In an effort to save history, group hopes to begin Bug Light renovations next spring

In 1871, an arm of the federal government built a lighthouse off the sandbar at Long Beach, a spit of shifting sand that juts south from Orient and bends like a crooked finger to the west, creating a navigational challenge for boats entering the Peconic Bay en route to the harbor in Greenport.

Officially, the 54-foot-tall structure — with a solid red beacon perched at the top behind glass panels — is called the Long Beach Bar Light. But the locals who passed it in their boats soon nicknamed it Bug Light because of how the structure was perched atop long screw piles ­­— like stilts ­— that made it look like a giant, long-legged insect. The name stuck.

On Monday, Paul Kreiling, chairman of the board of Greenport’s East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation, and Tracy Orlando, the organization’s interim director, climbed aboard Glen Heidtmann’s Boston Whaler for the ride from a floating dock behind the museum to Bug Light. Mr. Heidtmann is the general contractor for work to be done on the lighthouse. 

The day was overcast, the bay calm. Greenport harbor was filled with sailboats heeling in the southwest breeze. As Mr. Heidtmann’s boat approached the dock on the east side of the structure, Ms. Orlando and Mr. Kreiling spoke about the lighthouse’s history, what they dream it can become with a thorough rebuilding, and how, somehow, it survived a century and a half of nor’easters and hurricanes.

“This is our history,” Ms. Orlando said. “This the rich past we have here, and we want to do everything we can to preserve it. It has lasted this long — we want it to be here years from now.”

Climbing up a ladder to a dock and then entering the first floor of the lighthouse, Mr. Kreiling agreed. “We have a rich maritime history here, and Bug Light is very much a part of that history.”

From 1871 to about the mid-1940s, Bug Light was home to a lightkeeper. This person lived on the second floor and maintained the light — which later switched from a red beacon to a white flash every five seconds — as well as a large bell that still hangs on the west side of the structure and was clanged when fog was particularly thick.

During the monster hurricane of 1938, the lightkeeper and his grandson huddled in a corner on the second floor and somehow survived the massive storm that crossed the Peconic Bay from the Shinnecock Canal to Greenport. Waves flooded the first floor and crashed against the second floor. 

The storm pretty much marked the end of Bug Light. 

“The damage from the hurricane was such that no one wanted to live there,” Mr. Kreiling said. “It was decommissioned in 1948.”

Almost from that year, many residents of the area, particularly Greenport, sought ways to preserve it. It was their past; they wanted it to be their future as well. It was no easy task. Saltwater and storms did extensive damage to the structure, and in 1955 the federal government put the structure up for sale. A local group called the Orient Point Marine Historical Association placed the winning bid of $1,700. (Other bids were around $200.)

Inside Bug Light (from left): contractor Glen Heidtmann with Tracy Orlando and Paul Kreiling of East End Seaport Museum. (Credit: Jeremy Garretson)

The light at the top was no longer operative. It was just a rotting box sitting in the bay waiting for someone to put it out of its misery, an end to which came in 1963, when the building burned to the waterline. Some said arson, some said an accident. Either way, it was gone. 

“All that was left was the foundation,” Mr. Kreiling said.

The rest of the Bug Light story is about how a small group of determined people accomplished something good. In 1989, the Marine Foundation was formed to raise funds to buy the site for eventual restoration. That foundation later merged with the East End Seaport Museum to form a single organization whose purpose was to save Bug Light.

Reconstruction began in 1990, and in 1993 the U.S. Coast Guard brought the light at the top back to life. The rest of the building is owned by the museum. Once a beacon at the entrance to the bays, the light began to work again — a five-second beacon fishermen could see when they rounded Montauk Point and headed into Gardiners Bay.

Superstorm Sandy in 2012 flooded the building again, but the museum was determined to press on. Nothing less than the region’s maritime history was at stake. For the past 10 years Bug Light has been part of the museum’s tours.

Working with Mr. Heidtmann of Heidtmann & Sons Builders has been a very good partnership for the museum. And there is a lot of work to be done. Pointing to a center column dating to 1871, Mr. Heidtmann said there are several critical repair issues on the first floor alone, but being involved in the work has been a welcome challenge.

“In the second half of my career, you look for different sorts of projects and challenges,” Mr. Heidtmann said. “I’m from Greenport. This is my history, too.”

Restoration began in 2018, with the most recent work by Mr. Heidtmann’s crews shoring up the foundation.  As Ms. Orlando and Mr. Kreiling said, the real work toward bringing Bug Light back to its glory years will begin in the spring, with Mr. Heidtmann setting up scaffolding — a real challenge on the giant granite boulders around the base of the lighthouse — and replacing siding and removing wood rot.

The bottom line: “Our goal is to raise $1.5 million for the rest of the work,” Ms. Orlando said. “We will work very hard to do it. This is the history we want to save.”

“We have quite a bit of water intrusion and water is underneath the siding,” Mr. Kreiling said. “The sheathing is compromised. Some of the beams are rotten.”

And when it’s all done?

“We see it as a possible venue for civic events,” Mr. Kreiling said. “Once it is redone, we will have a venue that will enrich the community. Our maritime history is not dead. We want to keep it alive.”