Greenport resident Bob Allen has dedicated his life to preserving the North Fork’s maritime heritage as he pays tribute to his great grandfather, William H. Follett, the last keeper at Bug Light. The lighthouse, also known as the Long Bar Beach Lighthouse serves as a beacon in the middle of Peconic Bay just off the shore in East Marion.
Allen conducts guided tours out to the lighthouse in the summer, entertaining passengers of with stories he heard as a child as the party boat heads toward Bug Light. When he is not on the water, Allen is on foot hoofing it across Long Bar Beach in on a 2 and 1/2 mile walk out to a vantage point, where hikers can get a bird’s eye view of the lighthouse, originally built in 1871.
Allen is also involved in saving the in East Hampton. His great grandfather served at that facility for 17 years, taking command at the age of 47 on Sept. 29, 1917 and serving until he transfered to Bug Light in 1934. The lighthouse got its knick-name when it was first built as a screwpile lighthouse. The distinctive structure stood out among other lighthouses in the bay. In later years, the screwpile was converted to a concrete caisson foundation.
Before serving at Cedar Point, sometimes referred to as the Cedar Island Light, Follett was the Second Assistant Lighthouse keeper at the . He assumed this position when he was 42 years old.
“He served for one month before he became the first assistant to the lighthouse keeper at Montauk,” Allen said.
Follett, born in 1870, began his career in the Lighthouse Service when he was 34 years old and took on his first command in the Hog Schoal Lighthouse off the coast of Providence, Rhode Island. By the time he retired in 1940, the Lighthouse Service had been disbanded in 1934, and the United States Coast Guard put in charge of operations. The Coast Guard began to replace manned lighthouses with automated lights to save money — and lighthouse keepers were fast becoming extinct.
Follett left the Lighthouse Service briefly to return to work in the private sector as a landlubber. He made his way back to the water within a few years and resumed service on Feb. 2, 1912.
“He loved the life,” Allen said.
Follett retired after serving 29 years, 3 months and 29 days according to records in Allen’s museum-worthy collection of letters and vintage photographs — some of which were culled from research he did at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Follett’s retirement pay was $1099.89 a year.
“My father, William Allen, was 14 years old when his grandfather Follett asked him to quit school and come to work with him at the Bug Light,” Allen said. “Everyone in Greenport knew my father as the kid from the lighthouse."
Follett was issued a row boat and a small sail boat by the Coast Guard but had to buy his own 21 foot motor boat. Fuel was expensive and Allen’s father was not allowed to take the motor boat into Greenport on grocery runs or use the boat to cruise around the bay.
“He had to take the sailboat because it was cheaper,” Allen said.
Allen’s father became an expert sailor and ultimately a commercial fisherman who worked the waters of the Peconic for most of his life.
“He knew the waters like the back of his hand,” Allen said.
Bug Light was a difficult lighthouse to run and the keeper’s job was demanding. The lighthouse was heated by a wood stove that alternatively burned coal. The second floor sleeping quarters were not heated until 1926 when steam heat was installed.
Unlike Follett’s previous command at Cedar Point where the lighthouse was located on a one-acre Island, Bug Light sits on a small bed of rocks shored up by boulders referred to as rip rap. There is no place to walk around or have a game of catch. The only way on and the only way off is by boat or if you are adventurous by swimming to shore on a warm summer day.
“It is never shallow enough to walk across,” Allen said.
Cedar Point Lighthouse was situated on an island until the Hurricane of 1938 created a peninsula, when sand engulfed the lighthouse.
Allen’s father and great grandfather weathered the 1938 Hurricane on the Bug Light when the storm came up by surprise.
“My father said the wind and the waves sounded like a giant freight train,” Allen said. Both men huddled together on the second floor of the lighthouse as the wind swept through breaking all the windows while the waves pounded the rip rap around the lighthouse. Their boats, swept away in the storm, were found floating in the bay in perfect condition a few days later.
“I remember when I was a kid, my father told me he used to tell his grandpa that he wanted to be a lighthouse keeper when he grew up. He said his grandpa told him to forget about it — there wouldn’t be any lighthouses left in a few years,” Allen said as he sat in his living room in his home in Greenport, surrounded by his extensive lighthouse collection.
Follett manned the Bug Light from 1934 until his retirement in 1940. He returned to Rhode Island when he retired, and Allen’s father went into the Coast Guard.
Follett was the last lighthouse keeper to man the Bug Light. When he retired, the lighthouse was left empty and fell into disrepair before it was destroyed by a fire, presumed to have been set by vandals in 1963.
In 1990, the late Merlon Wiggins of Greenport spearheaded a movement to rebuild the light house. The new building consisting of three component parts was assembled on land at Clark’s Shipyard in Greenport and barged out to its perch in the bay. The entire project took 60 days. Solar panels were installed to power the lights at the unmanned 58-foot-tall lighthouse that is distinguished by its two story design, shutters and mansard roof.
William Allen died three months before the project was completed. He was scheduled to throw the switch at the ceremony.
“My mother did it instead,” Allen said.
Bug Light was re-activated as a navigational aid in 1993.
“It’s really cool,” Allen said. “We cruise past the lighthouse in the daytime before the lights come on. Then everyone gets to see it in the dark on the way back into the harbor.”
Coordinates of Bug Light are 41 06’32”N 72 18’23”W.