|Princes Bay, NY|
Description: In the early 19th century, new lighthouses were needed to guide the ever-growing amount of ship traffic calling at New York City. Three sites were chosen in 1828 for new beacons: Princes Bay near the southern end of Staten Island, Fort Tompkins near the northern end of Staten Island, and the Highlands of Navesink in New Jersey.
From the late 1700s, oystering had been one of the main industries in Princes Bay. Besides supplying food and an income to local residents, crushed oyster shells supplied lime, which was used in building many of the homes on Staten Island. One legend has it that Princes Bay was named for a prince who loved eating oysters for their alleged aphrodisiac properties. A combination of overfishing and pollution from both industry and an increasing residential population destroyed oystering as a commercial enterprise by the early 1900s.
Congress appropriated $30,000 for the Princes Bay Lighthouse that was built on the highest point along the shoreline of Staten Island, where the cliffs there rise eighty-five feet above the water. On a clear day, the New York skyline is visible, and the view extends to Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
The first tower was constructed of rubble stone and exhibited a fixed white light from a height of 106 feet above sea level. The original beacon consisted of either ten or twelve lamps with reflectors. In 1837, a Navy commission noted in a report that the light was only visible from a north-northeast to south-southwest direction, and was only useful to ships going to and from New York. They recommended that additional westward reflectors be added, which would benefit mariners going through the upper part of Princes Bay and Raritan Bay. Another benefit would come in the winter when the Arthur Kill was frozen, and ships going from New Jersey to New York were forced to pass along the south side of Staten Island. The recommendations in the report were put into place shortly thereafter.
In 1849, Silas Bidell was appointed keeper of the Princes Bay Lighthouse. Before the appointment, Bidell was employed as a stagecoach driver. He thus had no prior experience working in a lighthouse and no instructions on operating the light were provided him when he arrived to begin duty. Bidell often left his daughter in charge while he went off to pursue other interests. An 1851 inspection report described the buildings as dirty, the lanterns in poor condition, and the keeper as “ignorant of his duties, and evidently not aware of the importance of keeping a good light.” Bidell still managed to keep his job for another year before being replaced by Homer Phelps.
In 1857, a 3.5-order Fresnel lens was installed, showing a flashing white light every two seconds. In 1863, it was decided that the tower was in dangerously poor condition, and construction began right away on a replacement. A wood-frame tower was erected to show a temporary light while the construction was completed. The new brownstone was finished in 1864, and the Fresnel lens was transferred from the temporary tower. Inside the new tower, a cast-iron staircase wound around a central pillar, leading up to the lantern room. Weight suspended in the tower powered the clockwork mechanism that rotated the lens. In 1890, the light source was downgraded to a fourth-order Fresnel.
A two-story brownstone keeper’s dwelling was built next to the tower in 1868, and a passageway connected the residence to the tower. The first floor of the dwelling contained a kitchen, pantry, dining room, and sitting room, while upstairs there were four bedrooms. The attic had two more rooms. After the new dwelling was finished, the former residence was torn down. A stone building with a date of either 1865 or 1866 is located just south of the dwelling.
Princes Bay Lighthouse was deactivated in August of 1922, after the installation of acetylene lights in Raritan Bay made the former light redundant. The keeper remained on duty until November of that year to guard against vandals. In 1926, the lighthouse and property was sold at a public auction. The highest bid was received from the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, a residence and school for seventeen hundred orphans that already surrounded the lighthouse on three sides. The mission replaced the lantern with a statue of the Virgin Mary.
In 1953, a rear range light was put up on the mission’s property, southeast of the lighthouse. The U.S. government paid the mission $32 per year for the small piece of land used by the range light. The companion front range light is located on the beach, forty-five yards away.
The lighthouse and 145 acres of surround upland and 45 underwater acres were jointly purchased in 1999 from the Archdiocese of New York by New York State and the Trust for Public Land. Per the agreement, the state bought out the trust’s two-thirds portion over the ensuing two years. Today, the property is known as the Mt. Loretto Unique Area and is managed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. If funds can be secured, the department hopes to relight a beacon atop the brownstone tower. Currently, the lighthouse grounds are not open to the public, but good views can be had from trails in the area. The best views are during the winter, when the trees are bare of leaves.
Located in the Mt. Loretto Unique Area atop a high bluff near the southeast end of Staten Island, overlooking
Raritan Bay. The lighthouse is owned by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and is part of the Mt. Loretto Unique Area. Immediate grounds, dwelling, and tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and is part of the Mt. Loretto Unique Area. Immediate grounds, dwelling, and tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Sarah Siering, used by permission.