A sampling of the ledgers relating to the Horton Point Lighthouse. With nearly a complete run, they are among one of the most complete collections of records relating to a lighthouse on LI.
SOUTHOLD, NY (2006). In this day and age it is a rare event when remarkable historical finds are made locally, especially here on Long Island where many of us live in a “throw away” society. But in Southold a remarkable collection of material has been found which sheds light on the history of the lighthouses of eastern Long Island.
This past December the Southold Historical Museum received a gift consisting of ledgers and books that document the visitation and operation of the Horton Point Lighthouse in Southold and the now lost Shinnecock Lighthouse in Good Ground, now called Hampton Bays. This “Treasure Trove” of period historical documents relating to Long Island’s rich nautical history is an astounding find.
The need for a lighthouse up at Horton Point was first discussed by George Washington and noted Long Islander Ezra L’Hommedieu during a visit in 1757. Though commissioned by Washington in 1790, the Lighthouse was not constructed until 1857. This building was used until 1933 when a skeletal light tower replaced the original light in the brick tower. In 1990 that skeletal tower was dismantled and the light was restored to the original building.
“We are simply overwhelmed by this donation,” stated Geoffrey Fleming, Director of the Society. “We had always assumed that this material had been lost to time and that we would never truly understand the day-to-day operations that had occurred there,” he continued, “This gift just fills us with great pride and happiness.”
The collection includes 13 books and ledgers that document nearly three-quarters of the Horton Point Lighthouse’s history, beginning in 1871 and completing in 1934, the year the Southold Park District acquired the Lighthouse from the U.S. Government.
“The Lighthouse opened in 1857 and these records cover all but the first 14 years of its original period of operation,” stated Fleming. They include materials that include the terms of Lighthouse Keepers Daniel Goldsmith (1871-1877), George S. Prince (1877-1896), Robert E. Ebbitts (1896-1903), Stella Prince (Acting Keeper, 1903-1904), Robert E. Ebbitts (1904-1919), and George Erhardt (1919-1933).
Included in the cache of items are books detailing the operational instructions for keepers and their assistants, code and signal books used for identifying passing ships, as well as buoy identification and location lists. A letter copy book, including correspondence between the federal government and the lighthouse, is also among the materials being donated.
But most important are the ledgers and log books that make up the bulk of the collection. “These ledgers contain important historical data that cannot be gleaned from most other sources,” stated Fleming.
The earliest ledger is the “Station Journal” that dates to 1871, when Daniel Goldsmith and George S. Prince where working as the Keeper and Asst. Keeper at the Lighthouse. It includes data on the daily wind and weather conditions at the Lighthouse and records other noteworthy events. The daily expenditure log, which includes entries from 1879 through 1883, provides a more intimate look at the lives of the Keepers and a look at the daily management activities that took place at the Horton Point Lighthouse.
Other ledgers contain information on the absence of Keepers, records concerning the maintenance and operation of the light, and even the many visitors who came to the tour the Lighthouse.
In fact the Horton Point visitor’s book may be one of the two most interesting items contained in the collection. The ledger contains the signatures of all the visitors to the Lighthouse between the years 1897 and 1926. This ledger includes not only individuals, but the many groups from New York City that made special trips out to learn about the history and operation of the Lighthouse even then. These groups are clearly marked in the margins after their names and include visitors from Brooklyn, Queens, and many other Long Island locales.
The other extremely important find is another visitor’s sign in book. But it is not from the Horton Point Lighthouse, it is not even from a lighthouse on the North Fork. It is from the Shinnecock Lighthouse. Constructed in 1854 at Ponquogue Point, Hampton Bays, the Lighthouse serviced the ships and sailors of the South Shore until it was extinguished in 1931. In December of 1948 the Lighthouse itself was wantonly demolished. The ledger is a rare survivor because most material like it is lost when a lighthouse or other similar building is torn down.
The Shinnecock visitors book covers the years from the end of World War I to the early days of the Great Depression. The ledger reveals, along with the visitor’s book from Horton Point, how popular these sites were as destinations during the first quarter of the 20th century.
These amazing artifacts were kept and preserved by the last keeper of Horton Point, George Erhardt, who later passed them onto other members of his family. The collection also includes a number of drawings by his daughter, Marguerite, who would later become Mrs. William Conway of Southold. The Conway family preserved these rare objects for many years until they recently offered them to the Society.
“Family members were concerned that these items not be sold, but that they become part of the rich history of Southold,” stated Fleming. “It is wonderful to find residents here who put the preservation of the history of our community first,” he continued.