Today’s expedition brought me to a lighthouse at Roosevelt Island’s northern tip. Here’s a brief history of the lighthouse I got from lighthousefriends.com:
This 50-foot-tall, gray gneiss, Gothic-style lighthouse was built in 1872. It is not an official Coast Guard lighthouse, but it was commissioned by the city. The lighthouse’s purpose was to “effectually light” the nearby New York City Insane Asylum for boats navigating the treacherous Hell Gate waters. It was designed by architect James Renwick, Jr., whose other works include Smallpox Hospital and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Inmate labor was probably used in the city-run project, but to elaborate much on its construction is to explore legend.
The legendary mysteries are the names of Asylum inmate(s?) John McCarthy and Thomas Maxey and whether these two names refer to one person, two people or even existent people. Supposedly, before the lighthouse was built, McCarthy (or Maxey), fearing a British invasion, was constructing a four-foot-high clay fort on this site. Asylum officials let him finish the fort because, during his adrenaline-rushed work, he reclaimed significant areas of marsh. (They even gave him old Civil War cannons as encouragement.) When the city wanted to build the Lighthouse, officials bribed or persuaded McCarthy either to give up or to demolish the fort.
Whether McCarthy complied or not is the choice of the storyteller, but the fort did come down. Then, supposedly, another Asylum patient was summoned to build the Lighthouse. This inmate styled himself “Thomas Maxey, Esq., architect, mason, carpenter, civil engineer, philosopher, and philanthropist.” The lighthouse was built, though adherence to Renwick’s blueprint is questionable. Despite Thomas Maxey’s supposed labor, John McCarthy’s name was credited on a plaque that remained at the Lighthouse’s base until its mysterious disappearance in the 1960s:
was done by
who built the light
house from the bottom to the
top all ye who do pass by may
pray for his soul when he dies.
The Lighthouse was decommissioned in the 1940s, designated a city landmark in 1975, and partially restored the following year. In 1998 an anonymous grant of $120,000 funded complete restoration (including internal lamps).