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  • Petrina Engelke

Ted Webb about the History of our Local Lighthouses

Plum Island Lighthouse on the island's rocky shore, seen from the water
Plum Island Lighthouse in the sun

If you want to know anything about the lighthouses near Long Island’s North Fork, you’d better talk to Ted Webb. “I like to call myself a local historian”, says Ted, and he immediately clarifies: “an amateur historian”. While he didn’t go to college to study history – his background is in speech pathology and audiology – the former vice president of the American Heart Association knows what happened on the North Fork since the Ice Age. His specialty, though, is maritime history, especially regarding lighthouses.


For 16 years, Ted has been the tour guide for Cross Sound Ferry’s off-shore lighthouse cruises. We had a chance to join him last fall, and we interviewed him again last week. Read why Ted Webb thinks Southold Town stands out nationally in terms of lighthouses, and learn why you can’t enter Plum Island Lighthouse (hint: it has nothing to do with security around the lab!).


Tedd Webb with a microphone aboard the boat during a Long Island Lighthouse Tour
Tedd Webb during a Long Island Lighthouse Tour

Ted, what are the first things I should know about Plum Island Lighthouse?

 

Well, not going back ten or 15,000 years to the Ice Age, but going back to the 1820s, one of the highest points on Plum Island is on its northwest corner, which faces Plum Gut, a very treacherous body of water. It’s very rocky and gets shallow very, very quickly. There have been a lot of shipwrecks in the area over the years. Right there, on the northwest corner of the island, our government got a good deal back in 1826: They paid 90 bucks for a piece of land. And they built not a lighthouse, but a light fixture on a pole: It had ten whale oil lamps and reflectors on it. The purpose was to warn ships to stay away from the dangerous side of Plum Island. And then in 1869, they started builing a structure of white granite, and that’s the lighthouse that still exists to this day.


View through boat windows onto the water, with a lighthouse on a rocky shore in the background
Plum Island Lighthouse seen through the boat's windows during a lighthouse cruise on a rainy day

How did they make sure a lighthouse shines a light in the 1870s?

 

Plum Island Lighthouse had a fourth order Fresnel lens in the tower, powered by whale oil. In the early 1800s, the Frenchman Augustine Fresnel invented the concept of taking a very small light, no larger than the tip of your finger, through a series of lenses which can amplify and focus that light, so it can be seen as far as 15 to 20 miles at sea, depending on how high the light sits. For instance, Little Gull Lighthouse is very tall, and that light can be seen beyond Montauk, which is about 20 miles away. A Fresnel lens consists of hundreds of pieces of cut glass and sits on a bed of mercury and, with the help of a wind-up mechanism, it rotates. So the light would appear to be flashing. Different lighthouses had different configurations of how frequently they would flash, and that’s how sailors knew what they were: Hey, if you see that light and it flashes every 4 seconds, that’s got to be Plum Island Lighthouse. This lens lit Plum Island Lighthouse for about 100 years, until 1978, when the light was extinguished.

 

This Fresnel lens sounds fascinating! What happened to it after Plum Island Lighthouse was decomissioned?

 

Today, its original Fresnel lens is on exhibit at the East End Seaport Museum in Greenport. A fellow named Merlin Wiggins was a lighthouse lover, as I am, and he got the lens out of a Coast Guard storage area on Plum Island. He also got the one out of Little Gull Island, which is a much larger lens, and that one is on exhibit at the East End Seaport Museum as well. These Fresnel lenses are on loan from the federal government, they could take them back if they wanted to. I hope they won’t.


What are today’s lights in lighthouses?

 

They still utilize the Fresnel concept. The original Fresnel lenses may not be there, but that concept of taking a very small light through a series of lenses is the same. But now they make it out of, I don’t know, plastic or something.

 

How many lighthouses are in our area?

 

We have eight offshore lighthouses in Southold Town, all still functioning and able to be seen. So we are kind of the United States capital of offshore lighthouses.




 And because these lighthouses are not accessible on foot, your tours are done by boat.

 

Yeah, we go out of Orient Point for a two hour cruise on a very comfortable catamaran. And not only do we go by the lighthouses, but we also get to see a fort on Plum Island. Some of its buildings are still there, the hospital and the barracks. Fort Terry was built at the turn of the century, at the time of the Spanish-American War. There are four forts out there dating back to those days. They guarded the eastern entrance to Long Island Sound from a possible enemy invasion that never happened. And on these boat tours, I do the narration, which I love doing. I love the history of the lighthouses, and I've also crawled around plenty of them.

 

What do people ask you a lot on those lighthouse tours?

 

The most common question is: Are the lighthouses manned? They are not. They are all automated. I think all of the offshore lighthouses of Southold town are now privately owned. However, the Coast Guard maintains the lights in the towers. And by the way, if you’re interested in purchasing a lighthouse, I understand Little Gull Island may be up for sale.

 

Do these lighthouses also make a sound, for example, when there is a lot of fog?

 

That’s a good question. To the best of my knowledge, the only one that has continued is the one on Little Gull Island, and up until last year it was blowing its foghorn 24/7, they never shut it off. I don’t think the other lighthouses have them anymore. I think I recall from my childhood hearing a foghorn on Plum Island. I certainly heard the one that was over at the entrance to the Connecticut River and the entrance to New London Harbor. When we got a thick fog rolling in, you would hear this sound [mimicks the foghorn], and it would go on for hours and hours and hours. Some people said that when there were incidences of where a lighthouse keeper went crazy, it may have been because of that warning sound.


An offshore lighthouse in foggy weather, surrounded by water with a small island in the background, guarding the entrance to New London, Connecticut
A lighthouse guarding the entrance to New London, Connecticut

Do you have a favorite story about the Plum Island Lighthouse?

 

Yes, and it’s a more recent one. Several years ago, a gentleman came aboard our cruise and he wanted to meet me. After they brought him up into the wheelhouse, he told me an interesting story from the early 1950s, and I happen to remember it. It was a cold winter day in December, and a tugboat was going northbound through Plum Gut, towing a barge with a barge man on it, and it was fairly close to the Plum Island side as it went through. Now, this gentleman telling me the story was in in the Coast Guard at the time, stationed in the lighthouse. Not only did they have to maintain the light and wind it by hand every 4 hours, but they were also lookouts, making sure there were no problems at sea, you know, no boats going ashore or being wrecked or anything like that. So all of a sudden he saw this barge man fall off into these treacherous waters. And he immediately ran down to the edge of the cliff, slid down the cliff. And don’t forget, this is in December, so the water was pretty cold. He swam out, rescued the guy, brought him back to the beach and saved his life. Later on, he was given the Coast Guard gold lifesaving medal. And when the admiral presented it to him, the admiral said: “Anything I can do for you, sailor, let me know.” The sailor looked him straight in the face and said: “Get me out of the Coast Guard.” Of course, the admiral couldn’t do that. However, this gentleman wound up going to the University of Connecticut. He became a dentist, and they opened his practice over in Old Saybrook, almost due north of Plum Island, where he was able to look out on that island where he saved that man’s life. So that was an interesting story from the 1950s.

 

Yeah, that's a great one! Since the lighthouses are not manned anymore, can you talk a little bit in what condition the Plum Island Lighthouse is today?

 

Sure. If you had asked me this question several years ago, I would have said it’s in a very poor state of repair. Each time we’d go by it, it looked worse and worse to me. The tower, which was cast iron, was corroding away. The metal was bleeding. It needed a paint job. Part of the roof had blown off. So then, I don’t think I can take much credit for it, but several of us did get in touch with our local congressman and we said: Something has got to be done to save this historic lighthouse. And in 2019, the federal government allocated 1.5 million dollars for its restoration. However, I know that allocating and encumbering are two different things in the government. It can take five or ten years until they actually go ahead and spend that money. But on one of our cruises last year, we saw a crane out there, and construction activity, and I said: Say hallelujah! And I am happy to report that they actually took the tower off, repaired it and restored it. They also restored the roof. But you still can’t go inside.

 

Why not? Because there are hardly any opportunities to visit Plum Island, let alone its lighthouse?

 

No. You cannot enter Plum Island Lighthouse because of the paint that they used back in the days. It has a lot of lead and other chemicals in it. So they don’t allow people to go inside the lighthouse because it’s unhealthy. But the restored lighthouse looks absolutely wonderful from the water. So I’m happy to report that.


Seen from the water: Plum Island Lighthouse before the restauration. Streaks from "bleeding metal" run down its tower.
Plum Island Lighthouse before the restauration. Can you spot the "bleeding metal" at its tower?

 

What has drawn you to lighthouses?

 

Well, spending a good part of my life out here on the North Fork of Long Island. When I was a kid in in the early to mid 1950s, we all had boats. We would leave Orient and go exploring: We’d go out to Gardiners Island, we’d sneak on the island looking for Captain Kidd’s treasure. And you're not allowed on that island. It is privately owned by descendants of the original Gardiner family. We went there hoping to find something that Captain Kidd supposedly buried on the island. And we never found a treasure. But often the caretaker would find us. He’d come along with his jeep and a shotgun and say: “Get off this island, you’re not allowed to be here.” But anyway, I have explored most of these islands. I’ve been to Great Gull Island, which is a flyway for endangered bird species. I’ve been on Little Gull Island, I’ve been on Race Rock, which is in a very dangerous area. I’ve been on all of them at one time or another, just exploring them, sometimes legally and sometimes … not so legally. We would sneak on them.

 

Plum Island, too?

 

We used to sneak back onto Plum Island again after it had become an animal disease research center in the mid 1950s. We wouldn’t get more than 15 or 20 feet up on the beach and the security guards would catch us and chase us off. They never harmed us or anything, but they had pretty good security on that island. I think they still do.

 

 

If you want to experience Ted Webb as a lighthouse tour narrator: Cross Sound Ferry’s Long Island Lights Tours departing from Orient Point are scheduled from June 15th (until October 12th). The ferry company also offers lighthouse tours departing from New London (Connecticut). Find our more on the lighthouse cruise website.


If you want to see Plum Island Lighthouse's original Fresnel lens, visit East End Seaport Museum in Greenport.


If you want to learn about Orient Point lighthouse (and its new purpose as an art residency), read our interview with Plum Island's closest neighbor, Randy Polumbo.

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