10 of New York City’s most important lighthouses

June 4, 2019

Nestled in one of the busiest harbors in the world, New York City is home to many lighthouses which, over the years, have guided countless ships. Though many are now obsolete and out of use, the further you look into the histories of each lighthouse the more you realize that, beyond their architectural and historic significance, each lighthouse has at its core a deeply human story: tales of bravery, feats of engineering, and even a ghost story or two. Below, we round up ten of the most prominent lighthouses around the city.

1. Little Red Lighthouse

Little Red Lighthouse via Flickr

This lighthouse was first erected in Sandy Hook, New Jersey in 1880 before it was dismantled in 1917 and reconstructed along a particularly treacherous part of the Hudson River known as Jeffrey’s Hook in 1921. Run by a part-time keeper and furnished with a battery-powered lamp and a fog bell, the lighthouse—then known as Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse—guided travelers for ten years, until The George Washington Bridge opened in 1931 and its bright lights rendered the lighthouse obsolete.

The story of the charming lighthouse became a part of popular culture in 1942 when it became the main subject of the children’s book, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, written by Hildegarde Swift and Lynd Ward. The tale spurred the imaginations of both children and adults, who rallied to save the lighthouse from being auctioned off. In 1951, the Coast Guard gave the property to NYC Parks, and on May 29, 1979, the Little Red Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places. For its 65th anniversary in 1986, the lighthouse got a full renovation that included reconstructing the concrete foundation. In 2000, the lighthouse got a fresh coat of paint that’s true to its original, historic red hue.

2. Execution Rocks Light

Execution Rocks Lighthouse via Flickr cc

Built in the 1850s, this lighthouse stands in the middle of the Long Island Sounds on a small rocky island known as Execution Rocks. The grisly name comes from the Revolutionary War, when, as legend has it, British Redcoats would chain Colonial prisoners to the rocks and let them drown as high tide came in.

The gruesome legends continued into the twentieth century when serial killer Carl Panzram confessed to luring sailors away from bars, murdering them, and dumping their bodies in the waters around the island during the 1920s. After the last keeper retired in the 1970s, it turned fully automatic until it was acquired by Historically Significant Sites, a non-profit dedicated to the lighthouse’s maintenance. People have reported unusual sounds and ghostly visions around the island, and if you have the stomach for that kind of thing you can check it out yourself: rooms in the legendary lighthouse are available for overnight stays.

3. The Staten Island Range Light

Staten Island Range Lighthouse via Wiki Commons

Also known as the Ambrose Channel Range Light, this 90-foot tower was built in 1912 as a companion for the West Bank Lighthouse on Staten Island’s Lighthouse Hill, 145 feet above sea level and one of the highest points on the island. On the day it first went into service, a local paper wrote “Tonight, for the first time a great white ray of 300,000 candlepower will bore a hole through the gloom seaward” while the New York Times touted that it was “destined to take its place among famous beacons of the world.”

It was declared a Historic Landmark by the city in 1968 and you can still see the top of it peering over New York Harbor today. It employs an automated light which continues to aid ships entering Ambrose Channel, and a second light was mounted on the tower to serve as the rear range light for the Swash Channel. The keeper’s dwelling is now a private residence.

4. The Prince’s Bay Light

Prince’s Bay Lighthouse via Wiki Commons

This lighthouse was constructed in 1864 on the southern shores of Staten Island for $30,000. The attached lightkeeper’s cottage was completed in 1868. Perched atop an 85-foot hill overlooking Raritan Bay, it was deactivated in 1922 after the placement of lighted buoys in the bay made it redundant.

The Mission of the Immaculate Virgin at Mt. Loretto purchased the lighthouse, the cottage and an additional outbuilding in 1926. The Mission already held a residence and school for seventeen-hundred orphans in the vicinity of the lighthouse. At some point, they placed a statue of the Virgin Mary where the lantern room once was.

New York State and the Trust for Public Land co-purchased the lighthouse and 145 acres of surrounding land as well as 45 underwater acres from the Archdiocese of New York in 1999. Today, the property is known as Mount Loretto Unique Area and is managed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Though the lighthouse grounds are not open to the public, hiking trails in the surrounding area provide great views.

5. Coney Island Light

Coney Island Light via Flickr

This lighthouse was built in 1890 as the number of visitors to Coney Island was quickly increasing, to guide incoming ferries headed for the island’s piers and direct garbage barges to nearby dumping grounds. It’s perhaps best known for its dedicated keeper, Frank Schubert, who was the nation’s last civilian lighthouse keeper at the time of his death in 2003. Schubert took over in 1960, following assignments at several other lighthouses including three on Governor’s Island. His dedication was unparalleled and he climbed 87 steps to the lantern each day to perform maintenance duties. During his years of service, Schubert was credited with saving the lives of fifteen sailors and was invited to the White House in 1989. At the time of his death, his lighthouse career spanned over 65 years, 43 of which he spent at the Coney Island Lighthouse.

6. Fort Wadsworth Light

Fort Wadsworth Light via Flickr

Forts and lighthouses were often neighbors, as is the case with this 1903 tower built on top of Battery Weed on Staten Island. The light illuminates the entrance to the New York Harbor known as the Narrows and its light was visible for 14 nautical miles—the equivalent of 16 miles.

In 1965, the opening of Verrazano Narrows Bridge made Fort Wadsworth Lighthouse obsolete and it was discontinued. The lighthouse subsequently changed hands several times before being acquired by the National Park Service in 1995. Staten Islander Joe Esposito, who had served as a volunteer keeper at Staten Island Lighthouse for nine years, embarked on a campaign to save the neglected lighthouse and together with a group of volunteers embarked on a restoration plan approved and partially funded by the Park Service. The lighthouse was fully restored and converted to solar power in 2005.

7. The New Dorp Lighthouse

The New Dorp Lighthouse via Wiki Commons

Perched on top of a hillside that was home to members of the Vanderbilt family during the late nineteenth century, New Dorp Lighthouse consists of a short, square tower rising from a one-and-a-half-story keeper’s dwelling. The lantern room offers panoramic views across Lower New York Bay to Sandy Hook, New Jersey.

The original beacon had a second-order range lens showing a fixed red light that shined 192 feet above sea level. In 1891, the light was changed to fixed white. In 1907, the light source was changed from oil to incandescent oil vapor, which allowed for a much more intense light. A newspaper article in 1922, noted that the new light created phantom shadows, which became known as the “New Dorp ghost.”

The New Dorp Lighthouse was decommissioned and boarded up in 1964, and subsequently suffered widespread neglect and vandalism. In 1973 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and the following year it was sold at auction to Staten Island resident John Vokral for $32,000. Vokral did extensive restoration work on the lighthouse, which now serves as a private residence.

8. Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

Roosevelt Island Lighthouse via Wiki Commons

Built in 1872 at the northernmost tip of Roosevelt Island entirely out of stone found on the island, this lighthouse was originally known as the Blackwell Island Lighthouse. Local legends claim that the 50-foot tall tower was built by patients from the insane asylum on Roosevelt Island.

Before the lighthouse was erected, patient John McCarthy was supposedly preparing for a possible British invasion by constructing a four-foot-high clay fort at the same site. Asylum officials let him carry out his work because in the process he was reclaiming marshlands, and apparently, they even gave him old Civil War cannons as encouragement. When the city decided to build the lighthouse, McCarthy was somehow persuaded to relinquish his fort but may have been enlisted to construct the structure, which was designed by famed architect James Renwick Jr., who also designed the island’s Smallpox Hospital. A mysterious plaque credited McCarthy’s labor until 1960 when it suddenly disappeared. It stated: ‘This work was done by John McCarthy who built the lighthouse from the bottom to the top all ye who do pass by may pray for his soul when he dies.’”

9. Robins Reef Lighthouse

Robins Reef Lighthouse via Flickr

Robbins Reef is situated near the entrance to Kill van Kull, a three-mile-long waterway linking Upper New York Bay to Newark Bay and one of the busiest ports in the eastern United States.

The existing structure was built in 1883, replacing an octagonal stone tower built in 1839. It contained a circular staircase that provided access to the various levels of the tower and a ladder leading to the lantern room from which a fixed white light shone, produced by fifteen lamps set in sixteen-inch reflectors. Isaac Johnson, the light’s first keeper, first lit the lamps in 1839.

It’s sometimes known as Kate’s Light for lightkeeper Kate Walker who cared for the station alone for 30 years following the death of her husband Captain John Walker in 1886.“Every morning when the sun comes up,” Kate once said, “I stand at the porthole and look towards his grave. Sometimes the hills are brown, sometimes they are green, sometimes they are white with snow. But always they bring a message from him, something I heard him say more often than anything else. Just three words: ‘Mind the light.’”

10. Titanic Memorial Lighthouse at South Street Seaport

Titanic Memorial Lighthouse via Flickr

On April 15, 1913, one year after the sinking of the Titanic, the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse and Time Ball was placed atop the Seamen’s Church Institute at 25 South Street. It emitted a fixed green light that could be seen throughout New York Harbor and as far as Sandy Hook. Five minutes before noon each day, a time ball would be hoisted to the top of a steel rod mounted on top of the lighthouse and dropped just as the clock stroke 12. The Lookout, the magazine of the Seamen’s Church Institute, wrote that the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse would be a much-needed daily reminder, for “in a busy, careless city the average person so soon forgets.” The Lighthouse Memorial was donated to the South Street Seaport Museum in 1968 and installed at its current location in 1976.


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