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Step into the North Fork’s nautical past at Horton Point Light. (Illustrated by Kelly Franke)

Sweeping, dramatic views of the Long Island Sound and a tie to a Founding Father can both be found at Horton Point Lighthouse in Southold.

Perched atop a high bluff, the beacon was first commissioned in 1790 by George Washington in response to frequent shipwrecks in the waters below, once declared “Dead Man’s Cove.” (An anchor recovered from one such wreck that sank in 1866 remains on display on the grounds today.)

The 58-foot granite lighthouse was first illuminated on Oct. 15, 1857, powered by a state-of-the-art Fresnel lens and whale oil lamp.

Ten lighthouse keepers oversaw its operation until 1933, when factors like the Great Depression and more widespread availability of electricity led to its automation.

“People always wonder who the keepers were,” said Deanna Witte-Walker, executive director of the Southold Historical Museum, which maintains the Nautical Museum at the site today.

“When you think about lighthouse keepers and what their life must have been like, it was really solitary. You look out the front windows or stand on the porch, that vast water in front of you … it’s pretty intense.”

One of those keepers — Stella Prince — recently took her rightful place in the history books after the U.S. Coast Guard added her to its official list of Women Lighthouse Keepers on Feb. 17 of this year — 120 years after she served.

Prince was the only woman to serve as Horton Point’s lighthouse keeper from June 1903 to November 1904, though she lived there for 34 of her 60 years.

Her fascinating, untold story was brought to light by Mary Korpi, a volunteer who became so intrigued that she researched and published a novel, “The Lady Lighthouse Keeper,” about Prince last year.

During its years out of commission, the tower was used by the military to watch for enemy aircraft during World War II and the museum first opened at the site in the late ’70s.

In 1990, the Coast Guard re-commissioned the tower and the light once again glowed after decades in the dark. Today, the grounds draw visitors that include history and lighthouse buffs, families tracing their local lineage or those just looking to get a unique bird’s-eye-view of the water.

The museum is located in the former keeper’s quarters, where visitors can view an assemblage of marine tools like sextants and harpoons, nautical paintings and other artifacts.

Over the winter, Walker and a team of volunteers led mainly by collections manager Amy Folk reshaped the museum’s exhibits to focus on four main themes: baymen and life on the bay, whaling, the lighthouse and its keepers and local maritime history.

“We’re reinterpreting exhibits, taking out some artifacts so it’s a little less crowded and tying them together so it tells a story,” Walker explained. “You want to tell the story, but not take away from learning about it.”

A popular exhibit on rumrunning on the East End during Prohibition that was introduced last summer will also remain, she said.

Walker said Horton Point — one of seven lighthouses in Southold Town — is special for two reasons.

The first is accessibility: it’s on land. “It’s a beautiful structure to go up because it’s not exhausting,” she explained of the tower, which takes just 27 narrow winding steps to reach. “There is a ladder you have to climb up at the end, but it is accessible for more people than some of the larger, more well-known lighthouses.”

The other, she said, is the volunteer docents.

“They are so excited to share their enthusiasm and knowledge with visitors and it makes the experience that much more personal,” Walker said.

Explore the nautical museum and scale the tower for a breathtaking view of the Long Island Sound. Visitors are also encouraged to explore the nature trail in the surrounding woods and stroll down wooden steps to a rocky beach below. Outdoor tables and grills also make it a great spot for an afternoon picnic.

Horton Point Lighthouse is open to the public seasonally on weekends from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. between Memorial Day and mid-September. Parking and admission (cash only) is $5 and $10 for families. Heads up: street parking is by Southold Town permit only!

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