GREENPORT, NY — During the days of coronavirus, families are often left searching for ways to find activities that are fun and socially distanced. And more often than not, during these unprecedented months, those experiences have been found out on the water — with kayak and boat sales skyrocketing and residents turning to water sports to find the freedom so many were lacking during the COVID-19 lockdown.
In Greenport, the East End Seaport Museum offers Lighthouse Excursions — a two-hour cruise to, and tour of, Bug Light, the only area lighthouse that allows visitor tours. There are two dates left for the season, Saturday, October 3 and Saturday, October 10. To purchase tickets for the event, which takes place from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., click here.
Social distancing protocols are adhered to, with temperature checks, face masks, and a reduced occupancy limit of two-thirds on the boat, and 50 percent at the lighthouse.
Guests can enjoy the sweeping views and sunsets out on the water and, once at the lighthouse, built in 1871, enjoy hear stories about the structure’s fabled history from Bob Allen, the great-grandson of William H. Follett, who was the last lighthouse keeper from 1912 until 1940. The lighthouse, lost in a fire in 1963, when “kids came out on the Fourth of July with a can of gas and burned down the lighthouse,” Allen said. “For 27 years all that was left was the foundation.”
The iconic structure, also known as the Long Beach Bar Lighthouse, was resurrected by the efforts of the East End Seaport Museum, which fundraised to bring it back to its former glory, rebuilt on its original foundation in 1990. “They raised $140,000 and in 60 days they rebuilt this lighthouse on the land,” Allen said.
The lighthouse, Allen said, is a “screw-pile” style, a platform with iron rods that are screwed down into the seabed. “You don’t really find this type of a lighthouse up here. You find them down in Baltimore, MD, or in North Carolina,” he said.
The foundation was originally first laid in 1926, he said.
Allen’s talk about the lighthouse’s history is interspersed with humor as he introduces a plastic “pirate” figure who watches the structure when no one is there. The stories delight children and adults alike.
Allen describes icy winters in the past when the winds were so bad inside the lighthouse would shake. “So what Congress did is allocate $20,000 for riprap, or irregular rocks,” that were placed around the structure to protect the lighthouse from ice.
While guests today can walk right up, via the dock, to the lighthouse door, in the “old days,” Allen said, visitors found a concrete slab. “You had to put a cable on the bow of the stern and they would have to crank you up, swing the boat over on the slab.”
Allen also displays photos of the lighthouse when first built, and explains its deep meaning to his family. “A lighthouse keeper has to make sure the light is on. He takes care of the building. If there is a leak in the roof he takes care of it — he takes care of everything.”
Nowadays, Allen said, there are cell phones, Direct TV, the internet. Back in the days of lighthouses, lighthouse keepers had to find ways to pass the time, he said.
The talk is rich with stories, lore and memories.
He speaks of how lighthouse keeper would catch fish right outside on the rocks, lobster and crab. Lighthouse keepers also kept lobster traps to sell and make some extra money, he said.
The lighthouse, Allen said, is a “composite” lighthouse that looks like it did in both 1871 and 1926.
Speaking of his family, Allen said his great-grandfather was stationed in Rhode Island, then in Montauk, then at Cedar Island Lighthouse at Cedar Point, and then, to Bug Light. He asked Allen’s father William Allen to leave school in the seventh grade and come work with him, Allen said.
“He quit school, came over here and was his grandfather’s righthand person,” Allen said.
In 1926, the foundation, benches, a bathroom, and a cistern were added, Allen said. Unable to get water at the lighthouse, rainwater was used, he said. Rainwater, which hit the roof flowed into gutters, headed into a downspout and down into the cistern; the cistern was used to pump up the water, which was boiled for bathing and cooking.
A clothesline was set up right outside the lighthouse to dry garments, he said.
During the memory laced discussion, Allen shows family photos at the lantern, the fog bell, rich with history and a deep legacy. “My great-grandmother Atta hated this place,” he joked. At Cedar Island, were the couple was stationed for 17 years, there were three acres and cousins and relatives could visit. “When they came here they couldn’t bring anyone over. She didn’t like it at all. In fact, when she came over, she had a little problem. She couldn’t get up to the light. The concrete slab was 12 rungs— they had to climb up — and she was a little bit overweight, and she couldn’t. They didn’t know how to get her to the lighthouse.”
Finally, he said, they had an idea, dropping her off on the smooth rocks. “She slid up every rock, on her rear end,” he said. “They used to kid her; they called it the ‘Grandma heinie shuffle.'”
There are years of memories: A ship ran aground once, he said. His family survived the Hurricane of ’38 at the lighthouse, Allen said. “My dad looked out the window and saw these big, heavy storm clouds coming in. . .Pretty soon the winds started picking up, over 140 miles an hour. The waves were really getting high. The water went up 54 feet above, went through the window, and put out the light. Dad said listening to the Hurricane of ’38 was like having a steam locomotive in the room with you on high speed, for a long period of time. That’s how noisy it was.”
They lived on canned food and were rescued and survived, he said.
Allen shares memories of Brownie, the “lighthouse dog” whose ghost, according to lore, lives at the Lighthouse.
In 1946 to 1948 the lighthouse was officially deactivated, but when his family left, it was essentially shut down, Allen said. When it was rededicated, his mother Frances helped to illuminate the light.
But the history, the memories, the legacy live on, a flame Allen is dedicated to keeping alive. “What I like about it the best is I get to share my lighthouse heritage with other people,” Allen said. “I like to see the looks on their faces when I’m taking to them and I tell them I a descendant of the lighthouse keeper.”
There’s a magic to the lighthouses of yesterday, Allen said. “They’re all automated now or solar powered. It’s in the past. You can’t go back to lighthouses. But I like to watch people’s faces as I share the memories.”