Our New York Marathon
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
An avid lighthouse lover, I saw four of them along our route. Although our guide John was exceptional, he only told us the story of the city's most famous light, the Little Red Lighthouse that stands forlornly dwarfed at the foot of the George Washington Bridge. He failed to point out the lighthouse history of New York's most famous landmark, and he overlooked an intriguing lighthouse high atop a building in the Bronx. Thanks to the Internet, I have the rest of the story.
Let's start with Lady Liberty, whom we last passed aboard Starsong on a windy choppy overcast day almost exactly six years ago (June 2, 2005). The words from the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the statue's base, "send these, your homeless tempest-tossed to me," had special significance for us that day. But, I digress. Let's go to the next line of the poem—"I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
The Statue of Liberty's lamp has always held symbolic meaning as a beacon of hope and liberty. It was once, for a short time early in its life, a beacon with a practical purpose as well. The torch was lit to guide ships into New York's inner harbor from 1886 until 1902. Befitting its majesty, it was the first lighthouse in the country to use electricity, and the arc lamps in the 305 foot tall torch could be seen up to 24 miles away. It was a very expensive proposition, though, which is why the lighthouse was decommissioned by the Coast Guard as an aid to navigation in 1902.
Our next light was the Roosevelt Island Light, a beautiful fifty foot tall octagonal gothic spire designed by the famous architect James Renwick and built in 1872. Although it stands at the island's shore on the East River, it was commissioned by the city to light the island's insane asylum, rather than to guide wary sailors on their way. Inmates from the nearby penitentiary hauled the rocks and built the tower.
The most intriguing lighthouse was a standout in the Brooklyn skyline, sitting regally atop a big brick building in a cluster of brick factories and warehouses. A little research revealed that this little light on a pedestal shaped like a big book is the trademark of the H.W. Wilson Publishing Company, and it has been on the roof of the company's headquarters since 1929. H. W. Wilson is the publisher of numerous bibliographies and reference books—most famously The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. The lighthouse atop the book symbolizes the company's mission: "To give guidance to those seeking their way through the maze of books and periodicals, without which they would be lost."
The Little Red Lighthouse, more formally known as Jeffrey's Hook Light, was immortalized in the book The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Grey Bridge, written by Hildegard H. Swift and illustrated by Lynd Ward. Built in 1921, the light was no longer needed after the George Washington Bridge was constructed in the 1930s, and its much higher bright lights could be seen by river traffic from much further away.
Hildegard Swift's book, published in 1942, captured the tension of this time, telling the story of a very foggy night when the lights of the bridge high above the water could not be seen by boats below, and a big tugboat crashed against the rocky shore. The little red lighthouse was lit to save other boats from the same sorry fate (a plot line mixing the best of David and Goliath and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). Alas, in the real world, the light was decommissioned in 1947 and slated to be sold for scrap. Schoolchildren across the country were heartbroken, and their letters, numbering in the thousands, saved the light.
One more sight from the boat—because we can't resist collecting examples of the world's biggest, smallest and best. Here is a picture of the Colgate Clock, which at fifty feet in diameter is reputed to be the world's largest clock. The minute hand advances three feet every minute.