The Fire Island Lighthouse is located on the Fire Island National Seashore, a barrier island landscape just a 60-mile drive from New York City, in Long Island. A visit to the lighthouse offers miles of hiking trails, a glimpse of the keeper’s quarters, and exhibits on the history of the park and lighthouse. The 180-foot stone and brick lighthouse began operating in 1858 and was temporarily decommissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1974.
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Originally built to mark the western end of Fire Island, the lighthouse now stands approximately 5 miles from the inlet, due to the island’s infill from sand accumulation over the years. The lighthouse is built on a foundation of Connecticut River Blue stone and the conical tower is painted white with four black bands. Its original first-order Fresnel lens was installed in 1857 and replaced in 1933. The original lens is on display in the lens building, adjacent to the tower. The Fresnel lens was developed in the early 1800s for lighthouses by a French physicist to allow lighthouses to be visible from greater distances with much smaller equipment. First order refers to the size of the lens, which stands at 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Today, two counter-clockwise rotating 1,000-watt bulbs light the tower. The rotation gives the appearance that the light flashes every 7.5 seconds, and the light is visible for over 20 miles. Visitors can climb the 182 steps to the top of the lighthouse tower and see views of Fire Island, Long Island and, on a clear day, the New York City skyline.
A boathouse onsite displays U.S. Coast Guard artifacts, including a surfboat used by the United States Lifesaving Service. The USLSS, or “surfmen” as they were known, were first stationed on Fire Island in 1848. They rescued over 7,000 people between 1871 and 1915 alone. Additional exhibits illustrate the daily life of lighthouse keepers through photographs, memorabilia, and artifacts as well as the history of the lighthouse and its preservation. The lighthouse has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1981.
Fire Island is a significant landmark for those arriving to the New York Harbor, and was often the first sign of land for immigrants making the trans-Atlantic journey at the turn of the 20th century. Originally built as a 74-foot tower in 1826, the lighthouse was ineffective due to its lack of height. The structure was demolished and the stone was used to rebuild the current lighthouse in 1857. Originally, the red brick tower was painted a creamy yellow color; the black and white striped markings were painted in 1891. After the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1974, the site was declared to be within the boundaries of the National Seashore. However, the Parks Service did not have the funds to properly preserve and maintain the site.
The Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (FILPS) was formed in 1982 to raise funds for the preservation of the lighthouse. After the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1974, the only navigational light in the bay was a small strobe light on the Robert Moses Tower. Thus, public support for the preservation and re-commissioning of the lighthouse was strong. Over one million dollars were raised, and the lighthouse went back into action in 1986. Ten years later, FILPS took control of the management and maintenance of the associated exhibits to take pressure off the National Parks’ budget. In 2006, FILPS took control of the lighthouse management as well. Today, the lighthouse remains on navigational charts as a private aid to navigation and is managed by FIPLS, not the U.S. Coast Guard.
Ongoing Programs and Education
Tours of the lighthouse are available daily. Visitors must be at least 42” tall to climb the tower stairs. Special tours may be arranged in advance for groups, including sunset tours. School group tours offer three 45-minute segments based on a tour of the lighthouse tower, a U.S. Lifesaving Service lecture and demonstration, and a nature walk, which includes the boathouse and lens house. Special events are ongoing at the lighthouse and keeper’s quarters. Events have included live music performances and happy hour sunset tours, car shows, art shows, and tours for veterans and other special groups. A Lightkeeper’s Behind the Scenes tour takes place monthly, as do special evening tours. During summer months, the site offers historical re-enactments of the U.S. Life Saving Service’s beach apparatus drills.
Captree Island, NY 11702, Phone: 631-661-4876