Little Gull Island Lighthouse
Along with its neighbor Plum Island, Little Gull Island was purchased by one Samuel Wyllys in 1659 from Wyandanch, the senior chief of four Native American tribes who controlled much of Long Island at the time. Little Gull Island went through a number of owners until the U.S. government bought it from Benjamin Jerome at a cost of $800 in 1803 for lighthouse purposes.Congress passed an act on April 6, 1802 that provided $8,000 for the Secretary of the Treasury “to cause proper light-houses to be built and buoys to be placed in the situations necessary for the navigation of sound between Long Island” and the mainland. Surveyors visiting Little Gull Island in 1803 found that the island had about one acre of land above the high-tide mark. Rocky reefs surrounding the island ensured that erosion would not be a problem, but almost all building materials would need to be brought to the island by ship, apart from some rocks that could be used for the foundation. The construction contract was awarded to New London resident Abisha Woodward, who had recently built Pequot Lighthouse in New London Harbor.
The tower of the new lighthouse rose fifty-three feet above sea level and was built of smooth-hammered freestone laid in courses. A wooden spiral staircase led to the lantern room, where an array of lamps and reflectors was mounted. The one-and-a-half-story wooden keeper’s dwelling had two rooms on the ground floor and a one-room loft upstairs, and was separate from the tower.
The station went into operation in 1805, and was later described in the American Coast Pilot as being “the key of the Sound.” Although the area was often covered with dense fog or haze, there would be no fog signal at the station for fifty-one more years.
The first keeper of Little Gull Island Lighthouse was Israel Rogers, who along with his wife Serviah and children, had to share the small dwelling with an assistant keeper and his wife and children in a location where they were sometimes isolated for up to two months at a time. This level of hardship and lack of privacy was typical for lighthouse personnel and their families. The next keeper was Giles Holt, Israel’s son-in-law, who served an ultimatum to the local Superintendent of Lighthouses that the womenfolk would not put up with the housing arrangement any longer. If an additional two bedrooms were not built, Holt threatened to resign his post. Holt may have got his way as the dwelling was later described as a seven-room structure.
The War of 1812 began with a Declaration of War by the U.S. Congress, but communications were so slow in those times (it took four days for the news to reach Boston), and lighthouses so remote, that Giles Holt may have not even noticed there was a war on, if the war hadn’t suddenly come to him. On July 28, 1813, a small British force landed at Little Gull Island and removed all of the lamps and reflectors, putting the station out of service for the duration of the conflict.
Giles Holt and his family returned to the station after the war, but their routine was soon disrupted again when the great hurricane of September 23, 1815 swept through New England. Little Gull Island was almost wiped clean; the lantern was heavily damaged, all the windows were broken, the well was ruined, and outbuildings were demolished. Everyone at the station was forced to take refuge inside the lighthouse. One account says that when they emerged after the storm, they found the lighthouse sitting on a small patch of level ground atop a twenty-foot-high gravel bluff. Much of the island’s soil around them had simply been washed into the sea.Holt and his family were once again forced to leave the station, this time for several months while repairs were made. Holt then returned, this time without his family, but resigned the following summer, apparently having had enough. Keeping it in the family, his replacement was John Rogers II – his nephew, and grandson of the first keeper, Israel Rogers. John Rogers kept the position for ten years before he was fired for repeatedly letting the light go out. This serious neglect resulted from a combination of boredom and alcoholism.
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