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Keeping the Light at Little Gull Island

From the earliest days in our Nation’s history, the Race, Long Island Sound’s gateway to the open sea, was well known for its navigational hazards. During the maximum ebb tide, an hour or two after high tide, currents through the Race can exceed 5 knots! With opposing winds or heavy onshore seas, the portal to the Sound can become a cauldron of twisting and churning waters that pile up into mountainous snow-capped peaks. Though, in some areas the depths of the waterway reaches down to more than 300 feet, rock reefs break the surface at Valiant Rock and surrounding Great Gull and Little Gull Islands.
Even before we became a Nation, the Race was the site of many shipwrecks. Congress on April 6, 1802, thus appropriated funds to an erect a lighthouse on Little Gull Island. The nearly one-acre island, surrounded by rock reefs, stood above the hide-tide mark. Though the island itself was also mainly rock, most of the building materials had to be transported to the location. Built of smooth hammered freestone, the completed lighthouse rose fifty-three feet above sea level. Accessed via a wooden spiral stairway, its lantern room was equipped with 15 lamps and reflectors that showed a fixed white light.

The beacon became operational in 1805. Though the nearby waters were frequently cloaked in a dense haze or fog, it would be about another fifty years before the station was equipped with a fog bell.
The station’s first Head Keeper, Israel Rogers, was appointed on July 1, 1805. He, his wife and children along with an assistant and his entire family’ were housed in a small dwelling. Lack of privacy was a problem, but as it was at other isolated lighthouses, the offshore site made it even more difficult. The station’s well water was brackish, making necessary to capture their drinking water from the rain. In addition, early on, everyone often had to remain on the island for up to two months at a time. Rogers served four years at Little Gull and was then replaced by his son-in-law, Giles Holt. He was followed by twenty-one other head civilian keepers along with large numbers of first and second assistant keepers.
Congress declared war on Great Britain in June of 1812. Keeper Holt and other residents of the light occasionally spotted a passing warship, but they were otherwise remote from the conflict. However, on July 28, 1813, a small British unit landed at the station. Though they did not damage the lighthouse or it’s dwelling, they proceeded to remove all its lamps and reflectors.
On September 23, 1815, a hurricane swept across Long Island and then followed the coast all the way up to New Hampshire. Little Gull Island was sometimes washed over by north-easters, but this storm created far more havoc on the island. At the time, Keeper Holt was ashore picking up supplies, leaving his family on the island. They apparently survived by seeking shelter in the lighthouse tower while their dwelling was partially washed over the bank. However, the storm’s damage was far worst in Providence, Rhode Island where a 14-foot surge destroyed 500 buildings and most of the ships in the harbor.
Following the storm, a 100-foot diameter wall was erected around the station. Repairs were made to the tower and keepers dwelling. However, it would not be until 1867 that a decision was made to replace the small keepers dwelling with one that had three separate quarters to accommodate the three keepers and their families. The aging tower was also replaced. Completed in 1869, the new lighthouse rose ninety-two feet above sea level and was equipped with second-order Fresnel lens.
During most of the 1920s, Edgar Whitford served at Little Gull Island as the First Assistant Keeper, but around 1930, he was appointed Head Keeper. He would serve as the station’s last civilian keeper. Edgar’s family spent summers at the lighthouse and winters in Rhode Island. In 1989, Edward’s son Ed, returned to his childhood summer home for the first time. As he walked around the tower, he reminisced how, aboard an army “L-boat”, they frequently made their way from shore to Fishers Island and on to Great Gull Island. During one rough weather crossing, it was impossible to tie up at the dock. He and his two sisters had to be tossed up from the rocking boat to awaiting arms. As was customary, the final trek to Little Gull was then made aboard the station’s 19-foot outboard.
On his return trip to the lighthouse, Ed fondly remembered that he and his siblings had learned to ride a bike on Little Gull and even how to row a boat. Pointing out the remains of the station’s boat hoist, Ed recalled how the adults, with the children on their backs, would swing out on its lines and drop into the frigid waters! As kids, they also explored the tiny island, and played hide-and-seek among the rip-rap rocks surrounding the lighthouse. They frequently fished and caught crabs from the shoreline. In preparation for Fourth of July celebrations, they gathered driftwood to build a bonfire.
In revisiting the lighthouse, as we began to climb its spiral stairs, we were met by the sound of the foghorn. It sent a bone-rattling vibration through the entire structure, making it hard to imagine how anyone could sleep during a night of fog! However, Ed was quick to state how comforting it had been to fall asleep to its sound. Once at the top, Ed stood next to the massive second-order Fresnel lens, tall enough to accommodate a six-foot tall person.
Later reflecting on his life at the lighthouse, Ed stated, “There wasn’t a day that went by that something didn’t happen which was different and exciting. I guess we never felt deprived being out there. We always thought we were special, being lighthouse keeper’s kids; I feel very comfortable and at peace out here.”
On July 7, 1939, the United States Coast Guard was placed in charge of all aids to navigation. While some of the former Lighthouse Service personnel were absorbed into the Coast Guard, others, as did Ed’s father, chose to remain on as a civilian keeper. Head Keeper Edward Whitford remained at the station until November of 1942. He was Little Gull Island’s last civilian keeper.
The lighthouse was again struck by a hurricane in 1938. The storm’s waters rose up to the second story of the keeper’s quarters. But it somehow survived the storm only to be burned to the ground in a 1944 fire. Twenty-four years later, the station was automated. The lighthouse was deemed excess by the Coast Guard in 2009. GSA put the station out for bid and it was later purchased by Fred Plumb of Woodbury, Connecticut for $381,000. Fred had hoped to restore the lighthouse, preserve it and make it accessible to the public, but he passed away in 2017. The lighthouse is currently expected to be placed on sale by the family.
In 1995, its second-order Fresnel lens was removed and it now is on permanent display at Greenport New York’s East End Seaport Museum. The lighthouse is still an active aid to navigation, displaying a flashing white light.
Photograph by the author.