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Federal Board Approves Bid To Make Lighthouse National Landmark

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By Claire Walla

What do the Montauk Point Lighthouse and the Old Whalers’ Church have in common? That’s for the U.S. Secretary of Interior to decide.

This week, the National Park System Advisory Board Landmarks Committee decided unanimously to grant the historic lighthouse, built in 1796, national landmark status, allowing it to join the likes of The Old Whalers’ Church and six other historic landmarks on the East End of Long Island. While the designation is pretty much a done deal, it won’t be considered official until U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signs off on it.  (The paperwork is expected to take several months.)

“We’re already on the list of historic places,” explained Eleanor Ehrhardt, a member of the Montauk Lighthouse Committee. “But a national landmark is far more prestigious.”

In a letter written to Ronald James, Chair of the NPS Advisory Board Landmarks Committee, New York State Senator Kirsten Gillibrand urged James to issue the lighthouse national landmark status. “The Montauk Point Lighthouse has a rich history and continues to serve as a vital navigation feature to this day,” she wrote. She added that landmark status would have the potential to enhance tourism and economic activity in the area.

The Montauk Lighthouse Committee first asked the National Park System Advisory Board Landmarks Committee to consider granting the lighthouse landmark status about six years ago. And when they received word that it was something the park service would consider, the committee got to work to make a case—they had to prove that the Montauk Lighthouse was significant to the development of the United States.

“The lighthouse was the most important lighthouse for the nation’s foreign trade for the first eight decades of the U.S. lighthouse service,“ Ehrhardt continued. The group’s final 35-page document—submitted to the National Park Service’s executive committee for review this week—focuses on the period of U.S. history from 1797 to 1870. “If [ships] hadn’t been able to sail around the point, New York City wouldn’t have been built up to what it is today.”

With major help from East Hampton Historian Bob Hefner, Ehrhardt said the committee scoured museums throughout the east coast and Washington D.C. to gather basic information comparing the Montauk Lighthouse to others along the east coast, and collected historic records detailing the precise amount of tonnage transported to New York City by foreign vessels during that time.

In addition to its significance, Ehrhardt said the landmarks board will also consider the current state of the building. “The big word with them is integrity,” Ehrhardt continued; and on that point she feels the lighthouse is a worthy contender. “We didn’t paint it purple, or knock down any staircases,” she said with a laugh. “The tower is still in good shape.”