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December 03, 2008

Lighthouse Illumination Draws Huge Crowds



LIGHTHOUSE4
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(click for larger version)
All roads led to Montauk on Saturday night.

In an unexpected turnout, thousands turned out this weekend for the first-ever illumination of the Montauk Lighthouse.

The event caused an unexpected traffic jam, unusual indeed for November in the sleepy hamlet.

Although Montauk has seen its share of huge crowds at events such as the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade and the "Back at the Ranch" concert series which drew thousands to the Deep Hollow Ranch, it's the first time locals have seen such a turnout in the colder months.

Some attendees said they were stalled in traffic for over an hour just to get close to the lighthouse, waiting eagerly to see the beloved icon illuminated in Christmas lights.

The Montauk Lighthouse Committee decided this year to adorn the over 200 year-old Lighthouse Tower for the holidays. Christmas Décor, a division of Looks Great Services, Inc., decorated the Lighthouse tower and museum with over 3000 twinkling white lights. It was the first time the grand lady had ever been so adorned.

Despite long traffic delays, young and old alike were in festive spirits, smiling and singing along to carols performed by Sarah Conway and the Christmas Revelers.

The celebration also included free cookies, cider, and candy canes distributed by Santa.

Perhaps the most highly anticipated moment came when Montauk fourth-grader Brooke Rivkind, winner of an essay contest, flipped the switch and illuminated the night.

The lights will remain on from 4 p.m. until 1 a.m. until January 6.

According to Eleanor Ehrhardt, committee member of the Montauk Historical Society, which owns the lighthouse, although the original number of attendees was thought to be 5000, the count rose dramatically and might have been far more.

The event was organized by the Montauk Lighthouse Committee, a branch of the Montauk Historical Society. Although the idea of lighting the structure, which originates back to 1796, has been bandied about before, this was the first year the concept became reality.

"In the past several months, we just decided, 'Let's go for it," said Ehrhardt. "Everyone was very enthused."

The lighting, said Ehrhardt, was organized and funded by the committee. "We really did it as a gift to the East End. We just felt it was such a nice thing to do – it's such a wonderful place."

When asked about a price tag for the lighting, Ehrhardt declined to comment. "It's just like giving a gift – you don't talk about what it costs."

Ehrhardt said the mood reflected the excitement of all who'd traveled for miles to attend the event. "I don't think it was terribly unlike wanting to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center," she said. "It was very exciting – a breathtaking sight. It was awe-inspiring."

Plans, she said, are to make the event an annual occurrence. "We hope to turn Montauk into a little Christmas village."

Although the Montauk Fire Department did help with directing traffic, Ehrhardt said next year, efforts in that regard will be enhanced. This year, she said, only two East Hampton police officers were on-hand in an unofficial capacity to help with traffic navigation due to the fact that no one, she said, expected such tremendous crowds.

According to East Hampton Town Police Chief Todd Sarris, by all accounts, "traffic was very heavy." One motor vehicle accident was reported, he said, but it was unclear if it was relative to heavy traffic congestion.

Although East Hampton Town cops do not normally cover the area – it's under the jurisdiction of the New York State Park Police – Sarris said no one asked his force for assistance. The unusually heavy traffic and crowds, he said, "must have taken everyone by surprise.'

Although Sarris said the event was covered by NYS Park Police, Ehrhardt said their services had not been requested.

In years' past, said Sarris, whenever large crowds are expected for a concert or other event, the local police "make it a point to set up a deployment plan," with an ample amount of police presence to keep traffic flowing smoothly.

"It's difficult to get in and out of that area," said Sarris. "It's a bottleneck." On the days of former concert events, Sarris said EHT police opened up eastbound and westbound lanes, with two lanes heading west at the end of the event. "That would resolve issues with cars traveling out of Montauk."

Despite traffic delays, though, the surge in visitors sparked holiday magic for area businesses. According to an employee at John's Drive-In, the establishment ran out of certain menu items as scores of hungry customers queued up for service. "Based on the volume we've had here, it was a rousing success," he said.

"It was insane," said one mother, waiting on line at John's Drive-In with her family after the event. "They were totally unprepared," for the traffic, she added, with some members of her family unable to even get to the Lighthouse in time for the event. But, she added, "It was a great family night. The kids had fun."

And that, said Ehrhardt, was the goal. "I was really thrilled to see that so many people were having such a good time. With great humility, I say that it was wonderful to be able to spread that kind of joy."

lfinn@indyeastend.com

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