Tuesday, February 20, 2018

History’s Shining Lights

January 1, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 


The East End of Long Island has a rich maritime heritage, but not all of it is relegated to the pages of history. The exhibits and lighthouse tours of the East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation in Greenport aim to both recognize and restore the area’s legacy.  “People need a context to which to know themselves, and the past is part of that context,” says Karen Doherty, head of the Lighthouse Cruise Committee.

The museum’s exhibits include model sailing ships from the last four centuries, the history of the menhaden fishing industry in Greenport, and Fresnel lighthouse lenses. One popular exhibit tells the story of eastern Long Island’s Picket Patrol, a group of civilian patrol sailors who helped spot German submarines during World War II, and another focuses on the history of sailor’s tattoos.  A narrator of the lighthouse cruises, Bob Allen, watches as the museum enlightens Long Islanders about their own locale. “One of the common expressions I overhear when people are walking around the museum is, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize that. I never knew that.’ Learning about where you live and its history is very exciting and rewarding,” Allen says.

The East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation offers cruises to offshore lighthouses. Seven are located in the town of Southold, which has more offshore lighthouses than any other township in the United States.   Narrating the cruises are Allen, the great grandson of the last lighthouse keeper of The Long Beach Bar “Bug” Light (one of the lighthouses on the tour), and Ted Webb, a local maritime expert whose family has lived in the Long Island area for 100 years.

According to Doherty, these cruises are special, as there are very few offshore lighthouses in the United States that visitors can tour.  Participants have time to explore the “Bug” lighthouse and to take in panoramic views from its balcony, as well as view a special exhibit while Allen or Webb explain the nickname, tell stories, and discuss the important role lighthouses played in history. They describe the work that went into maintaining the lighthouse, and what life was like for lighthouse keepers and their families. Webb shares that, along with manning and maintaining the lighthouse, which could serve as warning or comforting beacon to ships, lighthouse keepers helped ships in distress.

The cruise also stops within a few yards of the Orient Point, Plum Island, and Little Gull Lights for photo opportunities (which may include the gray seals off Little Gull Lights).  Webb notes that visitors find the lighthouses impressive because they realize the difficulty of building an offshore lighthouse, and because these structures have withstood the elements for 100 years or more.  “People see the lighthouses as living history,” he says, emphasizing the importance of the lighthouse cruises in teaching local history and passing on nautical heritage to the next generation.

Allen also sees the lighthouses cruises as immersing visitors in history. “The unique thing about lighthouses to me is when you go to them, you are actually going back in time,” he says.  “When you get up close to a lighthouse, you get this feeling of excitement and adventure. It’s not only me; I get this same feeling from the people who go with me on my tour.”

Allen and Webb enrich the tour by sharing their family stories and photos. One of Allen’s favorite stories is about the unexpected 1938 Hurricane that trapped his father and grandfather at “Bug” Light. The two survived after huddling in a corner of the second floor for a few hours as the waves rose to the roof of the lighthouse, breaking the chimney and windows, and putting out the light. Allen also enjoys relating the tale of Revolutionary War Colonel Gardiner, who is buried on Plum Island. He is rumored to haunt the lighthouse (one of three reputedly haunted lighthouses on the tour).

Despite the ghost stories, Allen says his goal is not to scare people. “When I am doing a tour, I talk about a lighthouse and the history that surrounds it. Then when we are going from one lighthouse to another and I am not narrating, I love to walk around the boat and meet and talk to every one of the passengers on my tour up close and personal.” He adds, “I also like to tell a few jokes.”

For more information on the East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation, including upcoming tours, fundraisers, educational programs, and the annual Maritime Festival, visit www.eastendseaport.org.

By Beth Kutcher
All photos courtesy Bob Allen



a SUNY Geneseo graduate with a degree in Psychology and English-Creative Writing, works with adults with developmental disabilities and plans to pursue a career in Occupational Therapy. She enjoys hiking, traveling, and spending time with her Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy.

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