Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-09-29.
The Execution Rocks are a low rocky reef nearly a mile offshore at the western end of Long Island Sound. Long before the United States Government established a lighthouse at Execution Rocks, stories of a much darker past had become legend.
The legend stated that when British soldiers captured American revolutionaries, they were shackled to the rocks exposed at low tides. There, they were forced to wait out their death sentence as the tides slowly rose. Some say that the skeletons were left there to torture the newly condemned.
When lightkeepers were assigned to a lighthouse, typically, they were at a station for a set amount of time. If, for some reason, they didn't like the place, they could request a transfer, however, management didn't have to approve it.
The Execution Rocks Lighthouse was different. Due to the dark past, although unproven, if a lightkeeper ever requested a transfer, it was to be granted immediately. No keeper was to ever feel "chained" to the reef.
Although tale has never been proven, however, if it were true, then the Americans did get their revenge on the British. During the American Revolution, when General George Washington was retreating from Manhattan to White Plains, a ship carrying British soldiers was sent to intercept General Washington.
While in pursuit, the British ship hit the submerged Execution Rocks reef and foundered. None of the British soldiers survived the encounter.
A more likely scenario for the name of execution Rocks is from the number of ships lost or "executed" on the rocky reef, which sits in the middle of a busy shipping lane.
During the summer of 1837, it was estimated that nearly 100 ships passed the reef daily. The United States Government had established a lighthouse at nearby Sand's Point in 1809 and although it did warn mariners of the reef offshore, it was ineffective during inclement water.
On March 3, 1837, Congress appropriated $5,000 for "a revolving, or double light upon [sic] the side of Execution rocks, opposite Sand's point in Long Island sound."
There were discussions back and forth regarding the pros and cons of a lighthouse vs. a lightship. Nevertheless, in a letter dated September 25, 1838, William H. Ellis, collector and superintendent of lights for the district of New Haven recommended a light on Execution Rocks:
4. A light-house or light-boat on Execution rock, Long-island sound. The Execution rocks lie near the head of Long-island sound, the eastern extremity of the reef bearing from Sands's-point light N. 21° W., distant three-quarters of a mile; and are passed by the majority of the vessels engaged in the extensive trade through the sound. In clear weather the light upon Sands's [sic] point is an excellent guide for the southern channel; but it cannot be depended on when the weather is thick and boisterous; and to those passing to the northward of the reef, it affords but little assistance at any time. On this account, a light and bell upon the reef would contribute greatly to the safety of the navigation.
Execution Rocks archive photo (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
The report goes on to state that over the years, both a lighthouse and a lightship had been suggested, but Mr. Ellis recommended that a lighthouse be erected as it would have several benefits - the lantern could house a more brilliant light, it would be stationary, if built on the reef, it would be a better guide than a ship anchored near the reef, and lastly, it would be more cost effective than a ship.
In the end, the $5,000 appropriation was neither enough for a lighthouse or lightship, and nothing was done. A decade later, on March 3, 1847, Congress appropriated $25,000 for a lighthouse at Execution Rocks. The act also stated that when the new light was completed, the Sand's Point Lighthouse was to be discontinued.
A stone tower designed by Boston civil engineer, Alexander Parris, was selected. When Parris was asked to survey the area and recommend a location, he recommended the largest rock near the natural channel, but local mariners disagreed and suggested a different location.
Steven Pleasonton, the man charged with oversight of the Lighthouse Establishment sent New York's Collector of Customs to the area to break the tie, rather than deciding on one of the two proposed locations, he recommended a third location.
When it was discovered that building at that new location would increase the costs considerably, Parris's original location was selected for the Execution Rocks Lighthouse.
An 1809 law required that the government always accept the lowest bid on all projects. The lowest bidder for the Execution Rocks Lighthouse was Thomas Butler, a New York man that had "neither the necessary skills nor the means to carry out the contract."
As such, most of the work on the lighthouse ended up being done by subcontractors, which pushed the lighthouse completion date to May 1849, nearly a year later. It would still be another year before the light was officially activated in 1850.
When completed, the 58-foot masonry tower, painted white, was outfitted with 15 lamps backed by 21" parabolic reflectors. As the Sand's Point Lighthouse displayed a fixed white light, to tell them apart, the Execution Rocks Light exhibited a fixed red light. A fog bell was installed for use during inclement weather.
Although the act authorizing construction of the Execution Rocks Lighthouse stated that when completed, the Sand's Point Lighthouse would be discontinued. It never happened.
As there was no living quarters at the new lighthouse, the keeper of the Sand's Point Lighthouse, Daniel H. Caulkins was put in charge of both lights and promptly hired two assistant keepers to look after the Execution Rocks Lighthouse.
The one assistant chose to live in the base of the tower with his wife, while the other mostly supplied the station. This changed when William Craft was appointed head keeper on April 1, 1851. Both he and his hired assistant lived at the lighthouse.
By 1855, the foundation on the east side of the tower was deteriorating. The Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances for that year tells of the state of the station:
Execution Rocks, N. Y. - The foundation is insecure. The stones thrown to the eastward of the tower to protect it from the heavy gales from that quarter have been washed to the west side, and the vessel filled with stones for the same purpose is breaking up. The landing wants considerable repairs, as does also the gallery round the outside of the tower, and the plastering inside. I would recommend that the whole be attended to at the earliest moment possible, and at the same time a larger bell, with suitable striking machinery, be substituted for that now in use, which is much too small, and can be heard but a very short distance.
When the Lighthouse Board claimed oversight of navigational aids in 1852, they began outfitting all lighthouses with Fresnel lenses. The Execution Rocks Lighthouse received a fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1856. At that time, the red panels were dropped and it displayed a fixed white light.
To keep from confusing mariners with the nearby Sand's Point Lighthouse, which also displayed a fixed white light, the Sand's Point Lighthouse received a fourth-order revolving light on October 13, 1856.
Nearly ten years would pass, but in 1866 the Lighthouse Board had put in a request for an appropriation for a "new lantern, with iron deck-plate, and other repairs to the tower; and for a keeper's dwelling at Execution Rocks; and for a powerful fog signal in the place of the present small bell, which is rung [sic] by hand, and is entirely useless."
On March 2, 1867, Congress appropriated $19,000 for the work. The following entry was in The Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances for 1868:
141. Execution Rocks - The repairs and renovations authorized by act of Congress approved March 2, 1867, are in progress, and are in a forward condition. They consist of the construction of a protecting pier of stone, with an entirely new keeper's dwelling thereon, together with a complete overhauling and improvement of the tower, providing it with a new lantern and iron deck-plate, and iron windows. The fog-bell will be replaced by a trumpet operated by a hot-air engine.
By 1869, the new fog signal was installed and operational. Additional protection on the east side of the station was noted and a proposal to place large granite blocks was put forth. Funds for the project would be allocated by an act of July 12, 1870 and the work completed by the following year.
During the fall and winter of 1877 the northern side of the island sustained damage during a severe gale. The damage was repaired, only to be damaged again the following year. A load of riprap was brought in to build it up.
In 1879, the third-class Daboll trumpet fog signal was upgraded to a first-class Daboll trumpet, operated by larger caloric engines. On January 1, 1890, a red sector of 36½° was inserted eliminating the need for a light on the south end of Hart Island.
A year later, the steam fog signal received some attention. The caloric engines were overhauled, a new fog signal building, with an attached coal shed, was built, and a cistern in the basement of the tower was partially completed. Also, an order was placed for new boilers and additional riprap.
On May 31, 1892, the light characteristics of the Execution Rocks and the Sand's Point were reversed. The Execution Rocks Light went from a fixed light to flashing at 10-second intervals. The Sand's Point Light was changed to a fixed white light.
That same year, the Ericsson hot air engines and Daboll trumpets were replaced with automatic steam sirens. The cistern in the basement of the tower was completed and connected to the boilers of the fog signal. A concrete walk from the dwelling to the fog signal building was built and the additional riprap was placed.
By 1894, as the dwelling had settled dangerously, the southwest wall was taken down, a new foundation of concrete was laid, and by 1895, the wall was rebuilt. During the years 1896 to 1898, and then again in 1901 and 1902, several hundred tons of riprap were delivered and placed around the station.
In 1898, a covered passageway was built between the dwelling and the fog signal house. A year later, on May 15, 1899, the tower received a brown band around its midsection, giving it a unique day mark.
The fog signal was upgraded in 1905 to a first class automatic compressed air siren, in duplicate, operated by 13-horsepower oil engines. The following year an oil house was built.
Additional day marks were installed on the island in 1907. A horizontal band was placed on the southeasterly front of the station and a horizontal band on the fence of the westerly front of the station.
On December 8, 1918, a thick fog enveloped the tower. The keeper, Peter Forget, was on duty and had been running the fog signal since 7:00 a.m. Just before noon, while preparing his lunch, he noticed the engine, which had powered the light and fog signal, had slowed.
When Keeper Forget went out to check on the engine house, which stood a short distance away, he noticed it engulfed in flames. He radioed for help and began helping the other keeper and two Navy men stationed on the island fight the fire.
Navy patrol boats, as well as soldiers from nearby Fort Slocum had arrived to help. Around 2:00 p.m., the New York City fireboat Cornelius W. Lawrence had arrived and quickly contained the flames.
The fire destroyed the engine house and all machinery within it, damaged the brickwork of the oil house and burned the roof off, damaged the stonework on the north and east sides of the tower, burned out the windows on the east side of the tower, and scorched several sections of the dwelling.
Although there was minor damage to the lighthouse and the dwelling, the quick action of the two keepers on duty and the two stationed Navy men were credited with preventing the fire from spreading until help arrived to extinguish it. Damage was estimated at $13,500.
The tower remained manned until December 5, 1879 when it was automated and the personnel removed. At that time, the fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed and replaced with a small modern plastic optic.
The Coast Guard excessed the Execution Rocks Lighthouse and on May 29, 2007, it was made available to any eligible entity through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.
On January 27, 2009, the lighthouse was awarded to Historically Significant Structures, a Philadelphia-based non-profit corporation dedicated to the restoration of the lighthouse.
Today, Historically Significant Structures has rehabilitated the lighthouse enough that it is regularly open for tours and overnight stays as a Bed & Breakfast. Book yours today.
The Execution Rocks Lighthouse was featured in an episode of Ghost Adventures, which was aired by the Travel Channel in 2009. The episode talked about the grisly past surrounding its name, and then talked about serial killer Carl Panzram, who was said to have dumped the bodies of his victims near the Execution Rocks Lighthouse. Could the lighthouse be haunted?
Directions: The lighthouse sits on a rocky reef, one mile north of Sand's Point, at the western end of Long Island Sound.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by Historically Significant Structures. The lighthouse is open for occasional tours and overnight stays.View more Execution Rocks Lighthouse pictures