If you live in the New York area or spend any time around Long Island Sound, you may have heard the frightful tales of Execution Rocks. A lovely little lighthouse still stands out on Execution Rocks, and while you might have seen it while passing by on another boat, you might not have realized that you can actually go out and visit the lighthouse yourself. But folks, last weekend I did just that, and it was as spectacular as you might imagine!
About Execution Rocks Lighthouse
The Execution Rocks Lighthouse is located in the Long Island Sound, between New Rochelle and Sands Point, about 1,400 feet from shore. In 1847, Congress secured $25,000 for the construction of the lighthouse, which was intended to warn sailors away from the rocks and shallow water that are present in the heavily trafficked shipping channel near where the lighthouse stands.
The Execution Rocks Lighthouse was designed by Alexander Parris, who also designed Quincey Market in Boston. It is 62 feet tall, and its signature is a white light that flashes for one second every 10 seconds. Though built in 1849, it wasn’t lit and officially put into service until 1850.
For several years, the lighthouse keeper (and sometimes his assistant or family as well!) actually lived in the tiny base of the lighthouse because it wasn’t until 1867 that a keeper’s house was finally built. The house was connected to the lighthouse via an internal passage, which is still how you access the tower today.
How Did Execution Rocks Get Its Name?
If you’re NOT already familiar with Execution Rocks, you’re probably wondering by now how it got its super morbid name. One (boring) theory is that it was named as such because the rocks caused so many shipwrecks (and consequently, deaths) before there was a handy dandy light to help sailors steer clear. This is certainly a plausible explanation since lighthouses ARE usually put in places where terrible accidents have occurred.
However, there is another more popular (and totally NOT boring) legend. Supposedly, during the Revolutionary War, British soldiers used to chain colonial prisoners up to the rocks during low tide. When high tide would roll in, the prisoners wouldn’t be able to escape their chains and would consequently drown on the rocks. Eep!
Neither of these theories has ever been officially confirmed, though.
Therefore, I would like to float another theory because let me tell you…there are some cannibalistic seagulls living on this island. I mean, seriously. You should have seen the bones all over the place! I never thought of seagulls as being particularly carnivorous, but I would NOT cross any of the birds out on Execution Rocks if you know what’s good for you. They will cut you…
Execution Rocks Lighthouse Today
In 1979, the Execution Rocks Lighthouse became fully automated and there was no longer a need for a keeper to remain onsite. In 2007, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and it was also declared “excess” by the U.S. Coast Guard, which meant it was available to be taken over by a private entity for restoration and maintenance.
In 2009, a nonprofit called Historically Significant Structures, Inc. was granted the authority to manage the Execution Rocks Lighthouse and has led several restoration projects over the past decade. Craig Morrison and Linell Lukesh, who run the nonprofit, led our tour of the Lighthouse when we visited this past Saturday.
How to Get to Execution Rocks
The New York Adventure Club helps Craig and Linell to organize tours to Execution Rocks, and they ran multiple trips over to the island this past weekend. They will be hosting additional trips later in the summer, so keep your eye on their tour calendar because spots fill up pretty quickly. If you’re looking for even more adventure, though, you can actually arrange to spend the night on Execution Rocks, too!
We opted for the day tour, which departed from Port Washington, NY and took about a 20-25 minute boat ride to reach the lighthouse. Getting from the boat onto the island is a bit of an adventure in and of itself because you’re basically required to step off of the boat (that’s bobbing up and down in the water) and then climb up a ladder bolted into the side of a wall.
But then you’re on the island! Outside, you’ll see some giant blocks of granite all around the house and tower, some of which were placed here way back in the 1840s. Otherwise, the bit of land the lighthouse is situated upon really isn’t large at all and barely extends past the keeper’s house and tower.
Craig took us up into the tower first, which you access through that cool passageway connected to the keeper’s house. We went up the stairs one at a time because they’re actually the original stairs! They seemed sturdy enough, but it also seemed wise not to test out their weight limit.
As you climb the stairs, you will see some of the batteries and power cords owned and serviced by the U.S. Coast Guard, who technically still owns the light (the nonprofit owns everything else). When you reach the top, you again need to practice a bit of gymnastics in order to get through the tiny door and to the outside of the tower, but boy is it worth it once you step outside.
The views are stunning, and since we visited on a clear and sunny day we could see for miles. There was a pretty stiff breeze, though, and it’s amazing how much more you feel the wind from 6 stories up! The breeze also meant that lots of boaters were out and about, too, though, so everything was about as picturesque as you can imagine.
After climbing back down from the tower, we visited the keeper’s house, which is actually pretty adorable. Despite how small the house looks from the outside, the rooms were surprisingly large. Or, at least, larger than I would have anticipated rooms in a lightkeeper’s house to be anyway!
I loved the fantastic old windows, which are original to the house. They let in lots of natural light, and the views from inside the house were just as lovely as from the top of the tower.
Back when there were keepers living onsite on a regular basis, the island had electricity and a cistern that could be filled with fresh water, but after the Coast Guard declared the site as excess, they cut off these services to the island. So if you DO ever plan to do an overnight out there, realize that it’s going to be a bit on the rustic side. And dark. And spooky…
Speaking of which…there are rumors that Execution Rocks is haunted. Between the colonists who were supposedly chained to the rocks to meet their deaths, as well as the bodies that serial killer Carl Panzram claimed to have left there, it’s not really so far-fetched.
Back in 2009, some ghost hunters even came out to spend a few days to film for the Travel Channel’s show Ghost Adventures. Personally, I think sleeping there overnight with the ghosts would be a little creepy (but it also sounds like it would be pretty dang awesome, too!)
If you do want to stay on the island at some point, you can reach out directly to Craig and Linell. They host overnight guests on select Saturday nights in the summer, and they’ll let you know when space is available.
They have folding cots, which looked pretty sturdy, and they have a grill, too, so you can cook yourself some dinner. If that’s a bit more of an adventure than you’re looking for, though, check out an upcoming New York Adventure Club tour so you can visit Execution Rocks yourself!
What do you think? Would you spend the night on Execution Rocks???
If you ever do, check back and let me know how it went!
Got a thing for lighthouses? Find out how you can access NYC’s Little Red Lighthouse, too!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- Execution Rocks Lighthouse is only accessible by boat and with permission of the Historically Significant Structures, Inc. Don’t attempt to go ashore on your own, as that would be trespassing.
- If you want to see Execution Rocks by water, though, you can find it in Long Island Sound, between New Rochelle, NY and Sands Point, NY, by plugging 40°52′41.3″N 73°44′16.3″W into your GPS.
When to Go
- You can visit Execution Rocks Lighthouse on a New York Adventure Club tour. Keep checking their upcoming tour schedule to see when you can visit next.
- If you want to spend the night on Execution Rocks, contact Craig and Linell directly to arrange a Saturday night in the summer for your visit!
Tips for Visiting
- Historically Significant Structures, Inc. is a nonprofit organization. The bulk of your tour ticket price or overnight visit fee is considered a charitable donation and will go toward the restoration and upkeep of the lighthouse.
- You can only access the island by climbing off a boat onto a small metal ladder. As long as it’s a calm day, this isn’t especially challenging to do, but you will need to be mobile and comfortable with climbing a ladder.
- It should go without saying, but you’ll also want to wear sensible, closed-toe shoes so that you can safely climb the ladder onto the island, as well as the steps and ladders inside the tower.
- When you do visit, pack a picnic or snacks and be prepared for limited amenities (i.e. there is no running water and the bathroom facilities are fairly primitive.)
- Kids under the age of 12 are not permitted on the island. No alcohol or cigarettes are permitted on the island either, so leave it all behind, folks!
- Just remember, the seagulls are watching you…