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 Blackwell Island, NY    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.
Description: For nearly two centuries, Blackwell was the name that identified the island that lies in the East River just off Manhattan. The Blackwell family owned the island for some time, and their ancestral home still stands near the center of the island. The island was purchased by the City of New York in 1828 and transformed into an island of municipal institutions including prisons, poor houses, and hospitals. The island was renamed Welfare Island in 1921, reflecting the status of many of its inhabitants.

The prisons, which housed inmates like actress Mae West and William Marcy “Boss” Tweed, former Mayor of New York, closed when a new facility was opened on Rikers Island in 1935. In the late 1960s, plans were developed to turn a portion of the island into a residential community. The first housing complex opened in 1975, two years after the island had been renamed Roosevelt Island. Today, an aerial tramway (shown in the movie Spiderman) links the island to Manhattan, and a single bridge provides access to Queens.

The story of the island’s lighthouse is told by a sign found near the tower:

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:

This work
was done by
John McCarty
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).

Location: Located in Lighthouse Park at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island, which is in the East River.
Latitude: 40.77285
Longitude: -73.940201

For a larger map of Blackwell Island Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: Roosevelt Island can be reached by taking the 59th Street Bridge from Manhattan over to Queens. Once in Queens, go north to 36th Avenue, and take it west to the island. There is a hospital at the northern end of the island. We found a parking space on the street near the hospital and walked to the lighthouse.

The lighthouse can also be viewed from First Street in Astoria, Queens with the Manhattan skyline in the background. A view from the water is possible by taking Circle Line Cruise's three-hour full island tour.

The lighthouse is owned by New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Grounds open, tower closed.

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