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Features

So You Want To Be A Lighthouse Keeper?

Find the romance—and reality—

of this solitary life in local waters

It may seem a little early to start making summer reservations, but when you have 163-year-old lighthouse, you tend to take the long view.

Four years ago, a non-profit group that my girlfriend/lawyer Linell Lukesh and I formed took title to Execution Rocks Lighthouse, which sits in Long Island Sound, about 1,400 feet offshore and a 20-minute boat ride from the Port Washington Town Dock.

In the warm weather, the waters surrounding the lighthouse teem with bluefish, striped bass, blackfish and fluke. The view of New York City on the horizon to the west, about 20 miles away, is amazing, especially when it lights up at night.  

If you’d like to have the “lightkeeper’s experience” and spend a few nights on the island—or just take a daytrip and climb the tower—go to www.lighthouse restorations.org for schedules and details. Transportation is provided by Matt Meyran of Port Washington Water Taxi, which has carried hundreds of visitors to the island over the past few summers.

Understand, of course, that staying overnight will mean roughing it. We offer only air mattresses for sleeping and a propane barbeque grill for the food service. The toilet is a portable camper’s type, until we get a generator and an incinerating model. But then, we also need a kitchen and bathroom. As rough as they are, these conditions are far better than what we found when we took over the island in 2009.

The story starts innocently enough around 2001, when I saw a TV show about the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The law provides a way for federally owned historic light stations to be transferred at no cost to government entities as well as non-profits promising to make the lighthouse available to the public.

I said to Linell, that we should start a non-profit and get one. She agreed.

Although my usual work is as an insurance agent in Pennsylvania, soon, Linell and I were up to our Fresnel lenses in lighthouse lore and engineering. A weeklong course at Florida’s St. Augustine Lighthouse, hosted by the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Park Service, the General Services Administration (GSA), among many other lighthouse constituents, immersed us in the finer points of everything from bricks to the Secretary of Interior’s standards for lighthouse restoration. We pored over books and met people from around the country who also were eager to get a lighthouse.

We got on the GSA’s email list for lighthouses that were available. After submitting a letter of interest, the GSA would call and schedule a visit to each lighthouse. We visited Goose Rocks Lighthouse and Petit Manan Lighthouse in Maine, among several others. We applied for Goose Rocks Lighthouse, but were turned down.

Several years and many GSA emails later, we received a notice for Execution Rocks Lighthouse. We submitted a letter, visited the site, applied and were accepted by the National Park Service. Amazingly, Linell and I were the only group asking to take over this lighthouse, set off Long Island’s Gold Coast.

Our 501c3 non-profit organization, Historically Significant Structures, Inc., applied for a grant in 2010. The New York Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation approved a reimbursement grant, which means doing everything from getting bids to completing the work under strict state standards. And only after paying for the work and getting it approved is the reimbursement processed.

So far, we haven’t raised enough money from our tower climbs and fundraisers to fix the roof and re-point and paint the tower exterior, but the grant office was kind enough to permit an advance payment to get the lead paint out and redo the walls and ceilings. This was just completed. The state also paid for our architect’s specifications and appraisals. Our grant will reimburse us until the end of 2014, if you’d like to help with the restoration.

The steps up to the island from the water, dating from around 1850, are still being repaired. The island itself was manmade in the 1840s with granite from around 45th Street in Manhattan. The tower was built by Alexander Parris in 1849, the same year Edger Allen Poe died. The keeper’s quarters—where you can stay this summer—were built by the U.S. Lighthouse Board in 1867, right after the end of the Civil War. This brings me to the ghost stories, a result of the British executing colonists on the rocks beneath the island in the fall of 1775, as rumor has it.

We’re still hoping to find angels to help us recreate the steam engine room as a day room, and the shed, which will house another bathroom on the first floor. Our website has the details, as well as the summer schedule and amazing before and after photos of the keeper’s quarters.

Put a lighthouse visit—or an overnight stay—on your summer calendar. Call me at 215/906-5103 for reservations and information.

Do it right now. As a lighthouse lover, it’s wise to take the long view.