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Roosevelt Island Lighthouse: a little lighthouse in New York surrounded by mysterious stories of insanity-driven construction

4 min read

Built in 1872 and known then as the “Blackwell Island Lighthouse”, the 15-meters-tall stone lighthouse at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island was constructed, if the legends can be believed, by the deranged occupants of a nearby insane asylum.
But what’s not in doubt is that it was built by the city as a navigation aid for boats avoiding the rocks in the so-called “Hell Gate” waters.
Historically, for nearly two centuries, Blackwell was the name that identified the island that lies in the East River just off Manhattan. For some time, the Blackwell family owned the island and their ancestral home still stands near its center. The City of New York purchased the island in 1828 and transformed into an island of municipal institutions including a penitentiary, almshouse, city hospital, the New York Lunatic Asylum, and the Smallpox Hospital. The island was renamed Welfare Island in 1921.

According to a local legend, during the 19th century, a patient from the nearby Lunatic Asylum was permitted to build a stone fort on this outcropping as he feared an invasion by the British. When plans were formulated to build the Lighthouse, this patient was allegedly persuaded to surrender the fort only after much cajoling and a bribe of bogus money. The story continues that the patient himself demolished the fort and built the new Lighthouse, and some versions indicate that he had incorporated in it Civil War cannons.
While construction of the Lighthouse cannot actually be credited to the diligent Mr. McCarthy, the warden of the Lunatic Asylum did specifically mention in his annual report of 1870 an “industrious but eccentric” patient who had built near the Asylum a large section of seawall, thereby reclaiming a sizable piece of land. The warden further remarked that this patient “is very assiduous, and seems proud of his work, and he has reason to be, for it is a fine structure, strong and well built.” Whether or not this patient was the model for the legend of the fort and Lighthouse builder, a connection of the Lighthouse and the Lunatic Asylum is a historical fact. In May 1872, City official resolved to “effectually light” the Asylum and the tip of the island. The following September, the Lighthouse was completed , with lamps furnished by the U.S. Lighthouse Service. The stone structure was built under the direction of the Board of Governors of the Commission of Charities and Correction, the body which administered the numerous City institutions on the island.
In any case, the legends of its origin are recounted on a sign that was once posted at the lighthouse, which read:

The legendary mysteries are the names of Asylum inmate(s?) John McCarthy and Thomas Maxey and whether these two names refer to one person, two people, or even existent people. Supposedly, before the lighthouse was built, McCarthy (or Maxey), fearing a British invasion, was constructing a four-foot-high clay fort on this site. Asylum officials let him finish the fort because, during his adrenaline-rushed work, he reclaimed significant areas of marsh. (They even gave him old Civil War cannons as encouragement.) When the city wanted to build the Lighthouse, officials bribed or persuaded McCarthy either to give up or to demolish the fort.

Whether McCarthy complied or not is the choice of the storyteller, but the fort did come down. Then, supposedly, another asylum patient was summoned to build the lighthouse. This inmate styled himself ‘Thomas Maxey, Esq., architect, mason, carpenter, civil engineer, philosopher, and philanthropist.’ The lighthouse was built, though adherence to Renwick’s blueprint is questionable. Despite Thomas Maxey’s supposed labor, John McCarthy’s name was credited on a plaque that remained at the Lighthouse’s base until its mysterious disappearance in the 1960s:

‘This work was done by John McCarthy who built the lighthouse from the bottom to the top all ye who do pass by may pray for his soul when he dies.’ ”

The Lighthouse was decommissioned in the 1940s, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, designated a city landmark in 1975, and partially restored the following year. In 1998 an anonymous grant of $120,000 funded complete restoration (including internal lamps).

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