Montauk Point Lighthouse. Photo: Montauk Point Lighthouse
Lighthouses, tall, simple structures designed to bring sailors safely to shore, offer more than the sum of their parts. Lighthouses remind us that even the smallest light, in the darkest, scariest place, can provide guidance, hope, assurance, and even companionship, sending the message that seafarers -- and sometimes those watching from the shore -- are not alone.
Lighthouses have inspired countless writers, from Robert Louis Stevenson, who hailed from a family of lighthouse builders and whose grandfather built one himself, to Virginia Woolf, who vacationed yearly at a house looking out on a lighthouse, and went on to write To the Lighthouse.
In literature, their duality — as iconic structures by day, their beams of lifesaving light at night — often serves to represent the baffling layers of identity individual people carry and often hide from one another. What’s more real: The shell or what is harbored within?
And even the carefree beachgoers attempting to avoid the kind of deep thoughts that modernist literature was designed to produce, when confronted with one of these beauties, just might find themselves waxing poetic.
New York’s long and rich maritime history means there are dozens of historic lighthouses standing proud guard. According to this map, there are 82 statewide lighthouses still standing, and 20 sites of former locations. Below, some of our favorites.
This is the O.G. (“Original Gangsta” for those of us not heretofore in the know) lighthouse in New York, having been authorized to be built by none other than President George Washington in 1792. Today, history obsessives and lighthouse lovers alike flock to the lighthouse, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark and transformed into a museum. Visitors can ascend the stairs for a 360-degree view of the Atlantic Ocean and Block Island Sound.
200 Montauk Hwy, Montauk
The site that became the lighthouse was first visited by Samuel Champlain in 1615; he was introduced here by Native American Hurons. The region was the site of many skirmishes during the French & Indian War, and then later, served as a hideout for smugglers. These days, the folks who come here also come to hide -- though now it’s from their day-to-day cares -- and to fish, boat, chill, and sun. The lighthouse itself straddles the mouth of Salmon River, just as it meets Lake Ontario. It’s one of just four remaining in the U.S. with its original Birdcage design, and one of the two remaining operational ones. It is both a Designated Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. People visit not just for the lighthouse, but also for the stunningly laid-back vibe, the gorgeous sunsets and the five, roomy cottages that rent out to vacationers every spring, summer and fall.
Salmon River Lighthouse & Marina, Pulaski
Photo: Fire Island Lighthouse
This lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is close to Robert Moses State Park, making it a perfect stop on a nature-filled day trip. Built in 1826, this lighthouse stretches 168 feet into the air, and lives on the tip of Fire Island. Its light can be seen 20 miles away. This summer, between June 21st and July 14th, stop by for the lighthouse’s 18th Annual Lighthouse. Local artists will display their nautical-themed works of art; a portion of sales will be donated to the lighthouse. Admission is free.
Captree Island, Captree
Photo: Hudson-Athens Lighthouse
This jaw-dropper of a lighthouse looks like it could be a perfect set for a Tim Burton film. Built in 1874 in Second Empire architectural style, it looks like the wee-est of mini mansions stranded in the Hudson River between Hudson and Athens. In 1982, the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed to take over and preserve its heritage; in 2000, the Coast Guard officially transferred all ownership to the Society. Visitors are allowed seasonally from May-October, and artists are encouraged to apply to utilize the space for open air studios.
Hudson River, Athens
Photo: Hudson River Maritime Museum
Part and parcel of the Hudson River Maritime Museum, the Rondout Lighthouse is the only museum in New York devoted exclusively to celebrating the maritime heritage of the Hudson River. Visitors will be able to take a ride to the historic 1913 lighthouse, while also perusing an old boat shop and displays of ice boats, ship models, and engines.
50 Rondout Landing, Kingston
In 1776, an important Revolutionary War battle started near Valcour Island when an American naval force under Benedict Arnold ran into a large British fleet; while America was vanquished in the skirmish, it stalled British progress. A century later, the Bluff Point Lighthouse was erected to aid navigation. These days, the lighthouse and the island on which it rests is accessible only by boat; the Clinton County Historical Association offers tours of the lighthouse and provides context for the region’s fascinating place in history.
Valcour Island, Lake Champlain
Forget inspiring dramatic works of art, this lighthouse has lived its own epic tragedy. Built in 1858 to illuminate the dangerous 67-mile stretch between Fire Island and Montauk, the lighthouse has survived lightning strikes, fires, and hurricanes. While the original 168-foot structure collapsed under the strain of such a tumultuous life in 1948, it has been reborn as a squatter and sturdier structure. Just 74-feet tall and made of brick, she’s still standing (slightly less) tall today.
Shinnecock Hills, Shinnecock Hills
While the Little Red Lighthouse stopped bringing in ships to safety years ago, it’s still sending out beams of light and hope. The 40-foot-high structure is hunkered under the George Washington Bridge along a wild section of the Hudson River. One of the last remaining lighthouses in New York City, it was originally built in 1880 on Sandy Hook in New Jersey. It eventually became obsolete and was taken down; in 1921, it was reconstructed in its current spot by the Coast Guard in an attempt to improve nighttime navigation. By 1931, when the bridge went up, it was once again obsolete. By 1948, the Coast Guard officially decommissioned it and prepared to auction it off. Luckily, young and old fans of a beloved children’s book, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, written by Hildegarde Swift and Lynd Ward in 1942, in which the lighthouse shines happily and brightly until a bridge is built over it (spoiler: in the end, Little Red learns there is still a place in the world, even for a less-than-urgently-needed lighthouse), the auction was called off.
Little Red stands today, reminding us that even the smallest light, in the darkest, scariest place, can bring light, joy, inspiration, and solace.
Under the GWB
Do you have a favorite New York lighthouse to add to the list?