Traditionally, lighthouse keepers braved harsh storms to light the whale oil lamps at the top of our lighthouse’s tower, allowing ships to see the dangerous Montauk Point. Protecting and maintaining their light, these men and woman lived isolated lives on the easternmost tip of Long Island. Although the Montauk Lighthouse’s beacon turns on automatically now, our lighthouse keeper, Marge Winski, still braves powerful storms in an effort protect and maintain our beautiful historic monument.
GM: What brought you to Montauk?
MW: I moved here when I was quite young. I went to Montauk School part of the time, and to East Hampton High School, but we had come out here for vacation for many, many years. My father retired and my mother became a teacher at Montauk School back in 1968.
GM: How did you become the keeper of the Montauk Lighthouse?
MW: The Coast Guard gave up the lighthouse in 1987. They offered it to the state, and then to the town, but no one wanted it. The Montauk Historical Society ended up taking it over. Back then, there were two apartments here, and they offered them to the State Parks Police. Both of the guys said they would not live here; it was too remote, too far from town. So when I heard that I was working for the Parks, I said, “Ah, I’ll write a proposal,” because I always wanted to live in a lighthouse. I wrote a proposal to the lighthouse comity and they accepted it. I’ve lived here ever since.
GM: Were you the first lighthouse keeper while the lighthouse was under the control of the Historical Society?
MW: Yes. The Coast Guard moved out in the morning and I moved in that night. So it’s been covered all the time since then—somebody always here, 365 days a year. If I’m not here, a friend of mine will stay here.
GM: What does lighthouse-keeping entail?
MW: Caretaking, watching out for damage during storms, burglars…you never know what is going to happen. I work for the Historical Society too—lots of bookkeeping and stuff like that.
GM: In the era prior to GPS and radar, what was the lighthouse keeper’s job?
MW: You had to actually tend the light, turning it on and off. Before electricity, they used whale oil. So they had to actually go up and light the wicks in the lanterns. Now, everything is automated. If the light is not working, I call the Coast Guard, and they come and fix it. There is a backup beacon—if one light blows out, there is always another one. People say there is no need for a lighthouse keeper, but it is a national historic monument, and I think it is important that someone is in here watching over the place during storms. I have been here for every storm: hurricanes, blizzards, and nor’easters. I think it’s important—you never know what’s going to happen.
GM: Ever witness a shipwreck during a storm?
MW: There have been two or three shipwrecks since I’ve been here. The first one was many years ago—it was a houseboat! They had a houseboat in the ocean, and ran ashore in Turtle Cove. That was a huge ordeal. It was crazy, he had his mother on the boat and they had to call the ambulance. They had to crawl down the cliff because there was no access at that time. The guy wouldn’t leave the boat because he thought it could be salvaged, and he only spoke German. It was a wild night.
GM: What’s the worst storm you have braved here? What’s it like to experience a storm on this narrow piece of land in a lighthouse?
MW: When the wind gets real strong, the building shakes a lot. The chimneys will start to moan—it’s really creepy. During Sandy, the tower was vibrating. I went up in the tower the Monday before the storm hit and it was so windy that the tower was actually vibrating. It was scary. All night long the wind was horrific, and in the morning there was ocean water and rocks on the lawn. I had never seen that before. The bluff to the north was circled by water; it was an island. I went out and walked at dawn and I had never seen anything like that. And we were lucky—the storm did not even hit us straight on. Very lucky!
GM: You say the chimney moans and the building creaks. Considering how old of a building the lighthouse is, have you ever seen any ghosts?
MW: There is suppose to be a ghost but I have never seen it. I won’t go in the attic at night and I won’t go in the cellar at night. There’s a strange feeling down there. It’s just creepy.
GM: You said that the State Policemen did not want to live here because it was too far from town and isolated. Do you feel that same way?
MW: No, I love it. Everyone says to me, “Don’t you get lonely?” But how could you get lonely out here? It’s the most magnificent spot. It’s where the ocean and the land meet. There is just so much going on. In January, I saw whales everyday. Now, we have the Northern Gannets out here—you know, those big white birds. I watch them swoop by the window. There’s something magical about living out here…every day is completely different.
GM: I think it is safe to say you live on the most beautiful point of land on all of Long Island.
MW: I think so…and it is an honor to live in such a beautiful historical monument. It is so special.
Interview as featured in Whalebone’s seventh issue, the Throwback Issue.