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East End Thoughts: Sag Harbor’s Light

Posted on 23 September 2010

by Richard Gambino

No, it’s not called that. Its name is the Cedar Point Lighthouse. But in truth, it is Sag Harbor’s lighthouse. For one-hundred-and-forty-two years it has greeted every vessel, large, small and in-between, coming over Gardiners Bay from the ocean to the village. And it has said one last fare-thee-well to all craft leaving over the reverse course. Whenever our area’s history is mentioned, our minds go to the days when Sag Harbor was the port of a fleet of broad-hipped whaling ships — a past that one can explore in our Whaling Museum. And Sag Harbor is mentioned twice as a whaling port in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. More, the character, “Natty Bumpoo” in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales is said to be modeled on Captain David Hand, a skipper living in Sag Harbor. It is also said that Cooper wrote his first novel, Precaution, when he worked in Sag Harbor for a whaling firm. (But it’s about aristocrats in England.)

Yet, Sag’s story of ships and sailors is also much larger. At the time of the birth of the USA, Sag Harbor hosted many merchant ships, and it was thought the town would become a major port for commercial ships — a kind of NYC East, witness our Custom House, opened in 1790. So, in the 19th century, the village was filled with merchant seamen, whaling seamen, crews of commercial fishing boats, and passengers coming or leaving. In the next century, they were augmented during the time of Prohibition (1920-1933) by men who manned rum-running boats. (Contrary to the term, the smugglers brought in not only cheap rum from the Caribbean, but also more expensive whiskies, such as Scotch, from Canada.)

The historical truth of Sag Harbor and its environs is that much of its past was shaped by sailors’ needs. Their spiritual needs, witness the Old Whalers’ Church. But other needs as well, met by other institutions like taverns and bordellos — except the men of the sea didn’t use this last word for the “houses.” And it’s said Sag today still sports at least fourteen bars. All this is not quite the prettified description we get from pushers of the myth of the town as an oh-soo genteel, oh-soo refined village. The huge, hugely expensive yachts that now tie up in Sag Harbor in summers fit Sag’s Janus mien. The people on the oh-soo elegant vessels spend, I hope, lots of money in town. While many of their boats fly flags from third-world countries where their American owners register them to avoid paying U.S. fees and taxes.

The truth is that Sag was, and is, a place of real human beings, not of trendy self-styled elite “Hamptonites.” The sardonic last words of Rudyard Kipling’s short story, A Matter Of Fact, come to mind: “Truth is a naked lady, and if by accident she is drawn up from the bottom of the sea, it behooves a gentleman either to give her a print petticoat or to turn his face to the wall and vow that he did not see.” And nothing represents the naked, gritty Sag Harbor spirit more than the Cedar Point Lighthouse. Like the village, the lighthouse fulfills its character, no matter what. Appropriately, for Janus was also the god of gateways and entrances.

Built in 1868, the “Cedar Island Lighthouse” replaced a 35-feet high wood light tower dating from 1839. The land on which the lighthouse was built was indeed a small island. Until, to use Jefferson’s phrase, “Nature and … Nature’s God” intervened with the famous mega-hurricane of 1938, which rearranged East End lands, turning Cedar Island into the very narrow peninsula it is today. The lighthouse is made of rough-hewed tan granite, and its exterior to this day is as sound as it is beautiful. But its interior was destroyed in 1974 by a fire set by vandals. Its keepers included a man named Charles Mulford, who after he came to the area in 1897 scoured the East End to buy every wooden leg he could find to keep as a reserve for the one he wore to replace his leg he lost as a soldier in the Civil War. These keepers, and their wives, were as much made of iron as the men on the wooden ships that sailed past them. One, Wilson H. Follett, on July 13, 1919 saw a yacht, the Flyer, explode and burn. He rowed out, and despite the flames, rescued three badly burned men.

The lighthouse was decommissioned by the federal government in 1934. In 1937, it was purchased by Phelan Beale for the grand sum of $2,002. His former wife was Edith Beale, the aunt of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, made famous by “Grey Gardens.” The lighthouse then was owned by a woman named Isabel Bradley as a summer home. Suffolk County bought it in 1967, making it part of today’s Cedar Point County Park.

For many years I’ve enjoyed anchoring my old 22-ft boat just south or north of the lighthouse, swimming from it (very mindfully — the tidal currents in the Peconic Estuary can be very strong, and change very fast), eating a sandwich for dinner, and enjoying wonderful, clean salt-water breezes even on the hottest days. Then, as the light becomes beautiful in late afternoon and early evening, I go into my amateur but passionate nature photographer mode, maneuvering my boat into positions for taking great pictures of the lighthouse, its skies, land and surrounding waters. (Some of my images have won ribbons in photo contests, a tribute not to me but to the breathtaking beauty before my camera.) I did this happily in June and July of this year. So, you may imagine my surprise when I went out in August and found a large cloth sign on the lighthouse’s west façade that reads,

     Help Us Restore This


The plan has three phases. 1. To repair the building’s roof, tower and trim, at an estimated cost of $935,500. 2. The Coast Guard then will put a navigation-aid light in the building’s tower. (That light is now atop a metal platform near the lighthouse.) 3. Restore the interior.

Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I urge you, please take an interest in our true history, which has created who we truly are — rhymes of our past. Go to the website. If you don’t have access to a boat, take a wonderful sunset cruise on one of Sag’s sightseeing boats, which leaves from the Town Dock, and glides past the lighthouse. In the cooler seasons, drive to Cedar Point County Park and hike out to the lighthouse. Take your kids or grandkids. Your individual lives will be enriched by the living poetry of our larger truth.

RICHARD GAMBINO continues a life-long love affair with salt water, where they say all life began.

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One Response to “East End Thoughts: Sag Harbor’s Light”

  1. Michael Leahy says:

    Thank you for yur article about thr history of the Cedar Island Lighthouse and mentioning our restoration progress.

    We will be publicizing our plans in Sag Harbor durung the course of the summer. I hope we have the chance to meet.

    Michael J. Leahy
    Chairman, Restoration Committee
    Cedar Island Lighthouse

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