Written by Andrea Watson Friday, 24 July 2009 00:00
All you romantics out there, listen up! Ditto for mystery buffs….and adventurers, too.
Something big is going on in our backyard that you won’t want to miss. Well, not actually our backyard, but close. Out in Long Island Sound northwest of Sands Point to be exact. It’s Execution Rocks Lighthouse, that beacon of light that is full of mystery, and myths going back centuries. Seagoing vessels, racers, day sailors and cruisers all know about Execution Rocks Lighthouse – for if you don’t, you may end up on the rocks. Even those who don’t sail the high seas of Long Island Sound know about Execution Rocks Lighthouse.
What, you may ask, has this to do with romantics or anyone else? Just ask Craig Morrison, president of Historically Significant Structures, Inc., a Philadelphia preservation group that last January received the deed to the 1850 structure from the federal government. He plans to turn the lighthouse into an overnight B&B. Just the thought of a night out in the middle of the sound, with the waves splashing against the rocks, the moon high in the sky surrounded by stars, and the wind whipping at the windows - with a little wine and cheese. Well, you get the picture. And what about a cold, windy and rainy night (must have lots of rain), and just as the group sits down to dinner, loud cracks of thunder are heard, and the room goes dark. Lots of commotion ensues, lights turn back on, and the group discovers the deadly truth – there is a murderer in their midst! Libraries, and private parties have played out this theme across the country, but they don’t have Executive Rocks Lighthouse as a backdrop. But I digress…
The lighthouse has an interesting past. It’s not called Execution Rocks for nothing. According to folklore, which hasn’t been proven, the British, trying to avoid public executions because that might tick off the Americans, would chain their prisoners to the rocks and let high tide drown their victims. Even though the story cannot be proven, we do know that light keepers had a special contract at Execution Rocks that was different than at any other lighthouse. Their contract allowed them to transfer from Execution Rocks at any time, and their request would be granted immediately. Such is the lore of this special lighthouse. Another story, which may be more plausible, also involved the name of the lighthouse. According to the settlers of Cows Neck (Port Washington in the old days), ships trying to make their way past the dangerous reef to Manhasset Bay were “executed” on the rocks.
The Sands Point Light was built in 1809, but was not very effective at protecting mariners from the pile of rocks in the middle of the sound, especially in heavy fog or stormy weather. In 1837, Congress appropriated $5,000 for a “revolving or double light upon the south side of Execution Rocks” but when it was discovered that this was not enough funding to get the job done, inspectors suggested a light boat could be deployed instead. Funding was still not enough for this. In 1847, $25,000 was allocated to build a lighthouse directly on the reefs. Alexander Parris designed the lighthouse and after some back and forth as to the location, the lighthouse was built on the largest exposed rock on the reef. where it still stands today.
In 1850, the lighthouse went into service and Daniel L. Caulkins was the first light keeper. Rising 58 feet above sea level, the lighthouse tapers from 26 feet in diameter at the base to 13 feet in diameter at the top. The original lighting included 13 lamps with red shades set in reflectors, to distinguish from the white light of the Sand Point Lighthouse. In 1851, William Craft took over as light keeper, and he and his assistants lived in the tower on the rock. But it was another 16 years before a keepers dwelling was built in 1867. A concrete oil house was added sometime around 1910-1920.
Execution Rocks has survived two fires, one in December 1918 and other one in 1921. It remained manned until December 1978, when it was refitted with a white flashing modern light. There are stories, even as recent as 1921, that ghosts inhabited the lighthouse.
Fast forward to May 2007. Execution Rocks Lighthouse was excessed by the Coast Guard and offered to eligible organizations through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. That is where Craig Morrison comes into play. After receiving the lighthouse deed, he immediately started raising the $1.2 million needed to restore the lighthouse.
The first trip out to the lighthouse took place on July 4 (how fitting). Matt Meyran, of Port Washington Water Taxi, who took the group to the lighthouse, is donating his company’s services to the restoration effort. Morrison’s group, now composed of about a dozen members, is looking for more volunteers and board members, as well as donations. So far the group has raised about $2,000.
And for the piece de resistance…. There is another tour to the lighthouse this Sunday at 10 a.m. And yes, Matt Meyran is ferrying passengers out to the Sound for a tour of Execution Rocks. For your efforts, you will get to see the great expanse of Long Island Sound, Sands Point, the Connecticut shore, and all points east and west. It is well worth the trip. Why not spend some time out on the beautiful waters of the Sound and be transported back into history… a history that is filled with a nautical history that is truly part of Port Washington.
The Execution Rocks Lighthouse may just be the “newest best thing” in our area. Think destination weddings, slumber parties, birthday parties. The list is as long as one’s imagination. You will just have to be patient, though, as it will be a while before the lighthouse is ready. It will be well worth the wait.