Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lighthouse of the Week: Jeffrey's Hook Light - "The Little Red Lighthouse"

This week's lighthouse is slightly outside the New England region, but I'm including it as a preview of my new book, The Lighthouse Handbook: Hudson River & New York Harbor, published by Cider Mill Press. After many years specializing in New England lighthouses, it was fun for me to visit and learn about a new set of lighthouses. Because of a popular children's book, this one might be the best known of the surviving lighthouses on the Hudson River.

This is a condensed version of the section on Jeffrey's Hook Light in the book, The Lighthouse Handbook: Hudson River & New York Harbor.

The point of land known as Jeffrey’s Hook is on the west side of Manhattan Island, on the east shore of the Hudson River and about 12 miles north of Upper New York Bay. As shipping traffic increased in the vicinity in the late nineteenth century, a navigational light was needed to help warn mariners away from a treacherous reef near Jeffrey’s Hook. In 1889, a 20-foot-tall red stake was erected with two red lanterns, one hanging ten feet above the other.

In 1918, officials of the Bureau of Lighthouses decided that an extant lighthouse tower, built in 1880 and previously in use as the North Beacon at Sandy Hook in New Jersey, would be relocated to Jeffrey’s Hook. On October 10, 1921, the tower was reassembled in its present location. A 1,000-pound fog bell was mounted on the lower part of the lighthouse. A local caretaker or “lamplighter” wound the clockwork mechanisms that sounded the bell and rotated the lens.

The massive George Washington Bridge was completed in 1931. The suspension bridge spans the river from the sites of Fort Washington on the New York side to Fort Lee on the New Jersey side. At the time of its dedication, the bridge had the longest main span in the world at 3,500 feet. The bright lights of the bridge rendered the lighthouse virtually obsolete. It was still in operation in 1942 when Hildegarde Swift and Lynd Ward wrote the popular children’s book The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.

In the beginning of the book, the lighthouse is proud of its role in navigation: “It felt big and useful and important. ‘What would the boats do without me?’ it thought.” When the bridge is completed in the story, the lighthouse is left feeling small and insignificant.

But one foggy night, the bridge tells the lighthouse that its light and bell are still needed, that it is still “the master of the river.” The lighthouse calls, “Look out! Danger! Watch me!” Its place in the world was secured.

Despite the popular book and public affection for the lighthouse, the Coast Guard decommissioned it in 1948. When plans were announced to auction the lighthouse, a flood of letters from fans of the children’s book and other concerned citizens convinced the government to make other plans. On July 23, 1951, the lighthouse was given to the City of New York.

In 2002, a 300-millimeter lens was installed, and the lighthouse was relit as a private aid to navigation. The relighting came at the annual Little Red Lighthouse Festival on September 19, 2002.

The only lighthouse on Manhattan Island may be reached by driving or taking the “A” train to West 181st Street. Walk west on 181st Street toward the river, cross a pedestrian footbridge and follow the path to Fort Washington Park and the lighthouse. City park rangers lead school tours and conduct tours of the lighthouse for the public on occasion in summer. For the schedule and more information, call (212) 304–2365, or write to Urban Park Rangers, Inwood Hill Park, 1234 Fifth Ave., first floor, New York, NY 10029.

Tour Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse!

The first open house of the season at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in New Castle, NH, will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 30. The lighthouse is off Route 1B at Coast Guard Station Portsmouth Harbor adjacent to Fort Constitution.

No reservations are needed. Tours are on a first-come, first-served basis. No children under 42 inches tall are permitted to climb to the top and adults are not permitted to carry children up the stairs. Visitors get to climb to the lantern room to enjoy the view and to see the fourth-order Fresnel lens up close.

Volunteers will tell visitors about the history of the light station and there will be souvenirs for sale. To climb the lighthouse, a donation of $2 for adults and $1 for children is suggested. There are 44 stairs to the watch room and a 7-rung ladder to the lantern room. Flat shoes (not sandals or flip-flops) are required to climb the ladder into the lantern room.

The lighthouse will be open every Tuesday afternoon from June 2 to Sept. 1. For a complete schedule, visit

United Way & Russound Pitch In at Portsmouth Harbor Light

On Wednesday, May 13, a group of five volunteers from Russound in Newmarket, NH, gave a big helping hand (ten hands, actually) to the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse (FPHL). The effort was part of the United Way's Spring 2009 Day of Caring.

(Above, L to R: Bob Hancock, Ryan Bartosiewicz, Andrea Renz, Jon James, Dan Charest, and Ross Tracy.)

On this day, about 1000 volunteers spent the day making a difference on the New Hampshire Seacoast.

At Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in New Castle, NH, the Russound volunteers were supervised by FPHL Chairman Ross Tracy, who is also an IT manager at Russound. The camaraderie and friendship of all the participants helped the day go smoothly.

The volunteers applied stain to the 84-foot walkway that leads to the lighthouse. The walkway was built in the fall of 2006, and had never gotten a full application of stain before. This time, every inch of the pressure-treated wood, including the underside of the walkway, was given a protective coating.

The group also helped rebuild a stairway that leads from the walkway to a rocky beach and a 1903 oil house.

It was a beautiful day to be outside, and a great deal was accomplished. FPHL will gladly take part in more Days of Caring in the future.