Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-04-08.
Long before the Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse was erected on the northwestern side of Manhattan, Giovanni da Verrazzano, a Florentine explorer would become the first European to explore the Atlantic Coast of North America.
Along with his exploration of Narragansett Bay in 1524, he visited Lower New York Bay, Upper New York Bay, and the area in between known as The Narrows, which is crossed by the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge today.
An Englishman, Henry Hudson, was the next European to explore the region. Working for the Dutch East India Company, Hudson mapped Manhattan, where he came across the Wiechquaesgeck tribal group of the Lenape (Delaware) Indian Confederacy in 1609. After finishing up with Manhattan, he continued up the river that would later have his name to present day Albany.
The first permanent European settlement of Manhattan, called New Netherland at the time, was in 1624 with the establishment of a fur trading post on nearby Governors Island. The following year, construction of a citadel of Fort Amsterdam was started on the island of Manhattan.
Dutch colonists acquired the island of Manhattan in 1626 from a group believed to be the Canarsee Indians of the Lenape Indian Confederacy. The exchange was for trade goods worth 60 guilders, which was believed to be worth $24 U.S. Dollars. Although by comparing the cost of goods, others state its value was closer to $1,050 in 2014.
The island was formally incorporated as the city of New Amsterdam on February 2, 1653, but after having been conquered by the English, it was renamed to New York after the English Duke of York. During the Revolutionary War, the area was the site of Fort Washington and hosted several cannon batteries. After the Revolutionary War, George Washington drove out the British out of Manhattan on November 25, 1783.
By the early 1800s, the City of New York was becoming an economic powerhouse and with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, a vital link between New York and the largely agricultural Midwest was established.
The Erie Canal ran between Buffalo and Albany, both in New York State. To get goods to New York City and the Atlantic Ocean, they would have to travel by boat down the Hudson River. This voyage of several hundred miles, coupled with heavy traffic could sometimes be perilous, which led to navigational aids being established along the Hudson River.
Along the lower Hudson River, the deepest channel follows the east bank of the river. However, ten miles north of the tip of Manhattan, a small point of land juts out over 100 feet into the Hudson River, adjacent to the deepest channel.
Jeffrey's Hook, as the point is known, takes its name from Captain Richard Jeffrey, who commanded small vessels and privateers from 1744 to 1747. The term hook is an Anglicization of the Dutch word hoek or hoeck, which was used to describe a small spit of land along a body of water.
As traffic on the Hudson River increased, so did the number of shipwrecks at Jeffrey's Hook. Locals marked the obstruction with a red pole, but the marker did little to help. In 1889, the United States Lighthouse Board established a wooden post with two oil lanterns hanging from it. The lanterns, placed vertically eighteen feet and twenty feet above the water level, displayed fixed red lights of ten candlepower.
Jeffrey's Hook Light (courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
By 1895, the Lighthouse Board was recommending a larger light and a fog bell for Jeffrey's Hook. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
323. Jeffreys Hook post light, New York - A larger light and a fog bell here would be valuable aids to navigation. The point extends well out into the river, with deep water close to its outer end. The usual route of steamers passing up or down the river is close to the point. The present post light should be replaced by a new structure, upon which should be the lantern with the bell below. It is estimated that these could be established on land to be acquired for the purpose for say $3,000, and it is recommended that an appropriation of this amount be made therefor.
In 1896, the recommendation for a larger light and fog bell was reiterated. That same year, most of the area around Fort Washington was acquired by the City of New York and became known as Fort Washington Park.
The following year, the Lighthouse Board had obtained permission from the New York City department of public parks to establish a larger light and fog signal at Fort Washington Park. As the City of New York was donating the land to the federal government, the Lighthouse Board had updated the estimated cost of establishing the light at $1,400 and recommended that an appropriation be made.
No action was taken and for each subsequent year, the Lighthouse Board reiterated its request through 1904. In 1905, as the initial request was made more than a decade ago, the request was updated to reflect the change in times.
As the Lighthouse Board had learned that the efficiency of a fog signal is diminished when the keeper is not living on site, the request was updated to include the erection of a keeper's dwelling. The Lighthouse Board had recommended an appropriation of $3,400 and requested that permission be obtained from the city of New York.
In 1913, the Bureau of Lighthouses had detailed a plan to improve the aids to navigation along the Hudson River. The plan noted that much of the lighting on the river was obsolete, in poor condition, and noted the increased size and the number of vessels traveling the river at night. Their recommendation was for several lights to be improved, several more to be rebuilt, and several new lights to be established.
Several years later, $100,000 was set aside for this work. Over the next few years, twenty lights were improved, four new lights established, and in 1918, the Bureau of Lighthouses applied for a permit with New York City's Department of Parks to erect a small lighthouse and fog signal at Jeffrey's Hook.
The North Hook Beacon, one of three lighthouses at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, was erected in 1880 of cast-iron. The tower was electrified in 1889, making it one of the first in the country to be powered by electricity. However, in 1917, the tower needed to be taken down after it was found to be in the line of fire of Fort Hancock's new gun battery. It was substituted with a smaller skeletal tower.
Once dismantled, it was sent to the Tompkinsville Lighthouse Depot on Staten Island, where it was stored and reconditioned. The reconditioning included the replacement of the paneled main door, double-hung windows were replaced with smaller porthole-style windows, and the railing of the walkway around the lantern was restored.
By October 10, 1921, the cast-iron pieces were transported to Fort Washington Park on the island of Manhattan, and were erected to become the Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse. Inside the lantern, a one-hundred candlepower, fifth-order acetylene red lamp was exhibited. Its light characteristic was flashing every three seconds with each flash lasting one second in duration.
The Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse was also supplied with a fog bell, which was placed into commission two weeks later. The characteristic of the fog signal was one stroke every fifteen seconds. A part-time keeper tended both the lighthouse and the fog signal.
The Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses for 1922 had the following entry: "Hudson River Lights concrete foundations, steel towers and establishing fog bell at Jeffrey's Hook $10,516" suggesting that over $10,000 was spent establishing the Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse.
Construction of the G.W. Bridge (courtesy Port Authority of NY & NJ)
Within several years, the Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse would soon be overshadowed by a much larger neighbor, the George Washington Bridge. Construction of the bridge started in October of 1927 and the 570-foot-tall steel south tower was constructed on the New York side immediately next to the Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse.
The George Washington Bridge officially opened to traffic on October 25, 1931 linking the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan with the Palisades of New Jersey. Although an aero-beacon was mounted on the George Washington Bridge, the Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse remained in use.
Hildegarde H. Swift immortalized the Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse in the children's book "The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge", published in 1942. The story calls attention to the small lighthouse, representing a child, and the big gray bridge, which is meant to represent the adult world. The "Little Red Lighthouse" became a literary symbol for the children of New York City as well as an urban landmark.
In 1947, it became clear that the lighthouse was no longer needed and the Coast Guard decommissioned it. The stipulation within the 1918 agreement with the New York City Parks Department stated that if the lighthouse were ever discontinued, the tower would be removed and the property would be restored.
As it was no longer needed, the Coast Guard offered the tower for sale as excess property in 1951. The impending loss of the "Little Red Lighthouse" brought about an outpouring of affection and support from the public.
Some, such examples were a four-year-old boy offering to buy the lighthouse, a mother commenting, "In all of this vast, inchoate mass of buildings and people that is New York, a real child's landmark is rare." Several editorials appeared in major New York newspapers decrying the loss of the lighthouse.
Due to the overwhelming response to the impending loss of the lighthouse, Robert Moses, the Commissioner of the Parks Department requested that the lighthouse be given to the City of New York. The Coast Guard honored the request, and on July 23, 1951, ownership of the Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse was transferred to the New York City Parks Department.
The Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 29, 1979 and was designated a New York City Landmark in 1991.
The lighthouse was restored in 2000 by PRESERV, a full service exterior restoration firm that specializes in landmark and historic properties. The work included rust removal and a fresh coat of red paint.
The Little Red Lighthouse was officially relit at 8 p.m. on September 19, 2002 as a private aid to navigation. The relighting was a culmination of several months of work by the New York City Parks Department, the Historic House Trust, and the U.S. Coast Guard.
Each year, the New York City Parks Department holds the "Little Red Lighthouse Festival," which includes the Little Red Lighthouse Swim. If you are up for the challenge, you can swim the Hudson River from the Chelsea Piers (Pier 96) to Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse at the George Washington Bridge.
Directions: Subway: A train to 181st St. and walk west to Plaza Lafayette. Cross the footbridge and take a left down the path under the overpass. Cross over the railroad tracks and follow the path to the left (south). The lighthouse is almost directly under the George Washington Bridge.
The lighthouse is also visible from the "Best of NYC" boat tour run by the Circle-Line Sightseeing cruises.
Access: The Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse is owned by the City of New York Parks and Recreation Department. Grounds open. Tower open during tours.View more Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse pictures