|West Bank, NY|
Description: The lighthouse at West Bank off Staten Island was built as part of a number of improvements to New York Harbor. Construction of the fifty-five-foot iron tower began in August of 1900. Four courses of cylinder-shaped foundation plates were first sunk into place at the lighthouse site south of the Verrazano Bridge and filled with concrete. Then workers assembled the other five sections that would form the base. When that work was completed, the iron superstructure, weighing over sixty-seven tons, was lifted into place. The beacon became operational on New Year’s Day of 1901, showing a fixed white light from a fourth-order Fresnel lens. A fog signal was installed later that year.
The first keeper at West Bank was a lighthouse legend named Ed Burge, who for a period of thirty-four years between 1886 and 1920 manned a number of lights around the Lower Bay of New York. Burge’s lighthouse career began with stints as keeper at Twin Lights at Navesink and then Old Orchard Shoal before spending six years at West Bank. Following that, he was keeper at Elm Tree Light on the Swash Channel Range for thirteen years.
Burge brought a small fox terrier puppy with him when he arrived at the newly built West Bank Lighthouse. Like his owner, the lighthouse life quickly got into the dog’s blood, and he refused to live anywhere else. In a 1924 magazine interview, Burge talked about his dog:
You couldn’t get that dog to live ashore. Sometimes when I took him with me after supplies, he’d run down to the edge of the water and look out toward the light, and whine. If the light dimmed at night, or the fog signals stopped, he’d bark and tear around. He recognized a lot of boats, too, and would bark to the tugs he knew. I used to tie a flag to his tail, and he’d run out onto the gallery and wave signals. He always slept outside on the gallery, no matter how stormy it was, and watched the light and the boats. He was a lot of company. When I was transferred to Elm Tree I brought him ashore with me, but he wouldn’t live here. He was homesick, so I had to take him out and give him to the new keeper on the West Bank. He lived on the offshore lights for eleven years. Then the keeper brought him ashore, and he died in three days.
Burge also described to the interviewer life at West Bank – watching the lights glow at night from Coney Island and New York. Once in a while, he briefly thought about being over where the action was, but “if I had been ashore I wouldn’t have had the money to go to those places, and if I had gone the chances were that I wouldn’t have fitted in.” He also destroyed any romantic illusions the readers may have had about the exciting adventures that lighthouse keepers witness, saying, “No lighthouse keeper sees much, because when big things are happening it is mostly when you can’t see a thing…usually a keeper can’t see twenty feet beyond the tower.”
Burge also destroyed any notions people may have had about lighthouses being places for quiet contemplation:
I met a lady once who was all filled up with what she called the romance of the lighthouse. She said she often longed to be a keeper and live alone in a tower on a rock far out in the sea, and have peace and quiet. She couldn’t understand why I snorted. Peace and quiet! A lighthouse is about the noisiest place in the world. Out there on West Bank, for instance, with a gale blowing. When I was there the tower rose right out of the water, with no footing at all around it, so the waves crashed against the whole tower; shook it until sometimes the mantles over the burners in the light broke. Sometimes the waves went clear over the gallery, and the spray over the light itself.
On December 28, 1904, Assistant Keeper Frederick Nielson was stationed at the lighthouse along with Ed Burge. It was a cold, but crystal, and a nor’east gale was ripping through the channel, blowing the tops off the seas. Suddenly, Nielson felt the tower shudder and heard the sound of glass breaking and metal scraping. The vessel Carrie Winslow, being towed past by a tug, had hit the lighthouse and torn its railings off.
Burge recalled the incident: “She tore out one side of the tower, ripped free and drifted on, leaving that gale pouring through my bedroom. Nope, I didn’t do anything heroic. A man can’t be much of a hero without his pants. I just saw that the pup was all right and the light burning, and that the barkentine hadn’t sunk, and hunted another room that wasn’t busted wide open.”
The lighthouse received over $1,200 in damage, and the ship had a large hole in its bow. The tugboat company was assigned all blame for the accident. In 1915, another ship being towed by a tug crashed into the lighthouse, tearing a section of cast iron from the tower’s base.
Robert Lyons was stationed at West Bank Lighthouse in 1973 along with two other coastguardsmen. Every Tuesday night, the men would call Sandy Hook and given them a food list. The cooks at Group Sandy Hook would do the shopping and send the provisions out on Wednesday with the forty-foot boat that performed the crew rotation. Two men were always on station, with the third in port on one-week liberty. In rough seas, the Coast Guard boat was unable to dock at the little slip adjacent to the lighthouse and had to return to Sandy Hook. In those instances, Lyons recalls that all his "dreams and hopes" faded as the ship retreated back to port.
One morning Lyons awoke, showered, and went down the the galley/radio room wearing just his skivvies to have a cup of coffee and check out the news on TV. To his utter amazement, the main door to the lighthouse opened and in walked two guys and two girls. The visitors apologized for barging in but explained that they had just been to Old Orchard Shoal and Romer Shoals and found those "abandoned" so they didn't expect anyone to be home at West Bank. With the girls averting their eyes, Lyons proceeded to give them a tour of the tower, then resumed his morning routine. On another occasion, a tug ran into the riprap surrounding the lighthouse, and Lyons thought the tower was going to fall into the ocean. From then on, he slept with a life jacket on his bed.
West Bank Lighthouse was automated in the early 1980s, when it was one of only six manned stations remaining in the Third Coast Guard District. In 1998, the beacon was converted to solar power. In May of 2007, the lighthouse was excessed by the Coast Guard and offered at not cost to eligible entities. After no qualified owner for the lighthouse was found, the General Services Administration auctioned off the lighthouse during the summer of 2008. The winning bid was $245,000, placed by "kswiss1" on August 27th.
On June 30, 2010, West Bank Lighthouse was back on the auction block. According to the auction rules of the General Services Administration (GSA), during a "soft close date," if no increased bid is received by 3:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, then bidding will close at 3:00 p.m. on that day. The bid of "kswiss1" was made on August 27th around 6 a.m., but did not extend the auction by a day, as the GSA computer system would only do so for bids placed between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Shocked by the closure of the auction, Michael Gabriel, an attorney from Nevada who had bid $230,000 on August 26th, filed a lawsuit against GSA. The lawsuit apparently resulted in the lighthouse being auctioned off again, but in the Invitation for Bids (IFB), it was stated that the property was still the subject of litigation. The new IFB clearly states that bids must be made between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. in order to advance the soft close date to the next calendar day.
Michael Gabriel won auctions for Bloody Point Bar (Maryland) and Fourteen Foot Bank (Delaware) in 2006 and 2007, respectively, but defaulted on the closure of Borden Flats Lighthouse, which he had won in September of 2008.
The second GSA auction for West Bank Lighthouse closed on September 28 with a winning bid of $195,000 placed by "cedalt." Six bidders, who had paid a refundable deposit of $20,000, participated in the auction, which saw twenty-four bids placed.
The auction winner was revealed to be Sheridan Reilly, who has had a lifelong fascination with historic buildings. An avid boater, Reilly has sailed past West Bank Lighthouse numerous times, and after visiting the lighthouse, felt that in exchange for West Bank saving so many ships it was his duty to save it. Reilly estimates he will need to spend $50,000 and roughly a year just to clean up the interior of the lighthouse, which due to broken windows in its basement has been open to birds and the elements.
Located in Lower New York Bay, 4.7 miles south of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The lighthouse is privately owned. Tower closed.
The lighthouse is privately owned. Tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.