|Elm Tree, NY|
Description: Early European (Dutch) sailors in New York Harbor used a large elm tree as a landmark while navigating off Staten Island. When an official aid to navigation was placed at this point on Staten Island, it was appropriately named the Elm Tree Lighthouse for the tree whose purpose the tower had supplanted. The beacon was situated on the south side of the island, near the shoreline, and functioned as a front range light, operating in conjunction with the New Dorp Lighthouse located on a hill, 1.8 miles inland.
Jacob Swain was seventy years old and in his fifteenth year as keeper at Elm Tree, when he married a widow named Sarah, who had two children. Over the next few years, the newlyweds had two more children of their own. In addition to taking care of the four children, Sarah often assisted her husband with the lighthouse duties. On February 14, 1906, Jacob died, leaving behind the four children and a nearly penniless wife. At the time, the children ranged in age from fourteen to three. It was a general custom when lighthouse keepers died to appoint their widow as the new keeper, and Sarah applied for her husband’s post. The position , however, was instead awarded to Edward Burge, who had been keeper at West Bank Lighthouse for about six years.
Jacob Swain had been a popular man in the local community, and a petition was raised to force the Lighthouse Service to reconsider its decision. Captain R. McKenzie, the Lighthouse Service Inspector for the area, said he understood the popular sentiment, but wrote, “As a business proposition the Light House Establishment must pay more attention to living keepers than to the relatives of dead ones.” The seemingly hard-hearted inspector added that Sarah had “married Mr. Swain some seven or eight years ago when he was about seventy years old and cannot herself be said to have any great claim on the Light House Establishment.” Edward Burge began his service as keeper at Elm Tree on April 14, 1906.
Burge was, at the time, a twenty-year veteran of the Lighthouse Service, having previously served at Navesink, Old Orchard Shoals, and West Bank. In a 1924 interview, Burge told about a pet he had out at West Bank.
In the same interview, Burge showed a philosophical bent as he talked at length about the life of a lighthouse keeper:
“Take being a keeper of a lighthouse, for instance. It’s a sort of easy job - at least those who never kept a light say it is. There isn’t much to do most of the time. But when there is something to do, it counts. It teaches a man to rely on himself and to do things for himself. Maybe there isn’t a big, important thing to do more than once a year; but waiting three hundred and sixty-four days, twenty-three hours and fifty-nine minutes, so as to be sure to be on the job in that other minute is hard enough.
In November of 1919, as World War I was winding down, Miller Airfield was built adjacent to Elm Tree Lighthouse on what had been the farm of William H. Vanderbilt. Named in honor of Captain James Ely Miller, who was shot down in Europe during the war, the airfield served first as an Air Service Coast Defense Station and later as an Army Air Field, a Coast Artillery gun site, a Nike Missile Repair Depot, and a US Army Special Forces base.
In 1939, the old wooden Elm Tree Lighthouse was torn down, and the beacon was moved to a sixty-five-foot tall concrete tower. A sixth-order lens was installed, and the power was changed from incandescent oil to electric. The new tower functioned as an aviation warning beacon as well as a maritime one. The City of New York maintained this tower, which showed alternating white and green lights for aircraft. Maritime traffic could only see the lights on range. In 1964, both the Elm Tree and New Dorp range lights were discontinued and replaced with channel markers.
Miller Field was deactivated in 1969, and the land was turned over to the National Park Service in 1972. The field, which is now home to several ball fields, is part of the Staten Island Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area. The concrete Elm Tree Lighthouse and a vacant double seaplane hanger remaining standing as reminders of the events that formerly played out on the present sports fields.
Located in Miller Field on the eastern shore of Staten Island. The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service and is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. Grounds open, tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service and is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. Grounds open, tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.