Bank Holdup

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It sits like an exclamation point at the easternmost tip of Long Island and has done so for 184 years—making the Montauk Point Lighthouse one of the oldest in the United States. It also has the distinction of having been authorized by President George Washington himself. One of the first federal agencies created by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was the Lighthouse Service—later absorbed by the Coast Guard—and one of the first areas chosen for a government light was Montauk Point, which guarded the entrance to Long Island Sound and had been the scene of many fearsome wrecks. In 1792 the government bought a patch of land at the point for $255.12, then invited bids for the construction of a lighthouse.

The winner was John McComb, Jr., a New Yorker whose bid came in at $22,300. McComb billed himself as a “bricklayer,” but he was a good deal more than that. Already he had built the lighthouse at Cape Henry, Virginia, and the Government House and City Hall in New York, and he would go on to construct Hamilton Grange, Alexander Hamilton’s estate in the wilds of upper Manhattan. In any case, on August 18, 1795, President Washington’s secretary wrote to McComb to declare that “the President has this day approved the proposals for building a Light House on Montauk Point, as made by you. … You will therefore consider this same as mutually binding upon you and the United States.” McComb built well. With walls 9 feet thick at the base, the 80-foot lighthouse was completed in 1797, casting its whale-oil beam to sea. In 1853 a Fresnel lamp powered by refined lard oil was installed, and in 1903 the light was converted to electricity, enabling it to be seen from a distance of more than thirty miles. Additions to the tower itself were made in 1849 and 1860, bringing it to its present height of 108 feet, but it remains today largely the same sturdy, reliable structure it was when McComb finished laying down the last of its sandstone blocks.

Not as much can be said for the ground on which the lighthouse stands. Montauk Point—that “defiant promontory, upon which the wild Atlantic incessantly beats, and sometimes with tremendous violence,” as a writer for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine described it in 1871—is a glacial moraine whose friable soil is uncommonly vulnerable to the action of wind, rain, and waves. The resulting erosion has been extraordinary. When the lighthouse was built, it stood 297 feet from the edge of its 65-foot bluff; today, it is barely 60 feet away—close enough to give credence to the notion that one of these days it might simply lean over like a great tree and topple into the Atlantic.

That is not likely to happen—not because it would be impossible, but because a handful of citizen-volunteers decided that it could not be allowed to happen. In 1969 editorials in the Montauk Pioneer called attention to the danger, and annual “light-ins” began to be held three days a week by volunteers attempting to halt the erosion. They were joined and soon led by Donald and Giorgina Reid, a couple who had learned a great deal about erosion control while protecting their own bluff top home on Long Island’s North Shore—learned so much, in fact, that Mrs. Reid ultimately wrote a book called How to Hold Up a Bank .

The system they devised was simple and effective. For protection against wave action at the foot of the bluff, gabions—rock-filled wire cages—were installed. “Gabions,” Mrs. Reid has written, “allow water collecting at the rear to drain through, preventing hydrostatic pressure. They can hold their own against the sea because they don’t fight it.” Above the gabions reed-trench-terracing, developed (and patented) by the Reids, was installed. Cedar planks with stakes attached were driven, step by step, into the cliffside. Behind each step a trench was dug, and into the trenches reeds were packed to absorb and retain moisture and prevent the formation of rain gullies. On top of the reeds went sand, and into the sand were planted shrubs and various grasses—all of it designed to contain the soil erosion.

The system worked, but the job is not yet done. Mrs. Reid, seventy-two years old and still fighting, now finds herself in something close to a one-woman struggle. Over the years, her volunteers have dwindled to a precious few. While the Coast Guard has put $137,000 into the project, the State Parks Commission—which owns a part of the bluff- hampered by budgetary problems, has been able to contribute very little, and a great deal of the financing has come out of her own and her husband’s pockets. Still, she is not about to give it up. “Properly done,” she says, “there is no reason on earth why our system shouldn’t hold back the erosion forever.” And so she and her husband and one or two faithful volunteers continue to spend two or three days a week battling the elements that would eat away Montauk Point.

We can only wish her and her friends well, for it would be an ignominy indeed if a 108-foot historical landmark were somehow lost at sea.