National Lighthouse Museum
National Lighthouse Museum
The history of this site goes back well before the Lighthouse Depot was established - in fact before the beginning of our country. In the late 17th century it was a farm, or 'glebe' owned by British loyalist Justice Duxbury, who deeded it to the St. Andrew's Episcopal Church. During the French and Indian Wars, trees and fences were removed to build encampments and use as firewood. The British occupied the glebe during the Revolutionary war.
Found to be unkempt and unreliable in the 1850's, lighthouse administration had been handed over to a newly formed lighthouse board in 1852, made up of naval officers, army engineers, and leaders of the maritime industry. As the board made improvements in personnel, quality of structures and materials, lighthouse equipment, and supply, it became evident that a central base of operations was needed. In 1863, Admiral William B. Shubrick, Chairman of the Lighthouse Board, and Professor Joseph Henry, head of the board's experimental department, set out to find the land on which to build a 'super depot' for the Lighthouse Establishment. Because of its convenient location in a major U.S. Port, the good anchorages nearby, and the availability of room for expansion, the Staten Island site was chosen.
Work began immediately to build the lighthouse depot. In 1864 the warehouse building (called the barracks today) was completed, and work soon began on the old Lamp Shop, which would be completed in 1868. The Administration Building was completed the following year in 1869.
The depot was a busy and important operation during a time when lighthouses were of vital importance to the well being of our country. Vast improvements were being made in the design and construction of lighthouses, and in lighthouse equipment and supply. Experimentation was conducted in attempts to find better fuels and lamps. Fresnel Lenses were being installed in lighthouses throughout the country. The first lighthouse tenders, ships specifically designed to supply lighthouses, were being built, and new and better sound signals for lighthouses, lightships and buoys were being developed. And the Lighthouse Depot at Staten Island was an integral part of all this progress.
In 1883, a cast iron lighthouse was built on the depot in front of the administration building. Not intended as a navigational aid, the lighthouse was put here to act as a test platform for new oils, lamps and lenses. Here new innovations could be tested in a realistic lighthouse environment, rather than simply on a workbench, which was particularly important in lamp and fuel design. Constructed of cast iron, it was about 45 feet tall; a 'spark plug' lighthouse, as this design was called. In 1897 it was removed and placed on Romer Shoal, a reef adjacent to the Ambrose Channel, in the Approaches to New York Harbor, where it is still helping to keep ships off the shallow and dangerous rocks. In future years we hope to bring the lighthouse back home to the Lighthouse Depot, this time to help educate and inform our museum visitors.
In the 1920s, the Lighthouse Depot employed some 200 men. However, lighthouse related activity would soon begin to fall off. The majority of lighthouses were electrified in the 1930s, and electrification took a great deal of work out of tending the lights. Wicks no longer needed constant tending, and the glass lamp chimney, lens, and lantern windows no longer needed to be wiped free of soot all night. The clockwork, which powered rotation of the revolving lenses no longer needed to be wound. Gradually, three-keeper stations became two-keeper stations, and then one-keeper stations as electricity became more and more reliable.
The Coast Guard took over duties of the Lighthouse Service in 1939, and maintenance of the nation's aids to navigation became one of the mission areas of that service. Lighthouse keepers were given the choice of retiring, joining the Coast Guard at a rank equivalent to their Lighthouse Service rank, or retaining their civilian status as a lighthouse keeper until retirement. As keepers, lampists, and metal smiths retired, much of the knowledge and expertise of the service was lost. The depot became the Coast Guard's Third District Headquarters, and lighthouse support became more and more a minor role.
In 1968, the Coast Guard acquired Governors Island, just off the south tip of Manhattan, and abandoned the old depot on Staten Island. The future of the site was left uncertain. In the 1980s demolition of a dozen buildings and the planned construction of the Ferry Maintenance Facility prompted a strong response from concerned citizens and elected officials. In 1991 the Coast Guard Base Task Force was created to look into the future of the remaining historic buildings and adjacent land. As a result, four of the structures were put on the National Register of Historic Places and the Administration Building was made a New York City Landmark. Fences were erected to protect the buildings from vandals, and the plaza was paved and landscaped. A symbolic piece of art, provided through the City's Percent for Art Program, links the depot buildings to the ferry terminal. "Light-House-Bridge", was designed by Ski Armajani who also designed the tower holding the Olympic flame at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta.
Much damage, however, had already been done by vandals, and the effect of weather on the abandoned buildings has continued to take their toll. Copper flashing, for example, was stripped from building roofs for resale, resulting in greater flows of rainwater entering the buildings. But relief is finally in sight. Building 10, the new Lamp Shop will be sealed with a repaired roof and new windows and doors. Buildings six and eight, the Old Lamp Shop and the Barracks buildings have had a protective coating applied to the roofs, which will help protect the structures until full restoration can be accomplished. Plans are being made now to restore the roof of the administration building, building seven.
Pictures and information were provided by National Lighthouse Museum
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