Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-05-05.
Roosevelt Island, known as Blackwell Island until 1921, is a narrow island in the East River between the boroughs of Queens and Manhattan. At the northern tip of the island stands the Blackwell Island Lighthouse.
The name of the island has changed over the years to reflect its ownership. The Lenape Indians called the island Minnehanock in the early 1600s, and the New Netherlanders referred to it as Varkens Eylandt (Hog Island) as it is where their pigs pastured.
The island was called Manning Island in 1666, named for Captain John Manning and his defeat of the Dutch. Twenty years later, the island was turned over to Manning's son-in-law, Robert Blackwell, and took the Blackwell name.
The island would stay in the Blackwell family for over a century. Jacob Blackwell, Robert Blackwell's great-grandson, would construct the Blackwell House on the island in 1796. The house still stands today and is the sixth oldest house in New York City.
The island was sold to the City of New York on July 19, 1828 for $32,000, the equivalent of $687,224 in 2014. Within five years, the city of New York erected a penitentiary on the island, which became known as Blackwell's Penitentiary.
By the early 1800s, New York City had become the largest urban area in the United States due to heavy immigration and industrialization. With the large number of immigrants coming to the United States, some were deemed "insane," and had become wards of the state. As there was no particular building suited for their care, many were housed in basements of hospitals or other various places, not getting the care they needed.
In 1834, the city approved construction of a separate institution at the north end of Blackwell's Island to house the insane. It would take five years to construct and in 1839 the New York City Lunatic Asylum was officially opened.
Over the years, various additions were added to enlarge both the penitentiary and the asylum. As most inmates were serving out misdemeanor sentences, they were required to perform daily labor suited to their skill sets. According to several sites, additions to the penitentiary and the asylum, as well as a seawall around the island, were constructed with institutional labor.
When plans were made to construct a lighthouse on the northern tip of Blackwell's Island, architect James Renwick, Jr. was chosen. Renwick, Jr. was no stranger to working with city government as he was the architect of the Smallpox Hospital, completed in 1850, and the City Hospital, both on Blackwell's Island. He also designed Grace Church on Broadway and St. Patrick's Cathedral on 5th Ave.
Before the lighthouse was built, an asylum inmate, John McCarthy, fearing a British invasion, constructed a fort on the northern end of the island. Officials at the asylum let him finish the fort as during its construction, he reclaimed significant areas of marshland.
In 1872, construction of the lighthouse was started. It is unclear whether the officials bribed or persuaded McCarthy, but the fort was removed, and the lighthouse erected at the location.
As with many of the other buildings constructed on Blackwell's Island, the Blackwell Island Lighthouse was also constructed with asylum labor. An inmate named Thomas Maxey was said to have constructed the lighthouse, however, a plaque that stood at the base of the tower credits John McCarthy with its construction.
Although it disappeared in the 1960s, the plaque had the following inscription:
The 50-foot-tall Gothic-style lighthouse, constructed of gray gneiss was established as a private aid to navigation. Its job was to "effectually light" the New York City Insane Asylum for boats navigating the treacherous Hell Gate, a narrow tidal straight that separates Astoria, Queens from Randall's and Wards Islands.
Many steamboat companies and other private parties would establish private aids to navigation to preserve their interests and for their own convenience. The problem with these lights, as the Lighthouse Board pointed out in their 1883 Annual Report, was that these private entities would establish and extinguish lights without issuing a formal Notice to Mariners, thus leading to confusion amongst mariners.
Although the Lighthouse Board complemented the Blackwell's Island Light as one of the best private lights, that year, they still recommended that steps should be taken to prohibit private aids to navigation and asked that the board be able to establish inexpensive and temporary lights when needed.
Some action should be taken relative to the establishment of lights and by steam-boat companies and other private parties, simply for their own convenience. The Board can not establish a light without special authority of law in each case. It never exhibits a light without previously issuing a formal notice to mariners, it never extinguishes one without giving similar notice sufficiently in advance to inform all concerned. Private lights are established and extinguished without such notice, much to the annoyance of mariners, who are confused and misled by irregular beacons. Besides this, the lights, not being properly kept, go out from time to time.
One of the best of these private lights is that exhibited from Blackwell's Island by the municipality of New York City. It has gone out a number of times recently, and so much to the inconvenience, if not danger, of mariners, that complaint been made, and the Board has been subjected to unmerited criticism for failing to do what was alleged to be its duty, when in fact it has not the slightest control over that light. Under these circumstances the Board suggests that the exhibition of lights and the placing of buoys by corporations or private parties be prohibited by law.
It doesn't appear that much was done with the recommendation, as the same recommendation appeared each year through 1891. In 1887, a young female reporter using the pen name Nellie Bly entered the New York City Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island under an assignment from Joseph Pulitzer to report on the conditions within the institution. Once inside, she talked and acted as she did in her ordinary life, but she soon found that the more sanely she talked, the crazier she was thought to be.
While inside, she, like others, were tormented with rotted food, cruel attendants, and cramped and diseased quarters. Bly was released less than two weeks later with the help of Joseph Pulitzer. She went on to publish Ten Days in a Mad-house, which brought shame and embarrassment to the institution and led to a grand jury investigation into the conditions.
Her report ended up getting an $850,000 increase to the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections and ultimately brought about the end to the New York City Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island. All patients were relocated to other hospitals by February of 1901.
In 1900, construction of the Queensboro Bridge was started. Although it passed right over the island, it didn't provide vehicular traffic to the island until a vehicular elevator was installed in 1930. In 1921, the island became known as Welfare Island after the many advances made in the management and delivery at the institutions on the island. It would remain Welfare Island until 1973, when it was renamed to Roosevelt Island.
During the 1930s and 1940s, several new chronic care hospitals opened on the island. When Riker's Island Penitentiary opened in 1935, all incarcerated prisoners were moved to the new facility leaving only chronic care patients.
The Blackwell's Island Lighthouse was discontinued sometime during the 1940s. On November 25, 1975, the lighthouse was designated a city landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Four years later, the lighthouse was partially restored. A full restoration of the lighthouse took place in 1998 made possible by an anonymous donation of $120,000.
Today, many of the institutions that dotted the island have been either relocated or shuttered. The island has seen much development with the construction of numerous residential communities and counts "Grandpa" Al Lewis and Kofi Annan as notable former residents.
Directions: The lighthouse is located at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island in Lighthouse Park. Access to the island is via the Roosevelt Island Tram from Manhattan, subway via the "F" train to the Roosevelt Island stop, or via car by the 36th Avenue bridge from Queens. Detailed travel information is available on the Getting to Roosevelt Island page.
The lighthouse is also visible from the "Best of NYC" boat tour run by the Circle-Line Sightseeing cruises.
Access: The Blackwell Island Lighthouse is owned by the City of New York Parks and Recreation Department. Grounds open. Tower closed.View more Blackwell Island Lighthouse pictures