The breeze had picked up, the moon high in the sky and the little fire on the beach was blessedly warm. The older gentleman spoke softly, a gentle lilt to his voice as he retraced the history of Fire Island and the Fire Island Lighthouse.
“There seems to be some disagreement about how Fire Island came by its name. There’s one camp that claims it’s Dutch. The Dutch were about the first people in this area you know? When they came here they found four inlets where they could bring in their boats, and the Dutch name for four is vier. Have you ever seen any of the old maps? Queer things indeed, hard to read and of course it made no sense to the average Englishman who came later, and it’s thought that when they read vier, the mistook it for fire, and so it became Fire Island.”
“And then there’s others who claim it’s from the wreckers, who were pirates in all but name only. They would set a fire on the lee side of the island, and merchant ships would head for that light, particularly in a storm thinking they would find safe harbor. Instead they would run aground and come apart here on the island.
“Get to the part about the ghosts Grandpa,” a small voice said from the other side of the fire ring. Three little heads were barely visible, huddled close together, only their eyes shining from the firelight in the darkness. Behind them the Atlantic was bluish grey, the white caps of the surf flickering and disappearing as they crashed up on the beach.”
“Just keep your britches on, we’ll get to that,” he said, with just a trace of irritation. The old fellow knew his business. A ghost story is by nature short, as is an encounter with a ghost. Seeing a ghost can be like the flicker of a candle, just a shifting of shapes in the light and it’s gone before you can even speak the word. A ghost story therefore by nature, but be fed to the listener, like letting out the line from a rod and reel, waiting for the listener to take the bait.
“The first people to live on the island came here in 1653, when a fellow,” he glanced over at Miss Bronwen and me. “Isaac Stratford, fellow out of Babylon if memory serves me correct, built a whaling station and called it by the name of Whalehouse Point. Old Man Stratford and his boys would haul boats across Fire Island from the lee side over here to the beach. They built towers up there on the dunes and would scan the horizon during the day. Well sooner or later there’d be a spout of water coming out of whale and old man Stratford would shout out “whale off” and they’d all haul arse into the boats and off they’d go, harpoons, rope, the whole nine yards because there was good money to be had in those days from whales. They learned the technique from the Indians of the area, but it was the white men who turned it into commerce. So they’d load the great fish up with harpoons, and attached to these harpoons were what was called a drogue. A drogue is a barrel or a sealskin which has been inflated and then sealed off, and once you got the harpoons in it, the whale would tire itself out trying to submerge and stay down, and eventually the boys could pull up beside it and spear it to death. Then they’d haul it up to the beach, all blood soaked and smeared with blubber and pull out the knives and the saws and get to work. The oil lit their lanterns and of course they could turn that into a bit of coin. The bones went into combs and such, collars that the men were wearing at the time, umbrellas and later on, hoops for women’s dresses.”
“Now by about the 1800’s there weren’t any more whales close to the shore. Either they had been hunted out, or the whales had wizened up, so to hunt for whales meant you needed a ship, and Whalehouse Point was pretty soon forgotten. But ships were forever running aground on the island, or sinking off the island in the shallow waters.
So in 1826 they decided to build a lighthouse there on the end of the island, right next to the inlet. Over the years the sand has stretched itself out, and of course the inlet starts several miles down the beach. But they threw the lighthouse up there with blue split rock imported and shipped in from the Connecticut River. It wasn’t neary as tall as this one is, just about 75 foot. And it was eight sided …”
Â Foundations of the First Lighthouse,
“An octagon!” said a small voice from the darkness.
“That’s right, an octagon” he said and continued, “but it wasn’t tall enough. Ships far out see couldn’t see the light, and in fog or bad weather it was all but invisible.”
He looked off into the darkness and our eyes followed, and the light flashed brightly for an instant before disappearing again, repeating itself enlessly a half mile or so down the beach.
They say what spelled the end for that lighthouse was a shipwreck. Now there were countless shipwrecks up and down this coast, but usually the poor drowned fellows were just sailors, and a sailor’s life wasn’t worth a plug nickel in those days. If you made your living from the sea you had to expect that at any time you might die from the sea as well. But this wasn’t just anyone feeding the fish this time. She was a society woman with a mouthful of a name, Sarah Margaret Fuller, a Cambridge gal from up in Massachusetts. She was something of a thinking woman, the first one to be admitted to Harvard Library as it was called then, a schoolteacher, literary critic and a writer herself. Now all these literary types of the day, Emerson, Thoreau and even Walt Whitman who was a Long Island boy you know, knew her and knew her stuff, and thought she was just the bee’s knees. Then old Horace Greely of the New York Times, made her the first woman correspondent to come out of the states. She went to Rome and fell in love, got mixed up in the revolution there with a marchese with an ever longer name, the Marchese Giovanni Angelo Ossoli. And eventually her and the marchese got themselves married, had a baby and decided that coming back here would be a better option than the guillotine or the mob.
So off they went on the merchant ship Elizabeth, this would have been about 1850 or so. It was a horrible, horrible journey. Smallpox spread through the ship, the captain died, and that left a fellow with at most half a brain to steer them the rest of the way, and of course the Atlantic is pretty unforgiving to fools. They got caught in a storm out there, just off the beach and he ran the ship aground – thinking the lighthouse was the Cape May Lighthouse and so thought he was off New Jersey. He tells everyone to get ready to be in New York harbor by daybreak and so they all put on their finery as it turns out, to drown in. Anyway, Margaret, the marchess and their little boy Angelo got washed over the side as the ship slowly sank to the bottom, and was never found. Now lots of bodies have washed up, often right here at the foot of the lighthouse, and it’s said that from time to time you can still see Maggie walking along the beach, looking for her lost manuscript which she was bringing back to New York with her, her little boy and husband following along behind.
But at any rate, since such an important person had died this time, they decided they needed a bigger lighthouse out here on the island. Friends in high places put the squeeze on congress and out popped $40,000 and within a year this lighthouse was up, more than twice as high as the original.”
“How high is this one?” Miss Bronwen asked, and the old gent turned to her.
“Oh now, it’s about 168 feet tall, give or take a few inches, made of red brick which you can see if you go inside there, and originally was painted a kind of baby shit yellow. It was a real jewel in its time. They stuck a First Order Fresnel Lens in it, which sent out its light once a minute. They used a Funk Lamp with four concentric wicks, lit up with whale oil, lard, mineral oil and even kerosene. It wasn’t till 1938 that they finally got electicity out here, and a little longer till they got it working as the hurricane came that year and blew the power out for quite some time.”
One of the little ones yawned and another said in a quiet and somewhat bored voice “get to the part about the ghosts already.”
The grandfather shot him a look, then picked up the story.
“Anyway, about the time they were building the new lighthouse, the keeper there lived in the keeper’s quarters with his wife and daughter. And they had pulled down the regular quarters along with the lighthouse to build the platform for the new one, or so the story goes. And for a while work stopped on the lighthouse for winter, and you see, the keeper and his family was living in what wasn’t much more than a wooden shack out here in the dunes. And the wind gets hard in the winter, the temperature dropped, and the little girl got sick. They sent for the doctor, but out there they were pretty much isolated – there weren’t any bridges back then – and the only way across was by boat, which you couldn’t do if the bay was frozen over. In that case you had to wait till the temperature dropped a bit more and the ice was safe to cross. Whatever the reason, it was at least three days before the doctor showed up, and by then there wasn’t anything he could do for the little girl, and the next day she gave up the ghost.”
“So this was pretty much it for the little family. The mother went back to Sayville to bury the girl and never came back. The keeper stayed on here – he had to keep the fires burning you see, and after a while he finally realized his wife wasn’t coming back. So anyway the new lighthouse gets built, and the story gets lost right about here. Some say the keeper stayed on and died there in the keeper’s quarters. And now and then people still see him wandering about in there, a shadowy figure in the night, pacing the floors, waiting for the doctor to save his little lady. Other’s say he finally went mad, and it wasn’t till the people on the shore noticed that the light had gone out and came over to investigate, that they found him hanging inside the new lighthouse, up there from the trap door in the top, driven mad from greef and loneliness. Some say that wasn’t the same keeper, but a later one who hung himself. And others say it was an earlier one, and that he hung himself in the old lighthouse, not the new one at all.
The folks that work in the lighthouse now, there in the gift shop say they hear doors slamming when no one else is there, footsteps climbing the tower, a crazy laughing as the old keeper climbs the steps, rope in hand looking for a place to tie it off so he can do his last, lonely dance. Some of them say there ain’t no ghosts at all in there, that they are all just stories which somebody made up to sell a book. But true or not, that’s the story.”
It had grown late and I noticed Miss Bronwen yawning, and so we got up, said our goodbyes and started back down the beach.
“So do you buy any of it?” she asked. “The hauntings I mean.”
“Well I climbed to the top of it myself you know?” She looked at me, her eyebrow arching skeptically.
“You, whose knees shake when you climb a stepladder?”
“That be me, and okay, so I don’t like heights, but I figure if I put myself up against enough of them, eventually I’ll get over it. Anyway, I climbed up there, and it’s an ungodly climb too I might add. I know I’m not exactly lithe, but there was a guy bigger than myself huffing and puffing his way up the spiral staircase below me. I looked down once or twice and that was more than enough as you can see straight down almost to the bottom. We were about to the top and I could have sworn I heard his heart beating from one flight up, then realized it was mine. The top is pretty claustrophobic, and up there was a young lady whose job it is I assume to prevent people from hurling themselves off. So I go out to take some photos, get on the catwalk before it strikes me – oh that’s right, I’m petrified of heights. So I’m plastered against the wall of the thing, keeping at least one hand with a deathgrip on anything that feels solid at all times, figure I’ve had enough and go in to talk to her. I ask her if there any ghosts here and she tells me pretty much the same story as the old fellow back there. So is it possible? Sure. Why not?”
She looked at me again, the eyebrow still arched. “Actually I can believe the idea that it’s haunted more than I can believe you climbed to the top without either money being involved or a gun stuck between your ribs.”
I sniffed indignantly and looked out to sea. In the darkness the light of a ship flickered in the darkness, and I thought of the history of the place. There were the rum runners in the twentieth century, hundreds of thousand of emmigrants whose first sight of America was the light of Fire Island Lighthouse’s beacon from far out to sea. And with a bit of pride I walked on down the beach, satisfied that I had climbed to the top of a piece of history.
Real ghost stories and the places that inspired them