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Volunteer Ben Gonzalez perched at the top of the lighthouse, waiting to show visitors around. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

To trace the roots of Southold’s Horton Point Lighthouse, one must go back decades before the beacon was first illuminated in the mid-19th century.

In fact, it was none other than our nation’s future first president, George Washington, who recommended the establishment of a lighthouse at Horton Point — way back in 1756. 

Word of numerous shipwrecks in the water became a cause of concern for Mr. Washington, a surveyor at the time, as he traveled across the region on horseback.

“There was a lot of shipping on the Long Island Sound,” explained Gill Wilson, co-chair of the Southold Historical Society’s lighthouse committee. “And because of the amount of shallow sandbars and traffic, there were a lot of shipwrecks.”

Ms. Wilson’s remarks came at the start of Saturday’s discussion of the lighthouse’s history, one of a pair of activities the historical society is hosting this month to celebrate the lighthouse, which is listed in both the New York State Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places. The discussion was followed by a guided tour of the nautical museum on the lighthouse grounds, as well as a climb to the top of the lighthouse tower.

The exterior of the lighthouse. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)
The exterior of the lighthouse. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Attendees of the open house learned that although Mr. Washington commissioned construction of the granite lighthouse as president in 1790, it wouldn’t be built for several decades, due to a property owner’s unwillingness to sell the eight acres at Horton Point known as Cliff Lot. In 1857, two years after the federal government finally acquired the land, the lighthouse and keeper’s cottage were built for $12,000 atop the 110-foot bluffs.

A state-of-the-art Fresnel lens and whale oil-powered lamp completed the tower, Ms. Wilson explained. It was lit for the fist time on June 4, 1857.

With the expansion of electricity to the North Fork in the 1930s, the U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned Horton Point Lighthouse, Ms. Wilson said, replacing it in 1932 with a skeletal tower erected nearby that contained an automatic electric aero beacon. The federal government then transferred the land and the lighthouse to the Town of Southold in 1937.

It wasn’t until the lighthouse was threatened with demolition that the structure was fully restored and a light was restored to the tower.

A view of the staircase inside the lighthouse. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)
A view of the staircase inside the lighthouse. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Since June 1, 1990, Horton Point has again been a working lighthouse, operated by volunteers.

“This lighthouse’s signature is a flashing green light that rotates every 10 seconds,” Ms. Wilson said. “The light shines about 12 1/2 miles out, which is about as far away as Connecticut.”

Horton Point is one of Southold’s seven existing lighthouses and is located on what is appropriately named Dead Man’s Cove. Over the past three centuries, at least 10 vessels have been lost in the surrounding waters.

The history of shipwrecks at Dead Man’s Cove will be brought to life in a Southold Historical Society exhibit at the Reichert Family Center’s Cosden Price Gallery on Main Road in Southold. The exhibit can be viewed Saturdays from June 4 to July 23.

The anchor recovered from the side-wheeler Commodore, which was wrecked and sank off Horton Point around Christmas Day, 1866, remains on display at the lighthouse grounds. The park grounds also offer picnic tables and access to a beach and nature trail.

Horton Point Lighthouse is located at 3575 Lighthouse Road in Southold. It is open Saturdays and Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Columbus Day. Admission is $5 for adults and $10 per family.