By Mallie Jane Kim
The Stratford Shoal Light Station in the middle of Long Island Sound is going up for auction June 12 through the U.S. General Services Administration’s real estate website, but locals with knowledge of area waterways doubt it will become the next tourist hot spot.
Other historic lighthouses around U.S. coasts have become vacation rentals, local government offices or museums. Such a fate might be tricky for the lighthouse at Stratford Shoal, also known as the Middle Ground Light, a stone building constructed in the late 1870s and perched on two partially submerged rocky islands halfway between Old Field on Long Island and Stratford, Connecticut. The U.S. Coast Guard will retain ownership of all navigation aid systems active at the lighthouse, regardless of a future owner’s development plan.
“Whoever decides to do something, it’s not going to be easy,” said Pete Murphy, owner of Sea Tow Port Jefferson and Murphy’s Marine Service. Murphy passes the lighthouse fairly often through his service rescuing stranded boaters and said the area seems most often used as a fisherman’s hot spot.
Murphy would welcome a commercial use of the property, like a bed and breakfast, and he could see expanding his shore-to-boat harbor taxi service to include ferrying visitors to a commercial entity at the lighthouse. According to Murphy, though, any potential renovations on the shoal would face challenges since it’s so far out into the sound. “The safety is getting there,” he said. “You’ve got to pick your weather to get out there.”
That isolation and exposure to waves and storms made the shoal lighthouse a tough posting for its keepers before it was automated in 1970. One assistant keeper, a newcomer from New York City named Julius Koster, reportedly suffered a psychological breakdown at the lighthouse in 1905, attempting to attack a colleague, then the lighthouse itself. Eventually he made an unsuccessful attempt on his own life.
“Every one of us probably wanted to live on a lighthouse by ourselves.”
— George Hoffman
Local water quality advocate George Hoffman agreed the lighthouse probably won’t see any major development since it is so far from shore, but it could entice someone who wants to get away from it all. “I think there’s a million people on Long Island who would like to live there,” he said. “But I think the reality is a bit harder because everything has to be brought in on a boat.”
Hoffman, who co-founded the Setauket Harbor Task Force, a volunteer environmental group that works to improve water quality in Port Jefferson and Setauket Harbors, isn’t concerned about the environmental impact of potential construction on the shoal, as any development would have to comply with government environmental regulations.
Still, Hoffman finds the idea of living on the shoal romantic. “Every one of us probably wanted to live on a lighthouse by ourselves,” he said. “Though movies about lighthouses all tend to end badly.”
The Stratford Shoal structure is on the national register of historic places and is one of four lighthouses the U.S. General Services Administration is auctioning this year, alongside six others to be offered at no cost to eligible historical, educational, nonprofit or local governmental agencies. The lighthouse had been awarded to lighthouse enthusiast Nick Korstad under the latter designation in 2016. But Korstad, who has made a career of buying and renovating lighthouses around the country for use as destinations, gave up his stewardship of the water-bound site after his plan to use the lighthouse as a museum where guests could stay overnight faced too much regulatory red tape.
The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2020 allows the federal government to convey ownership of lighthouses to promote preservation of these historical sites and also to save taxpayer money on federal real estate costs. The starting point for bids of the Stratford Shoal Lighthouse is $10,000.