The stately Fire Island Lighthouse, on Fire Island’s west end, was first opened in 1827 and is a familiar landmark on the barrier island where it stands 55 meters above sea level and can be seen more than 20 miles away. On the National Register of Historic Places since 1974, the decommissioned lighthouse is now open to visitors, and those in good physical shape can walk the 192 winding steps for a stunning view from the top of New York’s tallest lighthouse. However, tales of shadowy figures, ghostly laughs, otherworldly banging noises, and legends of hefty doors opening and closing by themselves surround the Fire Island Lighthouse.
Controversial is also the history of the island itself, and there seems to be some disagreement about how Fire Island it is so called. Some claims it’s Dutch. As story goes, when they came in the area, they found four inlets where they could bring in their boats, and the Dutch name for four is “vier”. Unusual things indeed, hard to read and of course with no sense to the average Englishman who came later, and it’s thought that when they read vier, the mistook it for fire, and so it became Fire Island.
Instead, some claim it’s from the “wreckers”, a sort of local pirates pirates, but name only. They would set a fire on the lee side of the island, so merchant ships would head for that light, particularly during a storm thinking they would find safe harbor. Instead they would run aground and come apart here, on the island.
The first people to live here came in 1653, when Isaac Stratford built a whaling station and called it by the name of Whalehouse Point. He and his boys would haul boats across Fire Island from the lee side over here to the beach, they built towers up there on the dunes and would scan the horizon during the day.
However, by the 1800’s there weren’t any more whales close to the shore and Whalehouse Point was pretty soon forgotten.
Ships regularly were running aground on the island, or sinking off the island in the shallow waters, so in 1826 they decided to build a lighthouse, right next to the inlet. The original octagonal lighthouse wasn’t as tall as this one is, and it wasn’t tall enough. Ships far out see couldn’t see the light, and in fog or bad weather it was all but invisible.
They say what spelled the end for that lighthouse was a shipwreck. Despite there were countless shipwrecks up and down the coast, usually they were just sailors, and a sailor’s life wasn’t worth a plug nickel in those days. An unwritten rule said that If you made your living from the sea you had to expect that at any time you might die from the sea as well. But this wasn’t just a sailor this time, but a society woman, Sarah Margaret Fuller, from Massachusetts, something of a thinking woman, the first one to be admitted to Harvard Library as it was called then, a schoolteacher, literary critic and a writer herself, she became the first woman correspondent to come out of the states. She went to Rome and there fell in love, eventually she married, had a baby and decided coming back on the island.
So her and her family went on the merchant ship Elizabeth. After smallpox spread on the ship, the captain died, and they got caught in a storm. Margaret, her husband and their little boy got washed over the side as the ship slowly sank to the bottom, and was never found. Now lots of people died, often right at the foot of the lighthouse, and it’s said that from time to time you can still see Maggie walking along the beach, looking for her lost manuscript which she was bringing back to New York with her, her little boy and husband following her.
As a result, they decided they needed a bigger lighthouse out on the island, and was built more than twice as high as the original.
While the old lighthouse was being demolished and reconstructed in the mid-19th century, its caretaker was forced to live in a poorly insulated shack nearby. The winter was harsh, and his daughter died shortly after falling ill; though a doctor had been summoned he could not arrive in time to treat her.
They were pretty much isolated, there weren’t any bridges back then, and the only way across was by boat, which you couldn’t do if the bay was frozen over. So, the doctor had to wait till the temperature dropped a bit more and the ice was safe to cross. When he showed up, there wasn’t anything he could do for the little girl, who died the next day. The mother went back to Sayville to bury their daughter and never came back, but he could not attend the funeral as he had to keep the house lit for nearby ships.
In any case, the new lighthouse gets built, and the story gets lost right about here. Some say the keeper stayed on and died there. And now and then people still see him wandering around, a shadowy figure in the night, waiting for the doctor to save his little girl. Other’s say he finally went mad. As story goes, one night the light went out, and when locals came to investigate they found the caretaker’s body hanging from a rope. Some say that wasn’t the same keeper, but a later one who hung himself, and others say it was an earlier one, and that he hung himself in the old lighthouse, not the new one at all.
On current days, people that work in the lighthouse and in the gift shop say they hear doors slamming when no one else is there, footsteps climbing the tower, and a crazy laughing as the old keeper climbs the tower’s steps. Some claim to see him with a rope in hand, searching for a spot to hang himself again and end his grief. The same stories are often reported also by visitors. Some say there ain’t no ghosts at all in there, that they are all just stories which somebody made up to sell a book or to tell a story.
But true or not, that’s the story, and the beacon was an important landmark for transatlantic ships coming into New York Harbor at the turn of the last century. For many European immigrants, the Fire Island Light was their first sight of land upon arrival in America. Ghosts or not, if you’ll go there, you get the chance to climb to the top of a piece of history!
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Author’s note: Thank’s to my friend Matthew for share with me this story 🙂