Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-09-12.
There are two main channels that lead into Lower New York Bay, the Ambrose Channel and the Swash Channel. They are bisected by Romer Shoal, a sandy area between the two channels that in some sections has a depth as shallow as one foot.
The shoal, named after Wolfgang William Romer who sounded the waters of New York Bay in 1700 on orders of the Governor of New York, proved to be a major hazard for ships entering or leaving New York Bay. The steamer The Home ran aground on Romer Shoal on October 7, 1937 while leaving New York Bay. It lay grounded for several hours until high tide set the vessel free. It then continued on its journey, only to have a mechanical failure which led the captain to ground the vessel near Cape Hatteras where the seas ripped it apart.
Romer Shoal Lighthouse (Courtesy USCG)
Congress appropriated $15,000 in 1837, and then an additional $10,000 in 1838 for the creation of a light to mark the shoal. Captain Winslow Lewis was selected as the engineer to survey the area and select the site for the tower. He chose the southeast part of the shoal as the location for the tower. The Army and Navy Chronicle dated 1839 describes the tower twenty-six feet in diameter at the base and six feet in diameter at the top, built of granite blocks, rising 42 feet from the hard sand bottom. On top of this, a 24 foot tall spar would be placed, and the whole thing would be painted in a way to attract attention.
Around 1870, the tower was being battered by the elements. The entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board states:
41. Romer Shoal Beacon, New York Bay. - The riprap protection for this beacon, authorized by the appropriation of March 3, 1871, has been made, and consists of 950 tons of granite blocks of large irregular shape. The painting of the upper section of the tower remains to be done.
However, by 1877, the tower was off vertical, most likely caused by the erosion of sand underneath the granite foundation. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1877 has the following entry:
Romer Shoal, New York Bay, New York. - This beacon has settled on one side so as to show a manifest departure from the vertical. This was occasioned by the washing out of the sand on which the beacon was built. Eight years ago, when the danger was first discovered, it was for the time averted by placing around the base of the structure nine hundred and fifty tons of riprap, which settled on the side toward which the beacon inclines. The joints and masonry are somewhat opened, and should be cemented; but before this is done, and at an early day, about five hundred tons of riprap of stones, weighing about five tons each, should be placed around the base of the beacon. For this purpose an appropriation of $2,500 will be requisite. The other beacons in the district are in good order.
More riprap was ordered to try to shore up the structure. By 1883, The Lighthouse Board had received a letter from the owners of the steamship lines running into New York Bay requesting a new light be established on the other side of the Swash Channel. It was recommended that Congress appropriate the sum of $25,000 for the new skeletal tower.
By July 15, 1886, the skeletal tower was completed and put to use. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1886 had the following entry:
The work of establishing the light at this point was steadily pushed forward, although severe weather frequently made a landing at the site impracticable. The foundation was well advanced, and the first section of the pier set up in October. In November the second section of the pier was erected, and work was suspended during December on account of the weather. In January, 1886, the iron-work of the tower was received at the lighthouse depot. The foundation was strengthened in May with a cargo of stone, and by the end of June the entire structure was completed ready for lighting. The light will on July 15, 1886, be exhibited for the first time.
After the skeletal tower was put in place, not much changed. However, the light was changed from displaying a fixed red to a fixed white light on May 13, 1893. The idea behind the unmanned skeletal tower was that the acetylene tanks would be filled on a regular basis, and the towers would just work. However, as this tower began requiring more frequent maintenance; the Lighthouse Board started looking into replacing it. This tower would serve until 1898 when the Lighthouse Board decided to replace the unmanned tower with a fully manned light station.
The new tower would be a fifty-four foot tall cast-iron lighthouse which would sit atop a cast-iron concrete filled caisson. The tower, which resembled a spark plug, was assembled and used at the General Lighthouse Depot in Staten Island from 1883 to 1898 to experiment with different lenses, wicks, and equipment, before being placed into service as the Romer Shoal Lighthouse. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year ending June 30, 1898 had the following entry:
355. Romer Shoal, New York. - On December 29, 1897, the Board revoked its order of November 18, 1897, for the establishment of the acetylene light at this station. On May 5, 1898, plans were approved for the removal of the old beacon, the erection of a new iron tower, and the establishment of a permanent light and fog signal to replace the compressed gas lighting apparatus. Contract was made for the work, to be finished in September, 1898.
The next edition of The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board ending June 30, 1899 had the following entry:
369. Romer Shoal, New York lower bay, New York. - This light was discontinued, as a war measure, on April 28, 1898, and was relighted on August 1, 1898. The removal of the old and the erection of the new iron tower under contract was completed on September 14, 1898. A fourth-order lens light, flashing white every four seconds, was established on October 1, 1898. A fog-signal, consisting of a 1,300 pound bell, striking one blow every thirty seconds, was established February 20, 1899. Work was begun on the landing pier on October 8, 1898, and on December 17 the work was suspended for more favorable weather. Concrete in bags, to a depth of 3 feet, was laid for the outer end of the foundation, and cement 1 foot deep, 10 feet wide, and 20 feet long was placed on top of the bags and riprap, and a cofferdam 13 feet long and 10 feet wide was erected and filled with concrete to high water mark. Under contract, 600 tons of riprap were furnished and placed for a protection to the station. Various repairs were made.
On October 10, 1898, the lens was changed to a fourth-order Fresnel lens. After that, the lighthouse had a quiet period until 1939 when the tower was outfitted with an incandescent oil vapor lamp. Again, not much happened between 1939 and 1966 when the tower was automated. At that time, the Fresnel lens was removed and replaced with a modern optic.
The years and the seas have taken their toll on the tower. A storm in 1992 ripped the access ladder off the tower. The Coast Guard deemed the structure to costly to rehabilitate and considered replacing the tower with a steel skeletal tower. However, several years later, the Coast Guard did a thorough inspection and deemed the structure as sound. Plans were made to upgrade and rehabilitate many items, but most of those plans were shelved due to finances.
By June of 2010, the lighthouse was deemed excess and under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 it was offered for free to a qualifying non-profit, federal, state, or local agency. After receiving no letters of intent from any agencies, the lighthouse was put to auction on May 14, 2011 by the General Services Administration with an opening bid of $10,000. The winning bid of $90,000 was submitted by John Vicent Scalia.
Scalia is working out details with Linda Dianto of the National Lighthouse Museum in Staten Island to have the Romer Shoal Lighthouse affiliated in some way with the museum due to the lighthouse's past history with the General Lighthouse Depot, as well as tours to take people out to the lighthouse.
The Romer Shoal Lighthouse sustained significant damage in the fall of 2012 when Hurricane Sandy, sometimes referred to as "Superstorm Sandy," made landfall on October 29 as a category 1 hurricane near Brigantine, New Jersey. The storm surge submerged the lighthouse nearly 15 feet, which took water to its second floor. Windows and doors were blown in, significant damage to the caisson and breakwater, and many of the large rip-rap boulders surrounding the lighthouse were lost.
The Romer Shoal Lighthouse non-profit group applied for and received a $501,000 grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust to preserve and repair much of the damage sustained during the hurricane. Much of that work took place during 2014.
- Various Government Documents, Federal & State Governments, Various dates.
- Sermon, on the loss of the Steam-Packet Home, Rev. Thomas Smyth, 1837.
- "Great Beds And Romer Shoal Lighthouses For Sale Off New Jersey," Staff, CBS New York, May 11, 2011.
- "John Vincent Scalia purchases Romer Shoal Lighthouse," Kathryn Carse, Staten Island Advance , October 19, 2011.
- RomerShoal.org website.
- Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
- "Grants will fund restoration of storm-ravaged historic sites," Kayla J. Marsh, Atlanticville, December 18, 2014.
Directions:This lighthouse sits about 2.5 miles off of the northern tip of Sandy Hook (Fort Hancock), and would best be viewed from a boat. I used a telelphoto lens and walked a ways through sand to get a few distant shots.
Accesss: The lighthouse is owned by John Vincent Scalia. The tower is closed.
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