Fire Island National Seashore | FIRE ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE VISITOR CENTER COMPLEX

Fire Island Visitor Center (former Lightkeeper’s House)

Fire Island Visitor Center (former Lightkeeper’s House)

Fire Island Lighthouse Unit Home Page


GENERAL INFORMATION

The Fire Island Lighthouse Visitor Center is located inside the historical Lightkeeper’s Quarters, the residence of the man who kept the Fire Island Lighthouse running. The house was built in 1858 at the same time as the lighthouse. Both stand on an elevated platform that was built to help prevent flooding. While the National Park Service calls this a visitor center, it is really a two-floor museum dedicated to lighthouses, particularly the Fire Island Lighthouse.

When you drive over the Robert Moses Causeway bridge and reach Fire Island, you will be entering Robert Moses State Park (there is a fee). Head to the left at the round-about and continue all the way to the end of the road. There is no parking within Fire Island National Seashore, so you’ll have to use the state park’s Field 5, which must be some Long Islander term for parking lot, because that’s what it is. Park at the far eastern end (take a left when entering) and look for the boardwalk that leads to the lighthouse. It is a .6-mile walk along level ground, and the boardwalk is accessible to those in wheelchairs.

Boardwalk connects the parking area and the Fire Island Lighthouse

Boardwalk connects the parking area and the Fire Island Lighthouse

OPERATING HOURS

  • April through December 15th
    • Daily from 9 AM to 5 PM
  • December 15th through March 31st
    • Weekends & Holidays from 12 PM to 4 PM

Times can always changes, so before making travel plans be sure to get the latest schedule on the National Park Service’s Operating Hours and Seasons web page for Fire Island National Seashore.

AMENITIES

  • Two-floor lighthouse museum
  • Ticket office for climbing the lighthouse
  • Fresnel Lens exhibit in the Fresnel Lens Building next door
  • Lifesaving Station exhibit in the boathouse next door
  • Gift Shop
  • Restrooms

LIGHTHOUSE MUSEUM

The Fire Island Lighthouse Museum’s main focus is the Fire Island Lighthouse and its restoration, but it also covers lighthouse technology, the life of a lightkeeper, and the history and geography of Fire Island, including a section on the private communities on the island. Most of the museum is comprised of information panels and old photographs. Of the few actual artifacts, the most interesting are a Fourth Order Fresnel Lens similar to one once used at the Fire Island Lighthouse and two Crouse-Hinds beacons that were stacked on top of each other and used at the lighthouse from 1952 until it closed in 1973.

Fourth Order Fresnel Lens

Fourth Order Fresnel Lens

Crouse-Hinds beacon lights used at Fire Island

Crouse-Hinds beacon lights used at Fire Island

Most of the other artifacts are found in an exhibit on the U. S. Lifesaving Service, which was the precursor to the U. S. Coast Guard that formed in 1915. Before the days of high-powered motorboats, men who joined the Lifesaving Service trained and lived at Lifesaving Stations that dotted the coast, very similar to firemen today. When a ship in distress was spotted, the men waited until it drifted close enough to shore to mount a land-based rescue operation. There were seven lifesaving stations on Fire Island.

Of particular interest is a small cannon called a Lyle gun. This shot a rope out to a ship so that what today would be called a zip line could be set up. A breeches buoy, which is essentially a life preserver with a pair of pants on it, was pulled out to the ship along the rope and then, one by one, passengers slipped into the breeches buoy and “zipped-lined” it back to shore. For more information on the U. S. Lifesaving Service, there is a separate exhibit exclusively on the subject in a boathouse located near the bay behind the Fire Island Lighthouse.

Lifesaving equipment (breeches buoy seen at top right)

Lifesaving equipment (breeches buoy seen at top right)

Lyle gun

Lyle gun

The Fire Island Lighthouse Museum is rather extensive. For those really into lighthouses, it takes about an hour to read through all of the materials and see all of the artifacts. For the typical tourist, allow fifteen minutes to browse through the museum.

FRESNEL LENS BUILDING

Fresnel Lens Building at Fire Island

Fresnel Lens Building at Fire Island

As you approach the lighthouse complex, the first building you come to—which looks like a barn—houses the original Fresnel Lens used in the second Fire Island Lighthouse, the one standing today. In 1821, Augustin Fresnel invented a revolutionary new lens system and developed four different sizes, or orders. More orders have been designed since its initial conception, and there are now eleven in total. The lens installed in the Fire Island Lighthouse in 1858 was a First Order lens, which was the largest size available.

In 1933, the original First Order lens was replaced with a First Order lens that used a newer rotation system that allowed it to rotate and flash at a faster rate. The original lens was disassembled and shipped to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia where it was put on display from 1939 all the way until 2000. When the lens exhibit ended, it was once again disassembled and put into storage. Fire Island National Seashore and the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society negotiated to borrow the lens on a long-term loan, but it took another ten years to raise the funds needed to build a new museum to house the lens.

Original First Order Fresnel Lens from the Fire Island Lighthouse

Original First Order Fresnel Lens from the Fire Island Lighthouse

In July 2011, the Fresnel Lens Building opened and the lens could once again be viewed by the public. There is no charge to enter, and the building is open whenever the lighthouse itself is open. The museum sits on the location of an old steam powered generator building that was built in 1896 during an initial effort to convert the lighthouse to electricity, a plan that was later cancelled. The Fresnel Lens Building was designed to look like the old generator building, though much larger.

Also on display is the Rotation Clockwork—the machine responsible for the turning of the lens—and the Incandescent Oil Vapor Lamp (IOVL) that was installed in 1907. The IOVL provided the fuel for the flame by using air pressure to vaporize kerosene, a method that allowed the flame to burn three times brighter than the previous Funck Lamp. The IOVL system is comprised of an oil reservoir, the incandescent oil vapor lamp itself, and the stand for the lamp. The reservoir is a reproduction, but the other two parts are originals that were sent to the Franklin Institute along with the lens.

Original Rotation Clockwork from the second Fire Island Lighthouse

Original Rotation Clockwork from the second Fire Island Lighthouse

Incandescent Oil Vapor Lamp

Incandescent Oil Vapor Lamp

If you wish to read all of the material in the Fresnel Lens Building, plan to spend 30 minutes.

LIFESAVING SERVICE EXHIBIT AT THE BOATHOUSE

Boathouse from 1939

Boathouse from 1939

Located on the bay just behind the Fire Island Lighthouse is a boathouse that was built in 1939. Inside is an exhibit on the U. S. Lifesaving Service. In addition to information, there is a display of original hand-paddled rescue boats and other lifesaving equipment. Unfortunately, the Boathouse was closed when I visited. The man working in the Visitor Center told me that it is only open when there are enough volunteers working, so I assume an attendant must be on duty to keep people from walking off with stuff or vandalizing the place.

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Last updated on May 29, 2020
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