Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-09-12.
The General Lighthouse Depot, often referred to as the Staten Island Lighthouse Depot, or the Tompkinsville Lighthouse Depot in the Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board, on Staten Island wasn't the only facility to occupy that location throughout history. Originally, the site housed the "Quarantine" hospital.
One of the first lines of defense from immigrant-borne infectious diseases such as smallpox, cholera, typhus, and yellow fever was the New York Marine Hospital, better known as "The Quarantine." The hospital, located in St. George, New York was run by Dr. Richard Bayley and was used to segregate any immigrants found to be in poor or questionable health. Dr. Bayley contracted yellow fever while checking a ship that had just arrived from Ireland and died on August 17, 1801.
After being forced to live with the quarantine hospital for over a half-century, fed up Staten Island residents set the 20-building facility ablaze on September 1, 1858. Fire companies took their time to respond, and then did nothing claiming that there hoses had been cut. Harbor policemen, responding to the blaze by boat, were driven off by boys throwing rocks and city police from across the harbor didn't answer the alarms.
The newspapers dubbed it the "Quarantine War," but many felt it was a premeditated act to remove the facility from Staten Island. By 1866, the Quarantine was moved to Swinburne Island off South Beach, Staten Island.
An Act of Congress dated March 3, 1851 established the Lighthouse Board, a group made up of two high-ranking naval officers, two officers from the Army Corps of Engineers, civilian scientists, and a junior officer from the Navy to act as a secretary.
When Congress approved the establishment of the Lighthouse Board, they also authorized the secretary of the treasury to place Fresnel lenses in lighthouses "as rapidly as he thought best."
The new board was said to be "under instructions from the Treasury Department to inquire into the condition of the Lighthouse Establishment of the United States, and make a general detailed report and programme to guide legislation in extending and improving our present system of construction, illumination, inspection, and superintendence."
One of the first things the Lighthouse Board was instructed to do was to divide the country up into districts and appoint an officer from the Navy to perform monthly inspections. The officer would also decide where new aids would be placed with regards to bearings, angles, etc., and be required to submit regular reports.
Each district would have a "lighthouse depot" where all supplies were shipped, such as the St. Joseph Lighthouse Depot in Michigan. Each of the lighthouses in the district was then supplied from the district depot. Over time, this model worked well, however, by the 1860s, the idea of a "super depot" had come about and a location was being scouted. The "super depot" would be a facility to receive and test all oil, inspect lenses, and ration supplies before they were transferred to the district depots. It would also centralize much of the work being done at the district depots.
As New York Harbor was on the Atlantic Coast and growing rapidly, it was a logical choice. A quick search turned up harbor-front land at the site of the former Marine Hospital ("The Quarantine"). An 1863 appropriation from Congress provided $50,000 to set up what was being called the General Lighthouse Depot.
By 1864, plans were in progress to move the Revenue Cutter Service to Manhattan, and by 1868, they were completely relocated to an office at 28 Pine Street. After the move, the Lighthouse Board had taken control of the Revenue Cutter Service wharf and grounds, which had occupied five acres next to the General Lighthouse Depot.
The first building the Lighthouse Board occupied was an existing large Greek Revival-style stone and brick structure, which was most likely used by the Revenue Cutter Service previously.
Some of the first structures built by the Lighthouse Board were the oil vaults and a small laboratory, which date from 1867. Over two years, five masonry vaults measuring 51 feet long, 21 feet wide, and 13 feet high; and a sixth vault only measuring half that size was built to hold thousands of gallons of sperm oil.
When the vaults were completed, for safety and security they were covered over with earth and plantings, and made to look like they were built into the side of a hill. Heavy steel doors provided access to the oil vaults. This allowed the distribution of the illuminating apparatus and supplies to be moved from Manhattan to the new depot on Staten Island.
As Fresnel lenses were still somewhat new to the United States, the next building erected at the depot was the original lamp shop, erected in 1868. This structure, also built in a Greek Revival-style, had a double-height open room with pits, ladders, and iron columns to allow lampists to assemble and test the largest of the Fresnel lenses and pedestals, providing access from both floors.
Construction of the office building started in 1869 and was completed in 1871. Designed by Alfred B. Mullett, Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department from 1865 to 1874, it broke with the Greek Revival-style of earlier buildings on the grounds and was constructed in a French Second Empire style, complete with mansard roof. This building would later be called the administration building when the Coast Guard took over in 1939.
General Lighthouse Depot circa 1885. (National Archives)
Over the years, the site continued to grow as more and more work that was originally carried out at the district depots were consolidated to the General Lighthouse Depot. By the early 1890s, the grounds of the depot were so congested that work was running behind, constantly having to move and remove materials and supplies. By 1893, more space was requested.
In 1901, Congress appropriated $25,000 for two new wings on the office building, a new lamp shop, and other repairs to the site. The new wings were added that year, however, the new lamp shop wouldn't be built until 1908.
The lamp shop building was more than just a lamp shop. It also housed a machine shop, blacksmith shop, tin shop, packing rooms, and provided storage.
In 1904, the city of New York asked Congress for a strip of Lighthouse Depot land to construct the Staten Island ferry. Although the site was space constrained, Congress relented and approved the request. Regular ferry service between Staten Island and Manhattan started a year later.
A machine shop building was constructed on the grounds in 1912, allowing it to be moved out of the lamp shop. The machine shop housed a foundry allowing ship anchors, chains, buoys, and other parts for aids to navigation to be made on site.
Over the years, the General Lighthouse Depot performed double duty. It was the lighthouse depot for the third lighthouse district as well as the General Lighthouse Depot for the entire United States. From 1883-1898, the depot even had its own lighthouse on the grounds where new equipment could be tested in an actual lighthouse. In 1898, this lighthouse was dismantled and barged into Lower New York Bay where it became the Romer Shoal Lighthouse.
During the 1920s, two hundred people and uniformed guards worked at the location. The site became a Coast Guard base in 1939 when the Lighthouse Service was absorbed by the Coast Guard. It remained a base until 1966 when the Coast Guard relocated to nearby Governor's Island.
Upon the Coast Guard's departure, the Lighthouse Depot site was listed as surplus government property. That year, nearly a dozen Lighthouse Depot buildings were razed to make way for a new Staten Island Ferry maintenance building.
Once the Coast Guard moved out, little was done to maintain the property and vandals and decay soon took over. Even though the site was deteriorating, the administration building was designated a New York City landmark in 1980, and in 1983, the entire site was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Vandalism and neglect went on for decades. Change finally came in 1991 when the Coast Guard established a task force that would determine the waterfront's future.
The task force guided local development around the St. George area, which included an esplanade through the depot grounds, conversion of old warehouses to residential complexes, and in 1998, the idea of a National Lighthouse Museum.
Although six locations were initially scouted to be the site of the museum, the Staten Island Lighthouse Depot site was chosen for several reasons. With the proximity to New York City, it was thought that fund-raising would be possible. The site was easily accessible by many modes of transportation. And lastly, was the hope of saving the remaining buildings of the old Lighthouse Depot.
Once the site was selected, stabilization work was started immediately on the remaining buildings. Soon thereafter, the terror attacks of 9/11/2001 took place, sending the economy into a tailspin making fund raising much harder.
Through the chaos, the National Lighthouse Museum board pushed on, scaling back the initial plans to fit the available funding. The first building to be occupied by the museum was the old machine shop, opened on September 22, 2014.
Today, the National Lighthouse Museum is slowly ramping up operations. They continue to add displays and hold events. When the time is right to grow, the museum plans to expand into the 1908 Lamp Shop building.
Make sure you view more pictures of the Staten Island Lighthouse Depot by clicking on the "View More Pictures" button below.
Directions: The National Lighthouse Museum sits on the northern tip of Staten Island, next to the Staten Island Ferry terminal.
When arriving via ferry, exit the terminal and proceed to the passenger pickup area. From there, follow the sidewalk around the pickup and parking areas. This will lead you to the National Lighthouse Museum.
Access: The National Lighthouse Museum is open from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays and all legal holidays.View more General Lighthouse Depot (Staten Island) pictures