By Annette Hinkle
Once a shining beacon that guided ships in and out of Sag Harbor as far back as the whaling era, today Cedar Island Lighthouse appears forlorn and largely forgotten.
Decommissioned in 1934 and replaced by an automated beacon, the lighthouse doesn’t even sit on an island anymore — the hurricane of 1938 made sure of that when it brought in enough sand to create a peninsula, turning Cedar Island into Cedar Point.
Over the years the hardy granite structure has also fallen victim to vandalism. It looks sturdy enough from the outside, but in fact is an empty shell which was gutted by an arson fire in the mid-1970s.
But last Thursday, the Cedar Island Lighthouse got a bit of a lift, literally, when the Long Island Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society used a crane to remove the lantern which has sat atop the structure since it was built in 1868 to replace the original 1839 lighthouse.
The “lift off” is the first phase of a planned revival of the lighthouse which includes both exterior restoration and a total rebuild of the interior. Transported by boat on Thursday, the lantern was first brought to Sag Harbor’s Long Wharf before being moved to the Sag Harbor Yacht Yard where restoration efforts will be carried out.
Michael Leahy is chairman of the Cedar Island Lighthouse Restoration project for the lighthouse society, which for years has sought to revitalize the lighthouse — a daunting task both financially and logistically. He explains Thursday’s removal of the lantern represents a small first step which he hopes will raise visibility and funds for the effort.
“I got involved with the group in 2009 and prior to my involvement, they restored the oil house — the little structure next to the lighthouse — and got the building on the National Register of Historic Places,” explains Leahy. “We raised some money, not a ton, and since we didn’t have a lot of money, needed to do something we could do without it.”
Removal of the lantern was accomplished through donations of time and talent from Chesterfield Associates, a Westhampton Beach-based marine construction firm, and Sag Harbor-based Bob Coco Construction.
“You need specialized equipment to do that and we went out a bunch of times to figure out what was holding the lantern on the lighthouse,” explains Leahy.
In the end, it turns out nothing was holding it on except for the 12.5 foot square lantern platform itself, which weighs 7,000 pounds.
“It was quite a complicated thing we did last Thursday,” adds Leahy. “It went flawlessly. Lou Grignon from the yacht yard gave us the opportunity to bring the lantern there and work on it.”
The Cedar Island Lighthouse technically belongs to Suffolk County and Leahy explains the lighthouse society has an agreement to do the restoration work, which means everything goes through the county for approval, adding another layer of complexity to the task.
“That lantern is a big piece of cast iron which was put together at the lighthouse 144 years ago. This is the first time it’s been taken off and it’s in one piece,” says Leahy who expects to rely on input from engineers and metal specialists to restore the lantern.
“We’re going to prepare the metal not by sand blasting, but something other than sand which is more gentle. Then we’ll paint it to preserve it,” says Leahy who has photos of the lantern from 1975 showing it was white and older images indicating it was painted black.
“I’ll deal with the county on that. It’s probably safe to do black. We’ll have to see,” he says. “I was very encouraged. It’s not in that bad of shape and hopefully won’t take too long to restore. The important thing missing is the light, a Fresnel lens, that disappeared God knows when.”
While the lantern will be refurbished to its former glory, what it won’t be is a working lighthouse. Leahy explains installation of a flashing light would classify the lighthouse as a private navigational aid which has to be maintained as such.
“It might be something like a representative light,” he says. “We could get a Fresnel lens, but not a light.”
The real job ahead, he notes, is interior restoration of the structure. But before that can happen, a new roof must be put in place.
“It may have originally been a slate roof, but the roof we would put on is a standing seam metal roof, everyone seems happy with that option,” says Leahy who estimates the roof alone could be $400,000. “Keep in mind, the county has to pay prevailing wages and you have to drive a mile across the beach to get there. It’s inaccessible part of the year because of the piping plovers. Those are all issues, but we’ll figure that out.”
“We need to raise the money,” he adds. “It has to be done in the next couple years and is our next priority.”
In recreating the interior of the lighthouse, Leahy expects to turn to old drawings and the Saugerties Lighthouse on the Hudson River for inspiration. Similar in size, style and age, that lighthouse was restored 20 years ago.
“I have layouts for what would work,” he says. “On the first floor there would be a kitchen, sitting room and there might’ve been a teeny bedroom for the lighthouse keeper. On the second floor, there are two bedrooms and the attic up to the light.”
Once restored, there remains the issue of the lighthouse’s vulnerability to vandalism due to its isolated location. Though a couple companies have offered to donate windows, Leahy is worried they would quickly be broken again.
But he sees a possible solution.
“This lighthouse becomes a bed and breakfast with a keeper 24/7,” he says. “I think you could have someone who might want to live the whole year there.”
“It would be the coolest B&B in the Hamptons,” he adds.
Probably… but that will be another matter Leahy will have to sort out with the county. So far, grants on the federal or state level appear elusive.
“My sense is this will be financed by the private sector,” he says. “There are no economics to it. I can’t promise it will be a B&B.”
Though Leahy has been getting donations toward the effort, he admits the dollar amounts have been fairly small — so far. But he thinks the first step might go a long way toward changing that.
“Hopefully by having the lantern restored more people will be aware.”
For more information on the effort to restore Cedar Island Lighthouse, visit www.cedarislandlighthouse.org/.