It’s a curious phenomenon that people who live far from the ocean are obsessed with lighthouses. Here in southern Illinois, my mother collected lighthouses. At an art fair a while back where I sold my wares, the only prints I sold were two lighthouses and an ocean print. Is it merely the picturesque shape, the connection with the ocean? Or is it something deeper, the lonely vigil on the edge of the world, a lone sentinel standing between the surf and shore, a guiding beacon of light and safety?
Montauk Point Lighthouse was commissioned by President George Washington in 1796. Prior to that, British soldiers during the American Revolution used its elevated location, known as Turtle Hill for watch fires, to guide their ships which blockaded Long Island sound.
Many famous people have climbed the steps of the lighthouse, including Walt Whitman and Teddy Roosevelt. When Robert Moses ordered the construction of Montauk Point Parkway in 1931, the lighthouse became easily accessible, and visitors have been streaming in since.
One person thought to have come to Montauk Point Lighthouse was a young lady named Abigail. The waters around Long Island have long been a graveyard for ships and mariners, with countless victims falling victim to tides, storms and just plain old bad luck.
Our Abigail was a passenger on one such ship, lost off Montauk Point at Christmas in 1811. She managed to make her way to the beach below the lighthouse, and some stories say she was brought up the cliff and inside. But the struggle against the sea proved too much, and Abigail died there.
Since then a plethora of people claim to have heard her voice echoing inside the lighthouse. Others have seen her climbing its steps or strolling the grounds.
According to the Long Island newspaper, Newsday, one believer is Henry Osmers, Montauk Lighthouse historian, who actually places the shipwreck in the late 1800s. He had three supernatural experiences inside the lighthouse which he attributes to Abigail, including her tugging on his shirt repeatedly. Other staff working inside report furniture being moved around in the dead of night, pictures swinging on the walls and unexplained noises, in a building known for strange noises.
The sea is mysterious, unfathomably deep, too deep for most humans to comprehend. And the deeper you go the darker it gets, till all is black.
British artist Cate Davies related to me once the thrill of swimming in the ocean to where the continental shelf drops. That thought haunts me still, from the relative safety of shallow water to the depths of the ocean, the water turning cold and dark beneath your feet.
So as Christmas approaches, with it comes the ghostly ship bearing Abigail once more to her final home in Montauk, where the Montauk Point Lighthouse stands still, a giant candle on a cliff to guide the living and the dead, home.