How the lighthouse keeper lives

09/16/2010 12:00 AM |

Pat Haggerty, who lives in the second-floor apartment at Horton Point Lighthouse in Southold, surveys his domain from the lighthouse tower. By day, he works for the Southold Park District and keeps a watchful eye on museum property.

Over the last century, electricity and automation ended the careers of many a lighthouse keeper, men who lived at their posts and kept lamps burning to keep mariners safely away from shoals and rocky shores.

Horton Point Lighthouse in Southold, built on a bluff overlooking the Sound in 1857, still has its own keeper but his job is a little different.

Pat Haggerty, 55, a former bouncer who is now the only full-time employee of the Southold Park District, has been living in the former lighthouse keeper’s apartment since 1999. While he says he can’t beat the view, Mr. Haggerty’s days at work present a challenge: keeping the lighthouse safe from mankind.

Before he took up residence on the second floor of the iconic structure, raucous teen partiers had spent decades trashing the building. He says that his mere presence has been a deterrent to destruction, but he’s still working to keep fishermen from camping out on the beach and leaving piles of garbage behind.

The structure’s first floor is a museum operated jointly by the Southold Historical Society and the Southold Park District.

Living in a public building can have its drawbacks. Mr. Haggerty remembers one time when, while taking a shower, he heard someone rummaging through his kitchen. He had left his clothes in the bedroom, and was resigning himself to confronting the intruder naked, when he realized the person in the kitchen was an elderly woman who had wandered into his apartment while exploring the lighthouse. A fight was averted but he did have to show himself and tell her to leave.

From his vantage point 110 feet above Long Island Sound and 50 feet above the cliffside town park surrounding the lighthouse, Mr. Haggerty has seen droves of summer lightning storms, wrecked barges run aground on the rocky shoals below and more than his share of romantic trysting and reckless abandon.

Once, he remembers, he looked down to see people swinging from the halyards of the flagpole near the cliff.

The lighthouse sits on land originally owned by the Hortons, one of Southold’s founding families. The lighthouse was built after a retired sea captain from Southold petitioned Congress to put a beacon there and build a breakwater along a 3/4-mile sand bar that runs parallel to shore about a mile out, according to “The Horton Point Lighthouse,” written by Donald M. Bayles, which was published this year. The breakwater was never built.

The first light in the tower was an Argand oil lamp that burned whale oil, which was kept in an oil house that’s still in place not far from the tower. In 1933, a low-maintenance electric revolving beacon was built on a metal tower closer to the cliff, and the following year, the lighthouse was abandoned and sold to the park district for $1. A light was put back in the 550-foot tower and the lighthouse was recommissioned after a renovation in 1990. Mr. Haggerty hosts the Coast Guard when it sends a crew to inspect the light once every three months.

Mr. Haggerty, who was raised in Commack, first saw the Horton Point Lighthouse in 1994, not long after it was recommissioned and his parents had just moved to Southold. He had just retired from 37 years of working as a bouncer, mostly in the Hamptons. He began working for the park district in 1996, and spends his free time photographing his surroundings. Photographs of his garden at the lighthouse are currently on display at Mattituck-Laurel Library.

The furnishings in his apartment, which can be accessed only by a narrow staircase, are a testament to his first job as a furniture mover. It’s hard to imagine how he got such a large couch and modern appliances up so narrow a staircase.

“I carried the refrigerator up myself,” he said. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

High shelves along the walls display a collection of lighthouse figurines, most of which were gifts from people intrigued by his living quarters. His photographs decorate the walls. Mr. Haggerty usually stands by a gate along the edge of the cliff when shooting the weather. He has also used his camera to document all of the work that has been done to the lighthouse since he moved in.

“I’ve got my pick of electrical storms, lightning, to shoot from here,” he said. “You can’t beat the view. When you’re up here, you see everything that’s going on.”

Although Mr. Haggerty’s apartment is off-limits, the Historical Society’s Nautical Museum and tower at the Horton Point light are open Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Columbus Day.

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