Walking Towards the Light
Though Bob Allen doesn’t live in the past, he frequently experiences what it was like living in an early-20th-century lighthouse.
Allen is a third-generation lighthouse keeper. His father and grandfather kept the Cedar Island Lighthouse for 17 years, and now Allen owns and maintains his own lighthouse in Long Beach. A member of the Long Island Lighthouse Society and a lighthouse tour guide for the East End Seaport Museum & Marine Foundation, Allen also regularly gives walking tours of the Cedar Island Lighthouse in East Hampton.
Allen invited me along for a private tour of the Cedar Island Lighthouse, standing alone and looking like a building that time forgot. He’s the perfect tour guide — energetic, informative, and charismatic — and knows exactly how to tell a story. Always animated, he pays such attention to detail that I felt there was not a single stone or shell unturned in his tales of the lighthouse. I was never bored during our excursion!
Cedar Point’s original purpose was to help whaling ships safely navigate to and from Sag Harbor. The lighthouse keeper lived there full-time, using whale oil to light the torch. Nowadays, solar power and remote technology have rendered most lighthouse keepers’ jobs obsolete, but to Allen and others who value Long Island history and maritime traditions, the Cedar Point Lighthouse remains significant.
Two lighthouses sent out beacons at Cedar Point. The original was built in 1828, but then torn down to construct the present Cedar Point lighthouse, built in 1868. The second lighthouse was decommissioned from active service in 1934, and since then, it is an interesting landmark for people to visit and photograph when coming to Cedar Island State Park.
Allen knows the ins and outs of the island and its history because his family lived in the lighthouse from 1917 to 1934. Along with a promise of a solitary existence, the lighthouse had no heat, air conditioning, running water, or almost any amenity to make a comfortable life. Allen vividly recounts his family’s experiences, explaining how living back then was a challenge, and how his family obtained food and other provisions that were necessary for survival. Along with the lighthouse keeper and family’s daily hardships and perseverance, I found Allen’s narrative about some of the lighthouse’s guests to be most interesting. Billie Burke, the actress who played Glinda from The Wizard of Oz, visited the lighthouse, as did Jacqueline Kennedy.
Although Allen was originally giving me a private glimpse of the lighthouse, park visitors were drawn to his energetic aura and wanted to hear his stories first hand. Allen graciously drew them into our personal tour and regaled everyone with anecdotes about the experiences of his relatives living in and maintaining the lighthouse. We heard about the fateful night of July 9, 1919, when there was an explosion on the water. A steam engine blew up on a yacht off the lighthouse and Allen’s great-grandfather went to assist. There were injured crew members on the yacht, but the fire that ensued left them with such severe injuries that they could not be rescued.
Along with being isolated and sparse, the Cedar Island Lighthouse itself is fairly small. The lighthouse suffered major fire damage in September of 1974 and was already the object of fundraising efforts to restore it. As the remaining exterior is constructed of solid Boston granite, it was relatively untouched by Superstorm Sandy, except for some damage to the roof. Though scaffolding surrounds the lighthouse, we peeked inside so that Allen could point out all of the rooms in which his family lived, the shed outside where the oil was kept, and where the outhouse was before it was completely destroyed. Now, thanks to my affable tour guide, I have a picture of myself at that very spot!
Allen says that the goal of the fundraising efforts is to restore the Cedar Island Lighthouse so that visitors can observe a restored interior, soaking up the atmosphere as well as his fascinating accounts, stories, anecdotes, and descriptions about the life of a lighthouse keeper.
By Bonnie Ellman