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 North Brother Island, NY    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Lighthouse destroyed.
Description: Four decades of negotiations transpired before a lighthouse was finally built at North Brother Island. The process started in 1829, when Congress approved $5,000 “for building a lighthouse on or near one of the islands called Brothers at the narrows of Long Island Sound.” The dangerous northern approach to Hell Gate (located in the East River off Manhattan) had been the scene of untold shipwrecks, and the New York Superintendent of Lights made it a top priority to have a light established there.

North Brother Island was considered by all to be the ideal site for the new light, but the land’s owner, one Edward Ackerman, refused to sell. After three years of attempts to purchase the land, Auditor Stephen Pleasonton formally asked the New York legislature to condemn the property. Two years later, the state had not acted, and the Congressional funds were automatically returned to the treasury.

Funds for the lighthouse were reappropriated in 1848, and a Navy commander named Pearson was sent to North Brother to inspect the site and negotiate the purchase of the property. His report stated that the owner “was indisposed to sell less than the whole island for which he asked 9,000 Dollars but would take 5,000 Dollars for two acres.” This price, in mid-19th century dollars, was considered extremely high, and the earmarked funds were transferred to maintain other lighthouses. With the help of the State of New York, the land was finally acquired in 1868.

The design for the lighthouse called for a two-story dwelling with an integral tower and mansard roof. Similar structures were built around the same time at several sites, including Colchester Reef, Vermont, Rose Island, Rhode Island, and Esopus Meadows, New York. The keeper’s dwelling had a kitchen, pantry, dining room, sitting room, and oil room on the main floor, and four bedrooms on the upstairs floor. The tower was octagonal and rose out of the front of the house to a height of fifty feet above the river level. The original beacon was a sixth-order lens showing a fixed white light that was activated for the first time in November of 1869. In 1889, a fog bell was installed, and in 1900 the beacon was upgraded to a fourth-order Fresnel lens.

Aerial view of North Brother Island Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
In 1883 a fence was built behind the station to separate the lighthouse from its neighbor, Riverside Hospital. The medical center was operated by the City of New York and housed patients suffering from infectious diseases. The hospital’s most famous patient was Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary, who lived there for over twenty years. Typhoid Mary was the first “healthy carrier” of typhoid in the United States, and through her work as a cook over fifty people were infected, three of whom died. Mary had been released after an initial stay of three years, but when she was discovered working again as a cook under a pseudonym at a Manhattan hospital that was suffering a typhoid outbreak, she was sent back to North Brother Island where she would remain the rest of her life.

In 1902, Joseph D. Meade was appointed keeper at North Brother Lighthouse. Meade came from a post at the Whale Rock Lighthouse in Rhode Island, where he had valiantly tried to rescue his assistant keeper whose boat had capsized. Although Meade’s attempt was unsuccessful, he did receive a letter of commendation from the Lighthouse Board for his efforts.

On January 5, 1903, Meade left the station to visit his mother in New York City. His two brothers were living at the lighthouse at the time, and stayed to look after things. When Meade had not yet arrived at his mother’s on January 7, police were called and soon located Meade’s boat tied up at a city dock. The authorities concluded that foul play was most likely involved, but Meade’s body was never found.

T.P. Jacobs, who was named as the new keeper at North Brother on February 20, 1903, was witness to the worst maritime disaster to ever hit New York. On June 15, 1904, the vessel General Slocum left the East Third Street dock in New York on a pleasure cruise. Almost all of the 1,500 passengers were women and children, most of them on the way to a Sunday school picnic. Around ten in the morning, as the ship passed Hell Gate, smoke began pouring from the bow on the port side.

The fire spread very quickly, with the passengers crowding the stern to avoid the smoke and flames. Rather than heading for the beach only 300 feet away, Capt. Van Schaick turned the ship at full power and headed for North Brother Island. (The captain probably made this decision to avoid the flammable businesses in the Bronx.) Most of the fire hoses on the ship did not work, and many of the life preservers turned out to be rotten and falling apart. One passenger tried to lower a lifeboat, only to discover it to be wired into place.

Passengers began to jump overboard as the ship neared the southern end of the island. Instead of beaching the boat there, the captain went all the way to the other side of the island and ran the vessel aground in a small cove. Even though the flaming bow was on ground, the stern was still in deep water. The impact of the ship running aground caused the top deck to come crashing onto the lower decks. Some passengers were thrown into the water, while others fell into the flames. Alerted by local residents who had seen the ship on fire, doctors and nurses from the island’s hospital, as well as other residents, were on the scene and tried to rescue as many as they could from the vessel. Others waded into the water to pull people out one by one. A tug saved over 150 persons, and a doctor pulled six people into his small boat. Hundreds were saved, but over 1,000 passengers died that day, nearing the number that would perish on the much more famous sinking of the Titanic.

A few days after the accident, the charred hull was raised to look for remains of other victims, and the next year, what was left of the ship was converted into a coal barge used on the Delaware River. This vessel reportedly sank several years later.

In 1953, North Brother Island Lighthouse was discontinued and replaced with a white skeleton tower. After over a half-century sitting abandoned and neglected, the tower is gone, and the keeper’s house has collapsed. Only a glimpse of the roof can be seen above the foliage that has grown up on the island that is now a bird sanctuary.

One item from the North Brother Island Lighthouse has been preserved. The fog bell formerly used at the station is displayed at the New York City Police Department's Harbor Unit at College Point, where it serves as a memorial to officers who have died in the line of duty.

References

  1. Northeast Lights: Lighthouses and Lightships, Rhode Island to Cape May, New Jersey, Robert Bachand, 1989.

Location: Located in the East River near Rikers Island.
Latitude: 40.79929
Longitude: -73.89958

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


Travel Instructions: The best views of the lighthouse come from the East River.

The property is owned by the City of New York. Grounds closed.

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