If you’re from New York (and maybe even if you’re not), you may be familiar with the story The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge by Hildegard Swift and Lynd Ward. As it turns out, the Little Red Lighthouse is real and still exists in NYC today. It’s almost always closed to the public, but there are a few opportunities where you can get inside and climb up to the top. And I got to do just that last week!
The Little Red Lighthouse can be found along the eastern bank of the Hudson River at around 180th St., right below the Manhattan-side tower of the George Washington Bridge. The Hudson River has long been used for transporting cargo, especially during the days when the Erie Canal first opened, and navigating at night or in the fog could always be a tricky prospect. The lighthouse is located in an area called “Jeffrey’s Hook”, which is a small piece of land that juts out into a narrower section of the Hudson River.
At one time, in the area where the lighthouse now stands, there were small poles with lights on them to help sailors navigate the Hudson River. However, this system proved to be pretty ineffective and it was decided that a lighthouse that was taller, had a brighter light, and which also had bells and horns would be much better at preventing accidents in the area of Jeffrey’s Hook. And so, the Little Red Lighthouse came to be!
The lighthouse itself was actually built in the 1880s and initially used in Sandy Hook, NJ. At the time NYC was looking to add a lighthouse at Jeffrey’s Hook, the Sandy Hook Lighthouse was in the process of being replaced. As such, it was decided to move the Sandy Hook lighthouse to NYC. It’s made out of cast iron panels that are bolted together, which allowed the lighthouse to be moved easily (and it’s actually one iron panel shorter now than it was when it was in use in Sandy Hook). And so, in 1921, the Little Red Lighthouse made it’s way uptown and began its new life as the Jeffrey’s Hook Light.
The Little Red Lighthouse did its job for about 10 years before becoming obsolete with the completion of the GW Bridge. In 1928, ground was broken to begin building the GW Bridge, and once finished in 1931, it was so bright and included its own navigational lighting, which made the channel and shoreline visible enough so that the lighthouse was no longer deemed necessary by the Coast Guard. In 1948, it was decommissioned and its light was extinguished, and the Coast Guard proposed dismantling and auctioning it off. This plan, however, did NOT go over so well.
The adorable book The Little Red Lighthouse and Great Gray Bridge was written in 1942, and the lighthouse was so beloved that no one wanted to see it dismantled. There was quite the public outcry when the Coast Guard’s plans were revealed, and thousands of fans of the book (including children) from all over the country wrote letters and sent in money (even pennies!) all in an effort to save the dear little lighthouse. And it worked! In 1951, the Coast Guard gave up their idea of dismantling the lighthouse and handed it over to the NYC Parks Department to manage instead. Since then, the lighthouse has been added to the National Register of Historic Places and was later made an NYC landmark. In the early 2000s, it was freshened up and relit, and it still stands in Manhattan today as the last remaining lighthouse on the island!
And as mentioned, not just anyone can climb up into the lighthouse, but I was able to visit as part of a New York Adventure Club tour. We met at the 181st St. overlook and then made the trek down over the highway to get to the lighthouse. The normal route takes you over the Amtrak tracks, but due to construction on that overpass, we had to take a longer way around. As it turns out, this wasn’t so bad since it was a lovely walk down through the park. Just know that if you plan to visit, the route may be a little confusing until the Amtrak bridge is back in use.
Our tour was provided by an NYC Urban Park Ranger, whose job it is to help connect New Yorkers with nature and history in NYC parks. Our ranger, Dan, had the keys to the lighthouse, including the original key, which still fits, though the locking mechanism for that old lock no longer works.
The lighthouse isn’t just “little” by name–it’s actually fairly little inside, too! One by one, we started our way up the 40 stairs to the top of the lighthouse. The last few steps are on a very steep ladder and you squeeze your way up into a small door into the room with the light itself. From there, you have to squeeze through an even tinier door to get onto the outside deck.
Once you’re outside, you’re treated to fantastic views of Manhattan, the gorgeous Palisades in New Jersey, and the underbelly of the great gray bridge itself (which is more of a rust color than gray these days…) From on top, you can also see the rocks and swirling current down below, and it’s no wonder that a lighthouse was put here a century ago because it’s easy to see how this would have been a treacherous spot to navigate!
After walking around the outer deck and taking in all the views, we squeezed back through the outer door and back down the ladder and spiral staircase to enjoy a few last glimpses of the sweet little lighthouse from the outside. It really is adorable, and it was such a treat to have the opportunity to go inside!
So how can you visit the Little Red Lighthouse yourself? The week prior to my visit was the Little Red Lighthouse Festival, which is an annual event that allows for interior access to the lighthouse, so keep the festival in mind for next year! If you want to visit sooner, though, you can also visit the lighthouse as part of Open House New York, which allows for access to many NYC destinations that aren’t often open to the public, and which happens to be coming up this weekend. Arrive early, as admission will be on a first come-first served basis and lines are expected to be long. And if you miss visiting this weekend, keep an eye out for the next New York Adventure Club tour!
Have you ever visited the lighthouse? Do you remember reading the book as a kid? Let me know about your own Little Red Lighthouse adventures!