At the top of Manhattan, under the world’s busiest bridge, stands a perfectly utilitarian lighthouse. While it hasn’t shone since 1947, it has continued to admirably perform that most valuable of duties: pleasing children. Tuesday night, its beacon was restored.
THE JEFFREYS HOOK lighthouse lies just across the Hudson River from the New Jersey Palisades. It is dwarfed by the 600-foot-high George Washington Bridge looming over it, and is better known as the title character of the 1942 children’s book “The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Grey Bridge,” written by Hildegard H. Swift and illustrated by Lynd Ward.
Before the red tower was immortalized in print, it was a simple lighthouse, built in 1880 in Sandy Hook, N.J. In 1921 it was disassembled, brought to Manhattan, and rebuilt to warn Hudson River navigators of dangerous rocks. Ten years later, the bridge opened to traffic, and in 1947 the lighthouse was turned off and destined for destruction.
By that time, Swift’s book had made an impression on the children of New York and the world. The book foretold the lighthouse’s obsolescence. After all, who needs a lighthouse under a brightly-lit bridge span? The book’s answer is both a classic underdog story and a lesson for children: In a heavy fog, the bridge is just too high for the boatmen to see, and the bridge knows it.
The children, apparently, learned the book’s lesson. So when the lighthouse was threatened with demolition, a letter-writing campaign by children and parents gathered enough momentum to stop the demolition and, by 1951, to shepherd the Little Red Lighthouse into the care of Robert Moses’ New York City Parks Department.
Thanks to those children, visitors to Fort Washington Park, a tranquil, hard-to-get-to sliver of riverine green space separated from the apartment blocks of Washington Heights by the Henry Hudson Parkway, have continued to enjoy the odd sight of a tiny, red, vertical lighthouse under a gargantuan, grey, predominantly horizontal bridge. But the light has been out for more than half a century.
SHORTLISTED BY SEPT. 11
The Historic House Trust, a nonprofit group working to preserve the Jeffreys Hook Lighthouse and 18 other historic sites in New York City’s park system, has long been on a U.S. Coast Guard waiting list to get a new Fresnel lens for the lighthouse. Ben Haavik, the trust’s deputy director, says, “It’s generally a very long wait.”
The Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers, two huge symbols of the city, helped move the little lighthouse to the top of the Coast Guard’s list, says Haavik. “It was the Coast Guard’s effort to say, ‘This is our chance to give the lighthouse a light, a beacon of hope to the children of New York City, so they looked around and they found a lens we would be able to use.’”
So on Tuesday night a handful of New Yorkers, maybe twenty in all including a few children, members of the press and park workers, gathered to see the light turned on. According to the Park Department Web site, the ceremony was supposed to start at 7:15 p.m. By 7:45 p.m., children were starting to look tired and Haavik and another official-looking fellow were staring down the Hudson through binoculars, towards the downtown lights.
They were looking for the John J. Harvey, a retired New York City fireboat whose presence was integral to the lighting ceremony. “It’s an old fireboat,” said Haavik, “so I think it’s taking a little longer than they expected.”
A few minutes later, the Harvey nudged into view. Apparently, it carried New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and a passel of well-wishers who had climbed aboard miles downriver at Pier 63 — seemingly a bigger crowd than the one on the Hudson’s banks.
An impressive boat, the John J. Harvey announced itself with foghorn bellows, a spew of black diesel smoke visible even against the dark night sky, and 200-foot-high arcs of floodlight-illuminated water from the same pumps that fought fires on docks and vessels from 1931, when the George Washington Bridge opened, to the vessel’s retirement in 1994.
‘ITS LITTLE LIGHT’
The “crowd” on the banks cheered and clapped for the Harvey. It seemed that everybody was looking at the fireboat. After a minute or two, heads starting turning towards what was supposed to be the center of attention, the Little Red Lighthouse. And there it was, a light flashing on and off every few seconds at the top of the red tower, seeming much dimmer than the truck halogens moving high above on the spans of the bridge.
One photographer said it looked like a 60-watt light bulb. But none of the adult spectators seemed to be complaining so much as chuckling to themselves at the little light that had brought them to the edge of the river. Some of them, at least, were among the 700,000 who use the bridge on an average weekday, and when they do they see camouflage Humvees and National Guardsmen with M-16s after the tolls on the inbound side from New Jersey.
Now, when they go over the bridge on Wednesday morning, some of them will think about the new light in the lighthouse down below. That’s why the Coast Guard came up with a spare Fresnel lens for New York before they did for a dark tower that’s been waiting longer, somewhere in Maine, or Oregon, or on Lake Superior — they thought we needed it a little more right now.
Most importantly, the kids liked it. Katrina Meyer, a tired little girl in her father’s arms, said she did, that she “thinks about the light going on and off.” Adria Quinones, who brought her son Toby, also lit up when asked about the night on the river: “We loved it. We come down to visit the lighthouse all the time and we read the books to our kids, and now this is a lovely thing for us, to be able to come down and show them what a lighthouse does and what it means for its little light to come on.”
Stokes Young is a multimedia producer for MSNBC.com in Secaucus, N.J. He lives in Upper Manhattan. The Little Red Lighthouse Festival takes place at the lighthouse in Fort Washington Park on Saturday, Sept. 21 from 12 noon to 5 p.m.