History of the Horton Point Lighthouse
Compiled by John D'Angelo and Carol House based on excerpts from the "Horton Point National Register Nomination" written and organized by Clifford Benfield, with additions made by Geoffrey Fleming, 2007.
1. The Site
Horton Point is part of the original 1640 land grant provided to Barnabas Horton. The “Cliff Lot” contained 20 acres and was used to graze cattle. Eight acres of the “Cliff Lot” were sold by the local sheriff on May 1, 1826 to Israel Case for $100 as a result of a suit against Joshua Horton. Case sold the property to Albert J. Tillinghast on August 14, 1830, and Tillinghast later sold the property to Charles Payne, a retired whaler, and his wife Hannah. When the Light-House Board approached Payne in 1854, he wanted $600 for the property. The Light-House Board rejected his price and offered first $500 for 4 acres and then $550 for the 8 acres. The Payne family accepted the $550 offer in October of 1855.
2. The Building of the Lighthouse
Although the Horton Point Lighthouse was commissioned in 1790 during George Washington’s Presidency, the first letter requesting a fixed light at Horton Point came in 1853 from William Brown, Master of the steamer Bay State. In 1854, the Light-House Board received 2 petitions, from Connecticut Congressman Nathan Belcher and L. E. Daboll of New London Connecticut. On August 3, 1854, Congress appropriated $4,000 for the construction of the lighthouse, which was deemed inadequate by the Light-House Board. Another $3,500 was appropriated on August 18, 1856.
William Sinclair, a Scottish immigrant who obtained US citizenship in 1823, oversaw and documented the construction, beginning on May 19, 1857. Sinclair was well suited to the job as he was formerly an engineer in Brooklyn Navy Yard. His first entry is noting the arrival of the first delivery of bricks, 90,000 in all, on May 16, 1857. They were shipped aboard the schooner Edward Watting, E. S. Dibble, Master. They landed on the Peconic Bay side of the North Fork in Southold Harbor on the Town Harbor Beach, 8-10 feet below high water mark. Many bricks sank into the soft sand and mud. A crew of 12-15 men unloaded the cargo and, at the site, broke stone for the dwelling and built a workshop.
On June 9, 1857 the cornerstone was laid in the cellar. A second shipment of bricks, 60,000 in number, arrived on June 23, 1857 from the contractor, E. N. Huble, to be used for the tower. On July 7, the first brick was laid on the dwelling. On September 25, the masons finished work on both the tower and dwelling and on October 5, the Third Order Fresnel lantern was raised into place. All work was completed by October 12, 1857 and the light was first lit on October 15, 1857. The total cost of the construction was $12,412, itemized as follows: $3,875 for labor, $6,437 for materials, and $2,100 for lens and apparatus.
3. The Operation of the Lighthouse
William Sinclair (see section above) was appointed to be the first lighthouse keeper on June 4, 1857, for an annual salary of $400. His and other keepers’ biographies are listed under “Keepers."
The light was generated by burning sperm whale oil in an Argand Lamp, which was very costly. The keeper carefully measured and recorded the oil’s consumption. The light shone at a height of 110 feet above sea level and could be seen for a distance of 14 nautical miles. In 1863, with the Civil War in progress, lard oil was substituted for the sperm whale oil, but it burned with a heavy smoke and required much work to keep the lens and lantern panes clean.
The light was seen by many vessels, allowing them to avoid the sandbar and glacial erratic rocks off the point that claimed 13 shipwrecks. In fact, the large amount of shipwrecks prior to the light being activated caused the waters around Horton’s Point to be called “Dead Man’s Cove”. In the Keeper’s Log for October 1860: “Seen passing this month were one ship, 37 barks, 57 brigs, 489 schooners, 353 sloops, 41 steamers for a total of 979 vessels.”
4. Modifications to the Lighthouse
Originally, the tower and keeper’s dwelling were free-standing but they were almost immediately connected by a partially enclosed piazza. In the first of many minor changes, the open arches of the piazza were filled in and a window and door installed in the fully enclosed space. As the dwelling did not provide for an assistant keeper’s living space, between 1865 and 1870, a second story was added to the now-enclosed piazza to provide sleeping quarters for the assistant keeper and allow for better utilization of the main space. The three second story windows were arched to reflect the arches of the first story. The former storage room adjacent to the chimney of the keeper’s dwelling became a common kitchen. In the main dwelling, a small keeper’s office was set aside, and the remaining space was used as 2 parlors, one for the keeper and one for the assistant. The center staircase was moved to the rear, southwest wall (partially covering a window), and a new staircase adjacent to the tower led to the new second story. Also at this time, a one story open wood porch was built across the front of the dwelling, and cast-iron pipes were connected to drain the roof into basement cisterns. For many years, the dwelling was left un-painted and un-stuccoed, with its red brick walls and grey-colored granite lintels and sills. The brick tower, however, was immediately white-washed and later cemented and white-washed.
In March 1883, the lamp in the tower was replaced by a kerosene oil lamp and in 1907 it was replaced by an incandescent oil vapor lamp, first lit on January 28, 1907.
In 1889 the existing frame barn was constructed and a no longer extant corrugated metal oil storage house was constructed in 1891. Cement and gravel for its slab base were delivered by sea in the company of the Lighthouse Superintendent himself, Mr. McNair. In the 1920’s the doors were changed in the barn to accommodate an automobile and the attic was used as a gymnasium.
In 1905 the original iron balcony from the watch room, with its cat walk to the lantern and 2 floor braces, was replaced by one with 3 braces. In 1994 the balcony was restored to its original design. Today the exterior of the entire lighthouse complex is almost identical to a Brooklyn Public Library stereopticon photograph of 1871.
5. Decommissioning of the Lighthouse
The Depression, the availability of electric, and the absorption of the US Lighthouse Service of the US Commerce Department into the US Coast Guard all led to the automation of lighthouses in the 1930’s. In 1933 a 50 foot high skeletal metal tower was erected 50 feet north of the tower, and on June 30, 1933 a revolving green electric light was lit.
The Keeper’s log entry of July 18, 1933 speaks of the automatic 90,000 candle power electric light: ”New Light lit for the first time. The old light in the Tower out for the first time in 80 years.” The “Riverhead County Review” newspaper of July 27, 1933 read, “In place of the old, friendly, white light, a new brilliant green light of 100,000 candle power cast its brighter rays over the Sound. The new beacon, which the Federal Government has place at Horton Point is the latest automatic type and requires no Lighthouse Keeper.” The old Fresnel lens was taken out and sent to Maryland for storage, where it was lost.
The Southold Park District acquired the property from the Department of Commerce for $1. Keeper Ehrhardt continued to live in the dwelling and commuted to the Shinnecock Lighthouse, from which he retired in 1935. The hurricane of 1938 blew a large portion of the southwest roof off the dwelling (it was found ¼ mile away), and Keeper Ehrhardt and his wife then left for civilian quarters. Ehrhardt’s wife and daughter salvaged some of the brassware and other mementos that are currently on display.
6. Wartime Service
During World War II, the light in the skeletal tower was extinguished until after VJ day. The lighthouse served as a landmark and spotter tower and was occupied by the military. An iron stair rail was installed in the old tower for spotters. During the Korean conflict, US Ground Observers entered the tower from an exterior wood staircase that was temporarily constructed to the second story window so the civilian observers would not disturb military personnel billeted in the keeper’s dwelling.
7. Recent History
During years of non-use, the iron balcony was removed for scrap, the ten bronze drain gargoyles disappeared, and the wood porch was removed. In 1970-71, the Southold Historical Museum urged the Southold Park Commission to do some work so that the keeper’s dwelling could be occupied by the museum’s curator/director. For five years nothing happened as money was scarce. Finally, as a 1976 bicentennial project, a $40,000 restoration effort addressed wiring, heating and plumbing. It was also at this time that the first Nautical Museum was established at the lighthouse through the efforts of George Wagoner, the museum's director.
The new museum opened in July of 1977. The Daily News reported that "Most of the museum's exhibits are of marine and nautical objects, paintings and documents." Of special interest was the first exhibition of the Horton Point Lighthouse log books dating from 1890-1918. In addition, Newsday noted in a feature article that a number of important objects had joined the museum's displays: "The new museum is currently exhibiting multi-colored scrimshaw, a lapdesk made on board a whaling ship by Capt. Francis Sayre of Southold, and his sextant and a spyglass made by Ben Fitz . . ." In 1978 the museum hosted a special one-man exhibition of marine paintings by noted nautical artist Len J. Pearce (b. 1932).
A studio apartment for rental was created on the second floor, and public restrooms for the Park were built. In early 1988, the Park District and the Southold Historical Museum volunteers Cliff and Eunice Benfield, Don and Doris Bayles, and Bob Pettit planned and effected the restoration of the tower and lantern room. The tower was re-commissioned by the Coast Guard on June 9, 1990, and the light was again lit after many decades of silence.
In a 1993 agreement between the Southold Historical Museum and the Park District, the Nautical Museum retains perpetual occupancy as long as it maintains its exhibition function for the tower and museum space. The US Coast Guard maintains the operation of the light and the Park District maintains the grounds, restrooms and apartment. The Southold Historical Museum and the Park District share in cooperative maintenance and restoration activities. In 2006 the entire interior of the Nautical Museum portion of the lighthouse was revamped with new historical objects and documents, labels, and displays.
The latest light in the tower is a VRB-25 rotating beacon manufactured by the Vega company of New Zealand. The light is a highly sophisticated unit with a six paneled unit that rotates at exactly one revolution per minute. The acrylic Fresnel panels focus the light from a high intensity halogen bulb. Since each panel crosses the lamp every ten seconds, the lamp is identified on nautical charts as a “Flashing Green 10 Second” light. The lamp is green because it would be to port (left) of any ship heading to New York harbor via Long Island Sound. (This navigational rule is best remembered by “Right Red Return”, meaning the red light is on your right as you return home. One prominent shark fisherman commemorated in “JAWS” actually painted his right big toe nail red –and sailed barefoot-- to help him remember.) The lamp is self contained with its own electrical system and a sensing unit to turn it on when the light is dark enough. The lamp has a multiple bulb holder that will automatically snap a new bulb in place if the light burns out. There are six bulbs in the holder and the Coast Guard will make periodic visits to replace any burned out bulbs, so there is always a supply of fresh bulbs. Many captains have stated that it is very reassuring to see that light at night when they are out on the Sound.
In 1994 the external building that had been used for the storage of oil and had only the foundation remaining was rebuilt. The building’s interior was completely redone in 2007 to house a new whale display that will feature information about whales found off the east coast along with a sound system that will play the singing sounds of humpback whales throughout the day.
The Park District has cut a nature trail through the adjacent woods and it has two beautiful overlooks where there is a good view of Long Island Sound and the rocks below. The park grounds surrounding the lighthouse have picnic tables, grills and a fish pond. There are steps to the beach. Today, the Horton Point Lighthouse and park is one of the key stops for visitors who come to the North Fork.