by Neil Tandon for the Roosevelt Island Historical Society©
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.
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:
WAS DONE BY/
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).
|Roosevelt Island Historical Walk 2000 by Neil Tandon & Roosevelt Island Historical Society|