FI Lighthouse Celebrates 20th Relighting
By Ashraya Gupta

Thomas F. Roberts III does not call himself a “lighthouse junkie.” He does not traipse the seaside in search of these beacons of history. He’s not even a boater—but he has devoted over 20 years of his life to the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (FILPS).

Asked why, the founding president of the society simply says, “My involvement is volunteer… I like history and my wife dared me to do it.”

The “it” in this case would be the restoration of the Fire Island Lighthouse, which faced almost certain demolition in the early 1980s. Roberts founded FILPS in 1982. With the help of the public and support from the National Park Service (NPS), FILPS raised $1.2 million in its first four years to save the historic structure.

At 9 p.m. on May 26, 1986, the lighthouse was reopened and reinstated as an official aid to navigation by the U.S. Coast Guard. It had not been in service since 1973. Over 750 boats watched the grand relighting ceremony from the bay. Larger ocean-going vessels flashed lights and blew horns as they pulled out of the harbor.

This past Memorial Day weekend, FILPS celebrated the 20th anniversary of the event.

The beacon was still rotating every seven and a half seconds and a few visitors braved the 192 steps to the top.

“The public supported us, so we wanted to give something back to them,” said Roberts.

The day featured a rollicking set of sea chanteys sung by Sampwamps Creek and a dramatic reading by Vivian Farrell from her book, Robert’s Tall Friend, which is the official book of Suffolk County. It tells the story of Robert Norris, the son of a NPS ranger, who lived in the lighthouse keeper’s cottage during the 1970s and ‘80s.

Standing at the foot of the 168-foot-tall structure, Farrell described the peeling paint and the crumbling walls, it became clear that the lighthouse has certainly come a long way. Now it welcomes 120,000 visitors each year. From “just an idea, a dream,” the restored lighthouse has become the signature symbol of the island. Just take a look at half the advertisements here.

Roberts muses that its attraction lies in the lighthouse’s varied significance: it’s part of our nautical heritage, it was the first light immigrants saw as they reached America, and then there’s the poetic aspect. People see “solitude, quietness” in a lighthouse. It’s “something pointing up to the heavens, a beacon to protect life.”

Is it this romantic aspect that motivates the 80 volunteers who keep the lighthouse open from season to season? Is it a passion for history that drives the board of directors? Roberts isn’t sure.

“For one reason or another, they all love this lighthouse,” he said.

And it shows: the board took money out of their own pockets to fund the anniversary celebrations. Volunteers and board members manned the grills and tables, serving free hot dogs and carrot cake. The crowd certainly kept them busy.

Roberts, smiling, said, “The best thing that could happen today would be to run out of hot dogs.”