records didn't include the year that I was looking for, but luckily the library also keeps bound books of the newspapers in hard copy. I visited this weekend to see the June 1974 volume.
The story was on the front page of the June, 13 1974 edition.
East Hampton Star
Thursday, June 13, 1974
The Cedar Point Lighthouse, which was on the verge of being entered in the Federal Register of historic transportation landmarks and being restored by the Suffolk County Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation, was completely gutted by fire the night of Wednesday, June 5.

What caused the fire was under investigation this week by the East Hampton Town Police Department. The police said that the two-story, granite Light, built in 1868, may have fallen victim to vandals or to sparks from the torches of welders who were working at the site earlier that day.
Police said that the Parks Department, plagued with vandalism of the structure's interior and exterior, was nearing completion of a project to cover the window openings and doors with steel plates.

The work on Wednesday, it was reported, focused on a foyer which the Department had built to protect the front door. A steel plate had been placed over the foyer door, said the police, but vandals, notwithstanding, had kicked their way through the board and batten sides, and had on Memorial Day started a paper fire in the foyer. That fire "burned itself out," said the police.
Russell Cullum of Springs-Fireplace Road, East Hampton, reported the fire. "I went out by there on our way to fish at Barcelona at about 6 p.m.," said Mr. Cullum. "I smelled smoke -- the wind was on me - but I thought they were burning rubbish on the beach." When he, his wife, Minnie, and their daughter, Wendy Ann, 14, went by Cedar Point "about three hours later," it was almost dark. "I smelled smoke again. I got close to the rocks, and I could see smoke coming out of the windows."

Mr. Cullum said that his ship-to-shore radio didn't work, "So I went to Three Mile Harbor and reported the fire from the Harbor Marina." He added, "I don't know how long it had been going before 6 o'clock."
A machinist and welder himself, Mr Cullum was reported to have said that welding sparks can get behind walls and start a slow, smoldering that ignites hours afterward. William Gale, chief of the East Hampton Fire Department, said that the Department got the call around 9:15 p.m. Five pieces of equipment were taken to the scene - two pumpers, a brush truck, a tanker, and a four-wheel drive rescue truck. About 80 men responded, he said.

"We ended up on the beach with a portable pump and the four-wheel drive truck, it's a mile run down the beach to the building, and only four-wheel drive trucks can run on the sand," said the Chief. The Amagansett Fire Department also sent up its four-wheel drive vehicle.
"The fire was through the roof when we got there." Chief Gale continued. "The interior was all gutted. We tried to detain it and keep the granite walls cool to save them," he said. The firemen left the scene at about 1 a.m., Thursday. Police said that the charred remains, which had fallen into the cellar, were still smoldering within the building's shell later that morning, making it impossible for the investigation to get underway.

Thursday morning John D. Chester, Suffolk's Parks Commissioner, and Second District Legislator H. Beecher Halsey Jr. flew in by helicopter to view the damage. Mr Chester subsequently declared the building "unsafe," and had a guard posted at the Lighthouse to keep the curious at bay.

Mr. Chester said last Thursday, "We're going to clean the exterior and secure it, and then we'll have a professional restorer evaluate the extent of the damage. Then we'll make a decision as to what will be done with the remaining structure." Restoration would depend now, he said, on how much the exterior granite block walls had been damaged. The walls were apparently cracked in several places. "It had been our hope to have someone live in it," said Chester.

He added that the Light's restoration was to have been "one of the first projects" of the manager of the Historic Trust, a new position in the Department, created recently by the County Legislature. Mr. Chester said he did not know what effect the fire would have on the Light's being entered in the Federal Register.

There was speculation by some local observers that the mortar in the granite walls had been weakened sufficiently so as to nullify any hopes for restoration.
At one time the Cedar Point Light, whose navigational function has been assumed since 1937 by an unmanned, automatic tower about a hundred yards away in Cedar Point channel, was on an island.

Cedar Island was sold to the United States by the East Hampton Town Trustees for use as a light house location in 1838. Phelan Beale, A New York lawyer and sportsman, bought the Light for $2,002 from the Federal government in 1937, when the point of land it stands on was still an island. Later, a combination of sand-drift and jetty work attached Cedar Island to Cedar Point.

Mr. Beale ran what is now the rest or Cedar Point County Park as a game preserve for many years. He sold the Island to Mrs. Isabel P. Bradley in 1943, and Mrs Bradley, her family, and various canines of reputed sour disposition inhabited it each summer until the County Park was established in 1967. Since Mrs Bradley's departure from the Light, the solid old building has been subjected to much vandalism.
- Jack Graves, East Hampton Star, Thursday, June 13, 1974
East Hampton Star photo June 13, 1974
 Cedar Island Light, with its post-1926 fog bell tower. The "tube" contained the weights. 
Photo courtesy of Bob Allen via
I didn't scour the papers further to see what the conclusions were. I am guessing that once they found out that the lighthouse wasn't insured there was nothing to gain by pursuing the subject. The lighthouse's hardwood interior was said to give it the appearance of a mansion. I'm sure local residents at the time keenly felt its loss. 
One more piece of the light house puzzle. 
Thank you East Hampton Library.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comments!