During the mid-1800s, Coney Island attracted a lot of notable people, including P.T. Barnum, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, and Daniel Webster, but the west end of the island, where the lighthouse was to be built, attracted quite a different crowd, and was a very rough area known for its drinking, fighting, and gambling. It wasn’t unusual for bodies to wash ashore on Coney Island during those times.
A contract for the metalwork for the rear light tower was made in January 1890, and two months later, work began on the erection of the tower, the front beacon, the fog signal, and the keeper’s dwelling. The original rear light, a square, skeleton tower with a central steel column containing eighty-seven steps, remains standing. This tower is identical to the former lighthouse at Throg’s Neck. In fact, they literally took the plans for that tower, crossed out “Throg’s Neck” and wrote “Coney Island” above it. The tower stands roughly sixty-one feet tall, with an eight-sided lantern room at the top, and marks the rocks of the appropriately named Gravesend Bay at the Narrows, the entrance to Upper New York Bay. The front light consisted of an eighteen-foot-tall, square, wooden tower, standing on four concrete footings.
The accompanying keeper’s dwelling was also copied from another station, in this case Gould Island Lighthouse in Rhode Island. Once again, they took the plans, crossed out the word “Gould,” and wrote in “Coney.” The building had two floors, plus a cellar and an attic. A shed was attached, via a covered walkway, to one side of the building, and a water cistern was built in back. A gravel path led to the shoreline, connecting the dwelling, the lighthouse tower, and the fog bell building.
The original beacon in the rear tower, first lit on August 1, 1890 by Keeper Thomas Higginbotham, was a fourth-order Fresnel lens powered by kerosene, showing a flashing red light. That lens was removed when the station was automated in 1989, and is now on display at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington D.C. The beacon casts a beam seventy-one feet above sea level, and is visible for over fourteen miles.
In 1896, the front range tower, no longer needed, was taken to the general lighthouse depot on Staten Island, and the land on which it stood was sold at public auction on July 6, 1896.
The dredging of Ambrose Channel in the early 1900s changed the course of the currents near Coney Island, and the land in front of the station began to erode. In 1914, a house 250 yards east of the lighthouse was washed away, prompting the construction of a 600-foot-long stone wall the following year. Six months after it was finished, a large storm undermined much of the wall. During a storm in April 1918, the north corner of the lighthouse reservation was cut away, and the fog bell house toppled into the water. The bell and striking apparatus were recovered, and a new skeletal fog bell tower was built and surrounded by several tons of riprap.
In 1921, the Lighthouse Service noted a serious problem at Coney Island Lighthouse:
This reservation is located on Sea Girt property at Nortons Point, west end of Coney Island. It was purchased in 1889, at which time there were no other buildings or roads in the vicinity, but since then the surrounding property has developed in such a manner as to give the lighthouse reservation no street front and no other means of egress for the occupants. A right of way is urgently needed to meet a bad situation and can only be obtained by the purchase of property priced at $5,000.The issue was raised the following two years before a right-of-way was apparently purchased.
Adrien Boisvert and his wife Alice, both natives of Quebec, were transferred to Coney Island Lighthouse in 1941 from Fire Island Lighthouse to replace Keeper Herbet Greenwood, who had been in charge of the light for twenty-three years. In an interview for a newspaper article in 1953, Keeper Boisvert dismissed the romantic notion of the life of a lighthouse keeper by explaining how his need to shuttle between the fog bell and light tower left little time for philosophic contemplation, especially with the added responsibility of looking after his seven children. Several times a night, Keeper Boisvert had to climb the corkscrew staircase inside the tower to wind up the 150-pound weight that caused the lens to rotate. When Adrien did take time out to attend a church meeting, his wife had to staff the station. Family excursions away from the lighthouse were a rarity.
The last civilian keeper at Coney Island Lighthouse was Frank Schubert, who began his lighthouse career in 1938 aboard the buoy tender Tulip. He followed that with time at the offshore Old Orchard Lighthouse, and then was assigned to the Army Transportation Service during World War II. After the war, he served as the keeper of three lights at Governors Island, while his wife, Marie, and their three children lived on Staten Island.
In 1960, Schubert gladly accepted an assignment to Coney Island Lighthouse as his family would finally be able to live with him. When interviewed by a New York Times reporter, Mrs. Schubert explained “We’ve gone from one extreme to another. We never used to see Frank. Now he never leaves home.” Keeper Schubert’s duties included tending the light and the 1,000-pound fog bell, which he would activate when he could no longer see Hoffman and Swinburne Islands. In an emergency, or if the power went out, Schubert said that the fog bell would be hit “with a sledgehammer.”
Schubert had other talents and hobbies to keep him busy, including golfing, bowling, cooking, and woodworking, among others. Even with all that, the family apparently seldom left the station; in a 1986 interview, Schubert said, “We haven’t been to the movies since 1946, and we haven’t taken a vacation in 20 years.”
When the station was automated in 1989, Keeper Schubert, whose wife Marie had passed away in 1986, was allowed to stay on as a caretaker, and he continuing to climb the eighty-seven steps to the lantern each day to perform required maintenance duties. During his years of service, Schubert was credited with saving the lives of fifteen sailors and was invited in 1989 for a visit to the White House by President George H.W. Bush. Schubert and his dog, Blazer, remained on duty until December 11, 2003, when Schubert passed away at the age of eighty-eight as the last of the country’s civilian lighthouse keepers. His lighthouse career had lasted sixty-five years, including forty-three years at Coney Island Lighthouse.
“The Coast Guard mourns the loss of its most courageous sentry of the sea,” said Captain Craig T. Bone, commander of Coast Guard Activities New York, after Schubert’s passing. “His devotion to duty and courage are unequaled.”
Head Keepers: Thomas Higginbotham (1890 – 1910), Ernest J. Larsson (1910), Gilbert L. Rulon (1910 – 1918), Herbert L. Greenwood (1918 – 1941), Adrien J. Boisvert (1941 – 1960), Frank P. Schubert (1960 – 2003).
Photo Gallery: 1