As photos by historian Judith Berdy show, the Roosevelt Island Lighthouse restoration is nearly completed. The heavy equipment is gone, and the glass and top platform are in place. With the construction fencing now gone, too, visitors can again enjoy the full park experience.
by David Stone
The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse
The old Blackwell Island Lighthouse, now known as Roosevelt Island Lighthouse, has also been known as Welfare Island Lighthouse.
It is a stone lighthouse built by the city of New York in 1872 and is located on the northern point of the Island where the East River meets the Harlem River and tides from Long Island Sound. Those powerful conflicts led to its being named Hell Gate.
It was designated a New York City Landmark on March 23, 1976, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on September 16, 1980.
In 1872, the City of New York erected a lighthouse. James Renwick Jr., the supervising architect, designed several other structures on the island for the Charities and Correction Board as well as more renowned works such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
With the facts lost in history, legends are what we have…
The construction of the lighthouse has been the subject of many stories. The various stories are linked to two names, John McCarthy and Thomas Maxey. According to the warden of a mental institution’s report from 1870, an industrious patient had built a seawall on land that had been reclaimed near the Asylum.
A prison inmate, according to legend, constructed a fort to defend the island against a British invasion that he believed was coming. Some versions say that he had added a Civil War cannon.
The legend goes on to state that the builder was bribed with counterfeit money to tear down the fort for the lighthouse’s construction. According to other accounts, an Asylum inmate built the lighthouse.
Until about 1940, the lighthouse remained in service. Earlier restorations in the 1970s and in 1998 preserved the structure. But the current restoration aims at the authenticity of its original appearance. Judge for yourself in this video of Roosevelt Island, north to south, shot by Thomas Edison in 1903.
The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC), responsible for the lighthouse and its restoration has not announced a ribbon-cutting, but it’s expected soon.
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