Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Fire Island Light
The Fire Island Light.

During our recent swing through New York and New Jersey, the Missus and I spent a couple of days with Eli (hizzownself); Toni, the Bride d’Eli; and The Other Elisson. One of the highlights of our visit was a trip to Robert Moses State Park, which occupies the western end of Fire Island... and where the Fire Island Light is located.

It’s a short drive from Chez Eli to Fire Island. He’s conveniently located in West Bay Shore, just a few three-wood shots from the Robert Moses Causeway that runs from the south shore of Long Island to Captree Island, thence onward to Jones Beach Island. From there, you can pick up the Ocean Parkway, a scenic westward drive along the shore to Jones Beach - or you can continue on the Robert Moses Causeway until you reach the far western tip of Fire Island. Roll a few miles east and you get to Parking Lot Five, from where you hoof it over a mile-long boardwalk to get to the Light.

[There’s a road - open only to permit holders - that will take you from Lot Five to Kismet, the westernmost residential community of Fire Island. Beyond that, however, cars are verboten. Bicycles and shank’s mare (and ferries to the main part of the Island) are all there is by way of transport if you want to see the “real” Fire Island.]

Given the number of years I lived on Long Island, it’s a bit surprising that I never visited the Fire Island Light until now. But maybe that’s not a surprise after all. We always tend to ignore the attractions that sit (practically) in our own back yards - it’s Human Nature. But here we were, Eli, Toni, SWMBO, the Other Elisson, and me. And the two Elissons - my brother and I - took upon ourselves the task of climbing the Light.

The Light itself was constructed in 1858 as a replacement for the original, smaller lighthouse built in 1826. Not much remains of that old lighthouse - just a ring of bricks in the sand, just west of the newer Light. But imagine the logistics of putting up a 180-foot tower of brick back in the 1850’s. Start at the bottom, build a circular foundation of bricks, and set stairsteps in a spiral around a central metal pillar. Keep going until you get to 180 feet. Yeef.

The central shaft of the Light is cylindrical, but the exterior of the tower is a modified cone. The walls are thicker at the bottom and get thinner with height. The exterior is painted with four horizontal bands - two black, two white. And there are 192 steps to the top of the tower, most in the form of a metal-grate spiral staircase. At the top, the last few flights are narrow wooden treads.

The staircase is provided with rope handholds, but those are a modern convenience. Back in the days when the Light was illuminated by whale oil, the ropes would have gotten in the way as the lighthouse-keeper schlepped five-gallon buckets of oil up that long, long stairway. The oil not only illuminated the Light; it provided fuel for a small heating stove at the top. That stove was not there for the comfort of the lighthouse-keeper. It was there to keep the place warm enough to prevent the oil from congealing on cold days.

Now, of course, everything’s electrified. A rotating lamp sends its 1000-watt beam sweeping out to sea every 7.5 seconds; each lamp is mounted in a turret with a spare that snaps into place automatically should it burn out. Not as romantic as whale oil, but a whole lot easier and more reliable.

Atop the Light, there is a stiff, chilly breeze. The sky is a deep blue on the sunny, clear day of our visit. You can’t quite see that the beach directly south of the Light is clothing-optional. Probably a good thing. People who go nude at the beach are generally not the people one wants to see go nude at the beach.

Interestingly, the Light was decommissioned by the United States Coast Guard in 1974, the year I was graduated from college. Its fate could very well have been the same as that of its predecessor, but a private group (the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society) raised enough money to preserve it, and it was eventually returned to “active duty” in 1986. In 2006, the Coast Guard turned operation of the Light over to FILPS; it is now shown on the official nautical charts as a private aid to navigation.

Public or private, the Light is a beautiful thing. Long may it stand!

More photos below the fold.

Stairway to Heaven
Stairway to (and from) Heaven: The spiral staircase inside the Fire Island Light.

Top Flight
The last two flights are not for the claustrophobic.

Reaching the Top
Elisson pops up like a demented Jack-in-the-Box after his long climb.

The top of the tower. You have to lean back over the rail to get a good view... scary.

Eastward View
The view eastward, showing the nearby communities of Kismet and Saltaire.

Lighthouse Doorway
The sea sparkles in this HDR image taken from inside the Light.

A last look at the Light before heading home.

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