Digest>Archives> November 2008

Merlon E. Wiggin 1930-2008

By Timothy Harrison


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Merle Wiggin makes a presentation to Rear Admiral ...
Photo by: Jeremy D’Entremont

The lighthouse community has lost a leading preservationist in the passing last month of Merlon “Merle” Wiggin, founder of New York’s East End Lighthouses. Merle, 78, passed away, at Eastern Long Island Hospital, after a long bout with cancer.

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Merle Wiggin, president of East End Lighthouses, ...
Photo by: Kathleen Finnegan

I first heard about Merle and his preservation efforts about 16 years ago and started corresponding with him at that time and often had telephone conversations with him. Over the next few years our paths would often cross at a number of lighthouse events around the country and we soon built up a close personal friendship.

Shortly after founding East End Lighthouses, Inc., the group joined in affiliation with the American Lighthouse Foundation, which I was president of at the time. But Merle’s interest in lighthouses, history, and preservation started long before that.

While researching the history of the nearly two dozen lighthouses of Southold County, New York he became heavily involved in the efforts to save the structures and preserve the history associated with them, He wrote dozens of articles and authored several books, including one about Little Gull Light Station, to honor the 200th anniversary of the lighthouse. He narrated lighthouse boat cruises and took great pride in talking to school groups.

One of Merle’s proudest accomplishments was his involvement in the replication of the 1871 Long Beach Bar Lighthouse that was destroyed by a fire caused by vandals in 1963. In 1990, Merle oversaw the planning, fundraising, construction and placement of the replicated lighthouse on the exact same site where the original lighthouse had once stood. It was later relit as an official aid to navigation.

The replication of Long Beach Bar Lighthouse wasn’t his only preservation project. He also initiated and supervised the conversion of the former Greenport (NY) Railroad Station to a maritime museum and took on a project to replace the defunct Village Blacksmith Shop with a working replica utilizing a 100-year old abandoned farm building.

His zeal for getting things done was not always smooth and he experienced a certain amount of controversy within the preservation movement, however, he never let it get in the way of his vision for the projects he wanted to accomplish.

One of his fondest lighthouse memories, and there were many of them, took place in 2001 when he took a cruise out to Long Beach Bar Lighthouse when he was presented a Harbour Lights replica of the Long Beach Bar Lighthouse, which he proudly held up in his hands, with the real lighthouse in the background. The Harbour Lights model depicts a crane placing the lighthouse onto the foundation where the first lighthouse once stood. Some of those who accompanied him on that trip were the people who had helped with the real replicated lighthouse. They were: Bill Malloy, President of Thomas Dredge & Dock, the company that owed the crane and barge used to get the lighthouse into place, Rich Saetta, the general contractor who conceived the idea to build the lighthouse in three sections, and Otto Schoenstein, who built the lantern room.

Another one of his fond memories was time spent at Boston Lighthouse in Boston Harbor where he qualified as a “Watchstander” (lighthouse keeper), at the site of America’s first lighthouse. Holding a 100-ton Coast Guard Master license, he was also a New York State instructor for Boating Safety and was Vice Captain of the Coast Guard Auxiliary Division 18.

Merle was a graduate of the University of Maine and had a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and a Masters Degree in Electrical Engineering from Columbia University. He was a retired Lt. Col. of the U.S. Air Force. He also served as president of Peconic Associates, a maritime consulting firm and president of Isocon, Ltd., an international research laboratory and biological containment firm. In later years he acted as advisor to several foreign governments, pharmaceutical firms and universities, including MIT. He also participated with NASA on the “Moon Lab” for the Apollo missions. Some of his fun jobs were being on the writing staff of Long Island Boating World and the Peconic Bay Shopper.

A memorial service for Merle was held on the Cross Sound Ferry and his ashes were placed at the Long Beach Bar Lighthouse.

Because Merle was a true preservationist, who believed in saving history, for the sake of history, many of his accomplishments are unknown to most people living outside of Long Island, NY. However, the legacy he left will always be there for future generations. Merle Wiggin was one of a kind, a man who left his mark on history. Thank you Merle, you will be remembered.

Merle is survived by his wife, Isabelle and three sons. Donations in his memory can be sent to East End Lighthouses, P.O. Box 21, Greenport, NY 11944.

This story appeared in the November 2008 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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