Montauk Point Lighthouse Museum & Gift Shop

AGAINST ALL ODDS
A Lighthouse Looks To The Future
by Greg Donohue
 

At Montauk Point, where the land is insignificant to the sea, a lighthouse was commissioned 200 years ago to stand watch, to guide and protect mariners. Historically, the Montauk Point Lighthouse was built to help promote the commerce of a growing nation. Early planners were aware that erosion would eventually undermine the tower, so they situated the Lighthouse on the landward side of Turtle plateau, almost 300 feet from the edge of the bluff. With an average erosion rate of more than one foot per year it was predicted that the Light- house would last about 200 years. The accuracy of their predictions and calculations allowed the sentinel to stand unthreatened throughout the course of American history.

Toward the middle of the twentieth century, due to the slow but steady erosion of the bluff, it became apparent that someday the Lighthouse would topple from its perch. Shortly after World War II the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initiated the first attempt to control erosion at Montauk Point. With few coastal bluff stabilization references available, a 700 foot stone revetment was constructed at the base of the cliff to help control the erosion caused by wave action. The effectiveness of this effort was tested from the start. Erosion was diminished but not controlled. An active storm climate in the early 1950s produced waves that attacked and overwashed the seawall causing its eventual collapse. The lack of resolve was disappointing but the lessons learned confirmed the need for a more comprehensive plan to control the erosion on the site. However, interest faded probably as a result of the Cold War and navigational advancements. Lighthouses and expenditures for their maintenance began to take second stage. Fiscal budget priorities being what they were in 1967, the U.S. Coast Guard was considering alternatives. It would be cheaper and easier to erect a steel tower out of harm's way and Still maintain navigational aid to mariners. As the public relations officer for the Coast Guard on Governor's Island put it, 'We don't consider that this would be a wise expenditure of taxpayer's money. It would seem more in the realm of some preservation society or historical organization to provide the funds to save the Lighthouse.' No one was spearheading a movement to continue the erosion control experiment. And the Montauk Point Lighthouse stood alone with an uncertain future.

A grass roots protest to save the Lighthouse marks the beginning of the modern clay history of the Montauk Light. It was initiated by Dan Rattiner, editor of the Montauk pioneer and Dan's Papers. Dan led the charge in a dramatic fashion with a front page photograph of the Shinnecock Lighthouse falling to the ground. The U.S. Coast Guard dynamited the abandoned building and the captioned photo brought immediate attention to the plight of the Montauk Light. He brought the public into the discussion by creating a contest in search of ideas to save the Light. Local sentiment rallied when Dan staged the first Montauk Point Lighthouse Light In. On a rainy overcast night in August 1967 fifteen hundred people arrived at Montauk Point to stand vigil for the Lighthouse. When compared to other protests and marches of the day the Light In was small and lasted but a few hours. Yet somehow from the spontaneous energy and a few thousand pinpricks of light, a movement was born. The Montauk Point Lighthouse no longer stood alone.

As the news spread, one of Dan's articles ended up in the hands of Giorgina Reid, a resident of New York City. Giorgina immediately Contacted Dan Rattiner and that communication marked the turning point in the movement to save the Light.

Giorgina was not a coastal engineer, but a textile designer by trade and the author of a successful book on photography. As the story goes, in 1960 she and her husband Donald purchased a small cottage in the village of Rocky Point on Long Island's North Shore. From the days of her childhood Giorgina loved the ocean and dreamed of someday having a place of her own on the water. The two-bedroom cottage sat 50 feet from the edge of a 100-foot sand embankment with a breathtaking view of Long Island Sound. The cottage was to be their home. Friends and neighbors warned them of the damaging effect of coastal storms. Having no first hand experience with the dynamics of living on the coast, a nor'easter in the Spring of 1962 was to be their initiation.

The nor'easter formed off the coast of New Jersey as two low pressure weather systems came together. The storm raged for three days before the tides subsided. The damage to the shoreline of Long Island was catastrophic. History would later record the Nor'easter of '62 as the worst assault on the coast since the infamous Hurricane of '38.

Giorgina and Donald weathered the storm in their apartment in Jackson Heights. The radio broadcasted the news of houses lost to the sea and of massive clestrudion. The storm surge created a new geography along the coast. They were petrified to think of their dream cottage in shambles. When all was clear they nervously made the trek to Rocky Point. To their relief the cottage was intact but the storm swallowed up about a third of the land in front of the house. Together they neared the edge of the bluff. Their landscape was now a moonscape. Deep gullies etched their way to the beach where mud and sand, rocks and boulders lay exposed in the aftermath.

Donald's reaction was realistic. 'Should we sell before it's too late?' he questioned. But the post storm inspection aroused the fighting spirit in Giorgina. 'No way!' she said. The dream of a lifetime meant too much. As they ambled about in the debris wondering if there was anything they could do to protect their land, Giorgina focused on pieces of washed up lumber and piles of reeds.

Many wetlands along the coast are bordered by Phragmites communis, the common reed that resembles a bamboo shoot. When tidal surges inundate a wetland the reed stems break and get suspended in the wash until the tides deposit them on the beach.

To the beachcomber these piles of junk strewn about were just obstacles. To the inventive and determined Giorgina the reeds were abundant and free, and the preferred material to fill the gullies created by the storm. With gathered reeds and lumber she began to work the bluff. By stuffing reeds behind the lumber and topping it with sand she created her own system of terracing. Support stakes held the lumber in place and the topping of sand created a planting medium for vegetation. But the reeds were far and above the most original component of her method. She placed bundles of reeds at the bottom of each terrace to prevent the sand from leaching out. The reeds were responsible for keeping the terrace construdion in place on the bluff face. In addition, the hollow stems provided organic matter and water retention capability for the plantings. To her amazement she began to stabilize her bluff.

Heavy rains could no longer erode the bluff because the surface runoff would now have to flow over and down each and every terrace, thus controlling the momentum of water and gravity. Her visions of design evolved quite innocently from fabric to the lines and contours of a bluff. The effectiveness of her new method to control bluff erosion inspired all her neighbors to get in to the act. Giorgina's instructions helped transform the waterfront.

Having gained experience and confidence during this local experiment, Giorgina knew that she was onto something. As if the physical labor wasn't enough m walking up and down a 100 foot embankment many times a day, toting lumber, installing terraces - at night she concentrated on producing a legitimate U.S. Patent for Reed-Trench Terracing as well as a layman's guide to shore protection entitled HOW TO HOLD UP A BANK. The patent and copyright Would later enable her to open discussions with the U.S. Coast Guard at Montauk Point.

The communication with Dan Rattiner encouraged Giorgina to petition the U.S. Coast Guard for permission to conduct a reed-trench terracing experiment at the Lighthouse. Admittedly, the Coast Guard engineers had a good lunch room chuckle that day after reviewing her proposal. Knowing what they knew about coastal engineering in the North Atlantic and the obvious lack of funding available for such a project, they wondered how this woman of retirement age with no engineering background was going to succeed. Although reluctant at first, Coast Guard policy makers saw a growing public consensus to save the National Landmark and Coast Guard engineers saw merit in Giorgina's patent and copyright. With nothing to lose the government granted a pilot project to be managed by Giorgina and funded by local donations.

From the day the work started, Earth Day, April 22, 1970, until the end of the summer, a remarkable transformation look place on the eastern slope of Turtle Hill. Once again Giorgina was in her element, on the shoreline with her hoe in her hands. Against all odds the steep heavily rilled bluff face under the Lighthouse became a system of stepped terraces.

Upon inspection the engineers from Governor's Island were so impressed that support for a continuation of the erosion control experiment was unanimous. They immediately went to work producing project drawings and spec sheets, preparing to further the reed-trench terracing experiment with Coast Guard expenditures. As the work progressed over the next two years a major concern was the fact that terrace construction alone would never stand up to the severe wave attack on the site. Bluff stabilization in the North Atlantic is a function of two things, the protection of the toe of the bluff from wave attack and the Vegetation of the bluff face. So in February 1972, when a winter storm washed out the terraces at sea level, the Coast Guard again came to the rescue by installing the necessary toe protection to complement Giorgina's work on the bluff face. An adequate foundation was all she needed to continue.

For the next fifteen years Giorgina worked the bluff at Montauk Point. With tremendous dedication and skill she created a model for all coastal bluff stabilization projects. Donald, her faithful companion, husband and chauffeur saw to it that she was delivered to the bluff's edge as often as possible. Down she would go, sometimes with volunteers, sometimes alone, always moving the project forward. The daily assignment was to dig like a mole and climb like a goat. The greening of the embankment was the result.

It wasn't an easy task to etch and carve a stable slope angle into the cliff. It was equally difficult to deal with the constant lack of funding needed to complete the scope of the project. The entire Point would have to be stabilized for the project to be effective. Despite the uphill battle on all fronts Giorgina managed every aspect of the project with the same resolve. Little by little she moved forward always believing in herself, in her method and in the outcome. This is why Giorgina Reid stands out among all those who have contributed their time, energy and expertise to the Montauk Point Lighthouse Erosion Control Project. She not only pioneered the way, she led the charge absorbing the burden of proof from the onset. A little woman with a big task.

The unlikely partnership of Giorgina and the U.S. Coast Guard proved in fact that erosion could be controlled in the glacial terrain at Montauk Point. Surveys and photos taken twenty years apart show no loss on the eastern slope of Turtle Hill. The plantings established in Giorgina's terraces are self-sustaining and protect the bluff face by controlling runoff and holding soil in place.

By the time Giorgina retired in 1987 a new chapter was about to begin. Restricted by budget priorities the Coast Guard accepted the Montauk Historical Society's bid to take over the Lighthouse. The Historical Society was challenged to preserve and maintain a National Landmark, to interpret and develop a maritime museum and to complete the erosion control project, which was fundamental to their visions of the future. They petitioned everyone in sight for help and in the most honorable way, it all came together.

Private donations and the contributions from the 'Back at the Ranch' concerts enabled the Montauk Historical Society to become the catalyst in a conceded effort to upgrade and continue the project. Federal funding became available to improve the toe protection on Coast Guard property and State appropriations provided the material for the Montauk Historical Society to complete the wraparound on State land. Since 1990 the cooperative efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Long Island Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, the N.Y. State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Montauk Historical Society have stabilized almost all of Montauk Point.

A journey to the easternmost tip of Long Island offers the view of a National Landmark standing tall. As it watches over time and history the Lighthouse is the centerpiece of a pedestrian park that provides educational and recreational opportunity. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Montauk Light. The bicentennial celebration looks back to the unique history of the Lighthouse and looks forward to the future thanks to the ingenuity, perseverance and sweat of a remarkable woman who never gave up -- Giorgirla Reid.


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