Digest>Archives> September 2009

First Public Trip To Execution Rocks

By Bill Bleyer


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New York’s infamous Execution Rocks Lighthouse ...
Photo by: Bill Bleyer

“I’m back! Here comes Hector after 48 years,” 68-year-old Hector Barsali exclaimed as he climbed a seaweed-covered, rusty ladder to the concrete slab around the Execution Rocks Lighthouse.

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Former Execution Rocks Lighthouse keeper Hector ...
Photo by: Bill Bleyer

Barsali, a Bayside, NY, resident, had spent a year as a Coast Guard keeper at the lighthouse in 1969. And he had been invited back by the landmark’s new owners in June to be part of the first public group to visit the 1850 structure in memory.

The visit was made possible when the federal government in January turned over the deed to a fledgling Philadelphia-based preservation group, Historically Significant Structures Inc. [lighthouserestorations.org] which was formed in 2001 to restore lighthouses. Execution Rocks is its first project.

After a half dozen visits with federal agencies and on its own to scout out the site, the group’s leaders invited Barsali and a few other guests, volunteers and restoration experts to the first public viewing.

Those who signed the new guestbook at the 1869 keeper’s quarters doorway were the first of what Craig Morrison, president of Historically Significant Structures, hopes will become a steady stream of day visitors and overnight bed & breakfast guests after a multi-year restoration estimated to cost more than $1.2 million.

The group was carried from Port Washington to the lighthouse a mile off the end of Sands Point in a 47-foot Crosby touring tug piloted by Matt Meyran, owner of Port Washington Water Taxi, who has donated his company’s services.

Morrison said his group is comprised of about a dozen people but is looking for additional members, volunteers and board members, particularly from Long Island. “We need people to help us go out and paint,” he said.

The group has been working with a volunteer architect from Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Mary Werner DeNadai, who has worked on many lighthouse restoration projects. She estimated last year that it would cost $1.7 million to restore the structure but now says that sluggish economy will reduce the cost by 25 percent.

“We’ve raised about $2,000,” Morrison said. But the group is preparing several grant applications.

Before the visitors disembarked at the lighthouse, Morrison handed out breathing masks to protect against the peeling lead paint and mold in the keepers’ quarters. “No one’s lived in there since 1978,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to get harmed.”

Morrison, an insurance agent, unlocked the steel door and led a flashlight tour through the three levels of the keepers’ quarters where old fluorescent light fixtures dangled uselessly in a space darkened by vandal-resistance metal shutters. “It needs a little bit of work,” he said as he walked past a section of wall on the second floor where the plaster had crumbled to the floor. “We got it just in time.”

Painting and restoration expert Jason Plucinski of React Environmental Professional Services Group of Philadelphia began tapping on windows, examining the peeling white paint and poking at asbestos floor tiles on the second floor of the keepers’ quarters. He said the tiles seemed intact enough that they could be covered with new flooring without having to remove the old ones. “There’s lead paint and asbestos issues to be addressed and the plaster is suspect” because of its exposure to moisture, Plucinski said.

“That was my bedroom,” Barsali noted after climbing to the second level and walking to the northwest corner.

Morrison headed back to the ground level and the back door where accumulated water had rotted a hole through the floor. Levering open the door, he walked outside to the exterior of the tower where the white band on the north side had turned green. “We’ve got to remove all this algae before we paint it,” he said.

The group plans to rebuild a shed that had once housed a compressor for the now-removed foghorn to provide space for restrooms and storage. An adjacent tile platform will make a great place for a snackbar, Morrison said.

Morrison reentered the keepers’ quarters and walked through a tunnel on the first floor into the base of the lighthouse tower. All of the floors had been removed by the Coast Guard and replaced with metal gratings in 1992 but the original rusty metal stairs remain and Morrison said only one person should climb each flight at a time.

The visitors climbed through a metal trapdoor into the lantern room where an automated airport-style beacon light maintained by the Coast Guard rotated and then went through a small access door to the balcony surrounded by a rusted railing. As they took in views of Sands Point to the south, the Westchester shoreline to the north and tugboats pulling barges and sailboats traversing Long Island Sound on an overcast day, Morrison said “Not too shabby. This is what it’s all about.”

“It’s very nostalgic for me,” Barsali said. “I’m a little choked up. I’m a little saddened to see the rust and disarray but it will be fixed.”

Barsali spent a year at Execution Rocks in 1961 right out of boot camp. “We had a five-man crew. There would be three on and two off. The tour of duty on the island was 21 days and seven days off. We rotated jobs when we were out there. We had to maintain a foghorn and the light and make sure it was working all the time. We would go to Fort Totten or Fort Schuyler to buy groceries. We had a good menu. We had pasta, chicken, roast beef. We did our own cooking.”

The light was connected to a shore electric cable when he was there. “Fresh water was delivered by a Coast Guard tender,” he said. “There was a tank inside the tower.”

“It was isolated, no doubt about it,” said Barsali, who spent four years in the Coast Guard. “We used to play a lot of board games and we had a television. It was too exciting and busy for you to get bored. In foul weather, the last place you want to be is Execution Rocks. You can’t walk outside.” He said the compressor house blew away in one storm after he left, leaving the foghorn without a source of power.

“It was haunting at times at night when you are by yourself in the tower,” he said. “But I never saw any ghosts” of colonial patriots who, according to legend, were chained to the rocks by British Redcoats and left to drown.”

As the group prepared to leave, it gathered by the solar panels installed by the Coast Guard to keep the beacon’s backup batteries charged. Morrison hopes to put in more solar panels so the entire site can be powered by them.

He brought along engineer Donal Butterfield of Manhattan to scope that out along with other heating and utility issues. “I really want to do as much solar and wind power as I can,” he said. But one of his first tasks will be to figure out how to provide running water at the lighthouse.

This story appeared in the September 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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