By Jim Marquardt
Professional seaman are familiar with NOAA’s frequent publication of a Notice to Mariners. It warns of new hazards or changes to navigation aids which don’t appear on the latest charts. If NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) had existed in 1858. If it had issued a notice about the new Shinnecock lighthouse. If the captain of the sailing vessel John Milton had received the notice, then the crew and passengers of the 1445-ton ship wouldn’t have died in freezing waters off the south shore in one of Long Island’s worst maritime disasters. If.
When you drive south through Hampton Bays towards the Ponquogue Bridge and the barrier beach, you pass the U.S. Coast Guard Shinnecock Station just before the bridge. On this site in 1857, before the Coast Guard base existed, the government erected a new lighthouse. The tower was 160 feet high, built of red brick. Fueled by lard oil, the light shone through fine glass lenses imported from France and could be seen 20 miles at sea. The first keeper, John Hallock, and his two assistants lived in houses at the base of the tower. Coal for a stove and oil for the light were hoisted up outside the tower by heavy rope. The light began operating on January 1, 1858, a boon to the safety of mariners. Or so everyone thought.
After a voyage of nearly three years, touching at San Francisco, Peru and finally Hampton Roads, Virginia, the three-masted, 203-ft. John Milton departed for her homeport of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on February 16, 1858. Strong northeast gales and heavy snowstorms battered the ship as she clawed past Cape May. The mercury dropped to eight degrees above zero. Sometime during the night of the 19th, Captain Ephraim Harding no doubt was relieved to see a steady beam over his port bow, Montauk Point. What the captain couldn’t know was that the bright beam came from the new Shinnecock lighthouse, and Montauk’s light had been converted to a flashing signal. In the blinding storm, thinking he was well clear of the island’s end, he turned to a more northerly course for New Bedford. But the John Milton never reached its homeport. At 10 a.m. on the 20th, the ship piled up on the rocky Montauk coast in the section known as Ditch Plains.
Near evening, bodies floated ashore frozen and covered in ice. The Sag Harbor Corrector (predecessor of the Express) of March 11, 1858, reported, “The first that was discovered was a boat bottom up, and near it, was a body, on the shore, and a little to the eastward, the wreck was discovered. The bows, bowsprit, head gear, etc. was discovered about one third of a mile from shore, probably held there by her anchors; the rest of the wreck was scattered along the beach; heavy masts and spars came ashore, broken and twisted up in several pieces…” By marks made in the sand, witnesses deduced that the ship’s cook had made it to the beach and attempted to crawl from the water, but froze to death before help arrived. The coroner held an inquest in a barn on Newtown Lane in East Hampton.
Local authorities brought recovered bodies over snow-bound roads to East Hampton where on February 28th they arranged a funeral service in the old Presbyterian Church across from Clinton Academy. Montauk historian Henry Osmers wrote a book about the disaster, They Were All Strangers: The Wreck of the John Milton at Montauk, New York. The title came from the words of Captain Thomas Mulford who spoke at the service. Twenty-one victims rest in East Hampton’s South End Burying Ground where a monument remembers their fate. Captain Harding and his teenage son were buried in Tisbury, Mass., and other victims were taken to graves near their family homes. Different sources put the number of dead at 32 or 33. The ship’s bell was retrieved and tolled for years from the Presbyterian Chapel known as Session House. It is now part of the collection of the Montauk Lighthouse Museum.
In 1934 the government erected an electric beacon on a metal framework on the ocean beach in Shinnecock and the lighthouse no longer was needed. It was offered to Suffolk County for one dollar but the County turned it down. It was demolished in December 1948. An essay in the October 1947 Long Island Forum headed “Venerable Shinnecock Lighthouse” made no mention of an earlier article, in the April 1944 issue, which described the tragic role played by the “venerable” lighthouse in the wreck of the John Milton.