Book Sheds Light on Montauk Point Lighthouse

It has inspired countless photographers, stirred famous poets and drawn scores of tourists over its more than 200-year history, all while safely guiding seafarers along one of the Atlantic’s most jagged coastlines. But no work has definitively told the fascinating story behind the Montauk Point Lighthouse – until now.

Just published by Outskirts Press, Henry Osmers’ “On Eagle’s Beak: A History of the Montauk Point Lighthouse,” blends scholarly research with supreme storytelling skills to chronicle this graceful treasure perched atop Turtle Hill, at the eastern tip of Long Island. With more than 70 photographs, illustrations and graphs, as well as scores of anecdotes culled from diaries, newspapers and ledgers, “On Eagle’s Beak” is perfect for devoted lighthouse aficionados and casual admirers alike.

It all starts with an unacceptable number of disasters at sea in the late-18th century, a predicament that led George Washington to approve construction on the lighthouse, at a cost of $20,000, in 1792. Completed five years later, the beacon went a long way toward smoothing sea travels in storms or moonless nights, its whale-oil fed lamps illuminating the treacherous waters for ships and boats.

As the young nation grew up around it, a steady march of technological breakthroughs revolutionized diverse industries – and lighthouses were no exception. Detailed in “On Eagle’s Beak” are advancements in fuel, lenses, foghorns and lamps. Perhaps the most important, though, was in erosion prevention, a topic extensively covered in the book with a discussion of Giorgina Reid’s terracing method, which virtually saved the lighthouse from destruction in the 1970s.

But the story of the Montauk Point Lighthouse is also a profoundly human one. Dozens of keepers and their families called the lighthouse home over the years. Theirs was an often lonely existence, and Osmer does justice to their experiences with two chapters detailing notable keeperships under both civilian leadership and, later, Coast Guard administration. Also sprinkled throughout are reflections of the lighthouse’s numerous visitors over the years – notably an 1861 visit to the Point by Walt Whitman, who wrote a laudatory poem on Montauk, from which the book takes its title.

Modernization in recent times ended the era of the lighthouse keeper, and the Montauk Point Lighthouse, now automated, became a museum in 1987. Today, the beacon continues to attract people from all over the world, and “On Eagle’s Beak” helps shine a light on its enduring draw.

Montauk Point Lighthouse Facts:
— New York’s first lighthouse, built in 1796 by order of President George Washington
— Only the second lighthouse built under the U.S. Constitution
— The fourth-oldest U.S. lighthouse in continuous operation
— First Order Fresnel lens installed in 1858
— Current keeper’s dwelling constructed 1860
— Electricity, indoor plumbing and heating installed in 1938
— Light electrified in 1940
— Lighthouse automated in 1987
— Montauk Point Lighthouse Museum established 1987
— Withstood powerful hurricanes, including the great hurricane of Sept. 21, 1938

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