Volunteer effort continues at Horton Point Lighthouse in Southold

07/21/2015 6:00 AM |

Horton Point Lighthouse

There are a few hundred names in the guestbook at the Horton Point Lighthouse in Southold.

Next to each name, guests list where they hail from. Some places one would expect, such as Southold or Mattituck.

Others, not quite as much: Florida. California. Canada. Nepal.

This small, volunteer-run lighthouse manages to attract 3,000 or more visitors every year from all corners of the globe. And for each visitor that comes in, there’s a local volunteer waiting for them.

“I love the history of lighthouses,” said volunteer Ben Gonzalez said as he wrapped up a shift showing visitors around on a recent Saturday. “This gives me the opportunity to learn more and get others engaged.”

The visitors make it easy.

“Everybody who comes here is happy,” said volunteer Mary Turner. “Everybody is here to learn and enjoy, so it’s a wonderful job.”

The lighthouse was built in 1857 by the U.S. Lighthouse Service on a bluff roughly 60 feet above Long Island Sound.

For nearly 80 years, a series of lighthouse keepers tended to the guiding light at the top of the 58-foot-high tower. They were charged with keeping the lamp stocked with sperm whale oil and cleaning smoke off windows.

“Kids love to ask questions about the lighthouse,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

But in 1933, the lighthouse was decommissioned and a skeletal, metal 50-foot tower installed with an green electrical light was built next to the lighthouse.

The lighthouse remained closed throughout the 1960s and into the 70s, when a restoration project began. Horton Point was officially reopened in the 1990s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places; the metal tower was removed.

There’s still a green light spinning atop the tower, signaling to boaters every 10 seconds, but its completely automated now.

The volunteers, three or four to a shift twice a day, run around the grounds completing different tasks, mainly teaching visitors about the history of the light. They’re called “lighthouse keepers” to continue the tradition.

Every shift, one volunteer spends his or her day inside the tower, but they don’t touch the light itself.

Instead, they sit on a small stool with a flower-printed cushion as an electric fan cools the glass-lined room around the lighthouse. They talk to the visitors that make the climb up the tower, their voices echoing like they’re speaking into a cup.

The volunteers also ensure safety at the top of the tower, as the steep winding staircase can be dangerous.

The tower is connected to a home that once housed the lighthouse keeper. Inside, wall space is at a premium.

The walls are covered in artifacts, like harpoon hooks and paintings of ships. A set of cabinets break up the center of the main living room, where a roughly 3-foot-tall lighthouse lens from 1853 and a model whaling ship take center stage.

The items found in the museum — from wedding china to spoons and crochet hooks made from whale bone — were donated, said Jill Wilson, a co-chair of the Southold Historical Society’s lighthouse committee that runs the museum.

“All this came out of attics, basements and garages,” she said.

Unlike other museums, a lot of the exhibits are hands on. Young guests are allowed to ring the chow bell hanging on the wall, or sound the buoy bell next to the giant lens.

“Kids can touch things in here,” Ms. Wilson said. “We’re not a hands-off kind of place.”

Volunteers are encouraged to show off the bell and the light. They take guests through the house to the exhibit about whaling or the former submarine base in New Suffolk.

The volunteers’ ages vary wildly. The youngest are teenagers — 14-, 15- or 16-years-old — or high school students who want community service hours. The most senior volunteers — which run into their 80s — have been volunteering for decades.

The volunteer team is a cycle, with new blood coming in just as older members leave due to ill health or family issues, Ms. Wilson said.

“We always need volunteers because we lose some number of volunteers every year,” she said. “We do need to keep renewing the group.”

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Photo Caption: Volunteer Bill Graf shows a guest around the interior of the Horton Point Lighthouse.

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