Return of the Lens

Once there were three major lighthouses protecting the south shore of Long Island. The first built was the Montauk Light. The second was the Fire Island Lighthouse and the third was the Shinnecock Lighthouse (aka Ponquogue Light). All three were outfitted with state-of-the-art Fresnel lenses.

The Fresnel lens was the invention of the French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel (1788-1827). Fresnel was fascinated by light and spent his too-short life developing theories on its propagation. His research in optics, specifically the wave theory of light, overshadowed even Isaac Newton, but it is the Fresnel lens for which he is most remembered.

His idea was an array of prisms, arranged in a circle, each ground to a different angle. This collected disparate rays and focused them into a single beam. Additionally, his design of multiple lenses with large apertures and short focal lengths enable its construction using much less material than previous designs.

Dating all the way back to 1903, the Montauk Point Lighthouse still displays its three-and-a-half-order Fresnel lens.

The Fresnel lens in use at the Shinnecock Lighthouse vanished when the lighthouse was demolished in 1948. A local newspaper reported the event as follows: “There were tears in the eyes of many old timers who stood watching the old landmark pass away, powerless to save the old building. We did our best to save it, but in vain. Thus passes a landmark that will be missed by thousands ashore and by those who still used the old Ponquogue (Shinnecock) Lighthouse as a guide to bring them safely to land from the sea.”

Fire Island Lighthouse was outfitted with a revolving first-order Fresnel lens upon its completion in 1858. With its focal plane at 166 feet above sea level, this pineapple-shaped, 16-foot light lens could be seen by ships more than 20 nautical miles offshore. It was the first light sighted by millions of immigrants reaching America’s shores.

In anticipation of the coming of electricity, the lens was removed in 1933, disassembled into 300 pieces, packed into 31 crates, and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where it was on display at the Franklin Institute for 66 years.

The lens remained on permanent display at the institute until the year 2000, when it was once again disassembled, packed into crates, and placed in storage awaiting an uncertain future.

The Fire Island Lighthouse itself was decommissioned back in 1973 and was replaced with “small flash tube optic” installed atop the Robert Moses State Park Water Tower several miles to the west. The lighthouse was rapidly deteriorating due to neglect and vandalism and was being considered for demolition.

Remembering the fate that befell Shinnecock Light decades before, private citizens mobilized to save the lighthouse and in 1982 the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (FILPS) was organized. Under the leadership of its founding president Thomas F. Roberts III, the lighthouse was returned to duty as an active aid to navigation with a celebratory relighting ceremony on May 25, 1986.

It is now lit by two 1000-watt bulbs with a flash every 7.5 seconds and is visible approximately 21-24 miles out to sea.

On the turn of a new century, when FILPS heard that their original Fresnel was sitting in storage, a new campaign was launched to bring their lens home. Architect Kevin Albert designed the new building to resemble the original power station building that had long ago been demolished. The replica power station was created to become the new home for the Fresnel lens.

After much negotiation, and a Herculean feat of transportation logistics, the lens was returned to Fire Island. It was reassembled and unveiled to the public in 2011 in a long awaited Return of the Lens ceremony. The imposing lens has now enjoyed this special building built especially in its honor for a decade.

But something was missing – the Shinnecock Lighthouse Fresnel lens. Necessity builds lighthouses. Progress replaces them. Nostalgia preserves them – but not all of them. Back in 1948 it took three days to topple the Shinnecock Light, 800,000 bricks thundering onto Good Ground. But what happened to its Fresnel Lens?

A single-line posting in the Lighthouse Digest in their September/October 2012 issue mentioned that the Shinnecock Light Fresnel lens “made its way to the Pacific Coast and is on display at Rusty’s Pizza parlor in Santa Barbara, California.”

It had been found by Carol Duncan, co-founder with her husband Roger, of the Rusty’s Pizza chain of restaurants, by accident in an antique store. Ms. Duncan has eclectic sense of style, designing each of her stores with differing motifs. The concept for one is that of a lighthouse.

Lost for 75 years, and rumored to have been in someone’s garage until recently surfacing 3,000 miles from home, the Shinnecock Lighthouse Fresnel lens may have been found at last. The research continues.