Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2011

Captain Charles Ferreira and the Lost Lights of Throgs Neck, NY

“Skipper” Wore Out Four Bronx Lighthouses

By Timothy Harrison


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Lighthouse Keeper Charles Ferreira in the living ...

The 1944 retirement ceremony of lighthouse keeper “Captain” Charles A. Ferreira may have been one of the largest, if not the largest, official retirement ceremony of a lighthouse keeper in American history.

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The second Throggs Neck Lighthouse at Fort ...

The ceremony at Fort Schuyler, in the Bronx, New York, took place where Ferreira had lived for an amazing sixty years, 34 of them as the official keeper of the Throgs Neck Lighthouse (also spelled as Throggs Neck Lighthouse), and many years before that as unofficial assistant to his father, veteran keeper, Alexander Ferreira who became the keeper at the lighthouse in 1884 after previously serving at Bergen Point and Navesink Lighthouse Stations in New Jersey.

As well as many family members, Ferreira’s retirement ceremony was attended by former lighthouse keepers, retired Army officers, Coast Guard personnel, a U.S. Navy Vice Admiral and 450 white-clad midshipmen and 21 officers who marched in review to honor Ferreira.

As well as other commendations, Ferreira was presented with a silver loving cup by United States Navy Vice Admiral Thomas T. Craven (Ret.) who at that time was the superintendent of the New York State Maritime Academy. The cup bore an inscription to the 70 year old Ferreira giving tribute to his years of service in which the light never failed. That day the Admiral also referred to him as “Skipper,” the name everyone used when referring to him. Even though he had the honorary title of “Captain,” no one could recall ever having called him that; it was always “Skipper.”

In all his 34 years on the job, the Skipper never had a day off work, nor a single hour off for sick leave. His only trips away from the lighthouse were work related trips to Manhattan, which included two hours for the ride there and back.

During his career, Ferreira had witnessed and participated in many rescues and more changes that most lighthouse keepers ever did. As a lighthouse keeper he had worked under the Treasury Department, the Light-House Board, the Bureau of Lighthouses, the Department of Commerce and Labor, The United States Coast Guard and the United States Navy. He had also seen the common name of the service change from U.S. Light House Establishment to U.S. Light House Service and finally, when the words were combined, to U.S. Lighthouse Service.

His entire life had revolved around lighthouses. And, from the age of ten years old, he had lived on the grounds at Fort Schuyler, an amazing sixty years. He may be one of the few, if not the only, lighthouse keeper in history to have lived at a military fort for sixty years. He grew up at the fort, went to school on the grounds of the fort, and before taking over as the lighthouse keeper, he had worked for the Army Corps of Engineers at the fort in the days when it was manned by two companies of Army Coast Artillerymen.

Going to school at the fort was quite an experience for Ferreira. The Army set aside one room next to the soldier’s pool room for the eight children who lived on the base at that time. Ferreira said it was amazing that they learned anything at all. One time they were assigned a Private McGloan as their teacher. It seems that McGloan, who was paid $13 a month, was paid an extra $2 a month to be the teacher. Ferreira recalled some of those memories to newspaper columnist Ira Henry Freeman, “Draw a map of South America,” he would order us, “with all capitals and rivers theron. Then he would march off to the Post Exchange and drink beer until he got locked up in the guardhouse. Hooray, school was out for the day!”

In 1908 he took his bride, Anna, to the fort and they raised four daughters, Charlotte, Emily, Doris and Dorothy, in the lighthouse keeper’s house overlooking Long Island Sound.

One of the Skipper’s daughters, Charlotte, recalled the keeper’s house years later as being warm and cozy and how, from the photos she had seen, it resembled many other keeper’s homes she had seen those photos.

She wrote in 1964, “Our house was a big rambling two story frame house with three large bedrooms upstairs, a beautiful winding staircase down to the first floor where we had a parlor, dining room, Mom’s sewing room, the bathroom and the pantry and to my mind, the most important room in the house, the kitchen. The kitchen was a large addition added on to the old building built by my father and his brothers, long before we lived there.

“Our old kitchen was a friendly place, where we did our homework. Mom did the washing and in the same tub, gave Dot her baths when she was a baby. The sink, with its old wooden drain-board, was in one corner of the room and in the middle was the stove where Mom concocted some of the most heavenly food this side of heaven. It was an old coal range and when Dad shined it up with black stove polish, which was done on special occasions and especially around the holidays, why it was a beauty to behold.

“The floor was made of maple and when those boards were scrubbed by my mother’s hands, it was just about the most sparkling place imaginable. An old dining room set served as our dinette set and all I can say is that when Mom served up some of her home cooking, there was just about the most mouth watering smells imaginable coming from that room.

“A cold winter’s day outside and that old room was just about the snuggest place. I could set in the old chimney corner, with my back to the bricks and read a book for hours. Sister Emily joined me for this past time and we were the two bookworms of the family.”

The family always had plenty to eat. In the early days, the government delivered some food by lighthouse tender, at the same time they delivered the oil and other lighthouse supplies. But if the family wanted more, they were on their own. Clams and fish harvested from right in front of their house were always a staple. She wrote, “The smell of that chowder being prepared, still lingers in my memory, we children made many a meal of Downeast clam chowder and pilot biscuits.” In the summer months they had a garden and things like potatoes, carrots and cabbage were stored for the winter months.

Plus they had chickens and the Skipper’s wife was known for her cakes, most of them “three layers topped with white frosty homemade frosting.” In the wintertime they made ice cream, getting salt water ice from the beach, which was always the right consistency for the hand-cranked ice cream-making machine.

As Ferreira walked back to the keeper’s house after his retirement ceremony, accompanied by his family and a newspaper reporter, he said, “It was a long stretch, but a good one.” And then, while pointing with his corn cob pipe, that he had just been given as a retirement gift, in the direction of the lighthouse and with a grin on his weather-beaten face, he reminisced saying, “And just think, I’ve sort of worn out four lighthouses cleaning and polishing them since I first came here!” The reporter apparently was not aware that previous lighthouses had once stood at the fort.

So the old Skipper gave a brief history lesson, telling the reporter how his father, Alexander Ferreira, a Civil War veteran of the Union Navy, had joined the United States Lighthouse Establishment in 1877 and eventually his father was appointed as the keeper at Throgs Neck Lighthouse in 1884, when by then the fort was 40 years old. His father had secured his lighthouse keeper position with help from Admiral George Dewey who he had once served under and had previously served at Bergen Point and the Navesink Light Stations before arriving at Throgs Neck.

The Skipper, who was only ten at the time they arrived at Throgs Neck Lighthouse, recalled, “When we first arrived at the fort it was still an active Army base.” He recalled how the retreat parade inside the gray granite walls of the pentagonal fortress was a grand sight. In fact, he told the reporter that the newly dedicated Pentagon in our nation’s capitol was designed after the fort. He recalled that when he had first arrived at the fort there were gun-ports instead of windows and there were cannon in every one of them.

“What a day was the Fourth of July! They would fire a salute of forty-four, forty-five guns, however many states we had in the union at the moment. The smoke was so black you couldn’t see a thing. When Rutherford B Hayes died in 1893 they shot off twenty-one guns. Heavy guns too. I guess, because of the thunder it knocked all the plaster off the keeper’s cottage walls and broke nineteen windows.”

He told the reporter that when his father died in 1910, the government appointed him to take his father’s place and he was honored to accept the position and carry on the tradition. Additionally, his wife, Anna, was able to secure a job from the Signal Service to operate the storm warning station atop the fort.

Getting back to the light, he jokingly recalled, “Yes, I wore out that first old wooden lighthouse – just cleaning and polishing it.” In referring to the Lighthouse Inspector’s visits he continued, “I wanted a perfect score and – mind you, I’m not boasting, because it was my job – I had one. I wore out two more before they built this fine shining steel one you see here now,” as he pointed to the erector set tower that really looked absolutely nothing like a traditional lighthouse. After nearly every visit, he was awarded the Inspectors Efficiency Star. However, for fear of losing it because it had to be returned to the government each year, he kept the pin in a wooden box on the shelf until the year was over. He would then mail it back in hopes that he would be awarded the star again after the next year’s inspections.

The first lighthouse to occupy the site was built in 1826-27. The first keepers of the lighthouse had an ingenious way to obtain extra money - they operated a tavern in the keeper’s house! Although they were apparently never caught or reprimanded, the tavern was discontinued by future keepers.

The original tower lasted until 1835 when it was replaced by a wooden octagonal structure. That wooden 1835 structure was built as a temporary tower and constructed in such a way that it could easily be moved. However, it was in use for longer than anyone had expected. It stood until 1890, an amazing 55 years, a long time for a temporary structure. By the time the government finally decided to replace the old wooden second lighthouse structure, its sills had rotted and the tower was leaning to one side and the doors would no longer close.

One of the keepers who served at the lighthouse a few years before Alexander Ferreira arrived in 1884 was Ellen Lyons, who was one of the many American women who became a lighthouse keeper. She was appointed keeper of the light in 1876 upon the death of her lighthouse keeper husband, Richard Lyons. Mrs. Lyons remained at the post for five years, until 1881.

The third Throgs Neck tower, built in 1890, was a magnificent iron skeletal structure, which officials felt would be much more suited to the elements and last longer. Whether it was built in the wrong place or whether the Light House Board did not consult with the military leaders is questionable. But a government report issued ten years after the lighthouse was completed stated, “The present location of the lighthouse and the keeper’s house is objectionable from a military point of view, as they are in the field of fire of batteries constructed.” Apparently if the guns of the fort did have to be used in defense from an attack or invasion, the first shots fired from the big guns would have literally blown the top off the lighthouse.

However, as we know, the wheels of government sometimes move slowly, or, perhaps, no one was really convinced that an enemy threat was imminent. It took another five years for the government, in 1905, to build a red brick lighthouse tower that was constructed on top of the wall of the fort, 700 feet southeast of the iron tower. The tall iron tower was then dismantled and removed from the site.

In 1934 the government decided that the lighthouse on top of the fort should be replaced by an erector-set style tower that would be an automated lighthouse. Even though the lighthouse was automated, the government felt that a keeper was still needed and the Skipper remained on his post for another ten years.

On Christmas Day of 1937 Ferreira’s daughter Emily married Robert Miller at the lighthouse. It was not the first wedding to take place there. In 1909 Charles Ferreira’s sister, Molly Matilda, married John Clemmons at the lighthouse.

Emily recalled the first time that she brought her husband to be, Robert Miller, to the lighthouse to meet her parents. As they drove up to the lighthouse, Emily noticed that the light was out and apparently her father had not noticed. Robert watched as Emily, in a dress and high heeled shoes, quickly climbed the narrow ladder 80 feet straight up to the top of the lighthouse to change its bulb. Robert said at that moment, “I thought now that’s the gal for me. She’s tough.”

Emily recalled to Lighthouse Digest the many vessels that she witnessed in her years of growing up at the lighthouse. She witnessed everything from the big ocean liners to schooner-shaped barges laden with coal and more tug boats than she could ever remember. She recalled how some of barges actually had living quarters on them and they often went by with their family wash flapping in the breeze. One time a dog fell overboard and swan ashore. The people never came back for the dog and it became a family pet. There were also lots of the typical passenger steamers that operated between New York, Boston and even Nova Scotia, and the many side-wheelers. There were also many pleasure craft from the nearby yacht clubs that would fill the Sound on the weekends and by 4 o’clock on Sunday afternoon they would all disappear.

Then there were the times when the world was in turmoil. Emily recalled, “I remember a very thrilling sight during World War II when they would make up convoys on the Sound before they would head out across the dangerous ocean. They came very silently and, just after sunset and showing no lights, would disappear into the dark. It was a collection of anything that would float for they were losing many vessels to the German U Boats.”

Over the years Skipper Ferreira had witnessed many changes at Fort Schuyler, from structural alterations, to changes in commands and uses of the fort, especially as the fort’s importance declined, and even more so when the last garrison left the fort in 1911. Other than the active light station, the fort was virtually abandoned at that time. The fort made a great backdrop for a number of movies that were filmed there starring some of the notable actors of the time such as Gloria Swanson, Ben Lyon and Charles Ruggles.

In the 1930s, while Ferreira was still the lighthouse keeper, the fort was restored by the WPA and converted into a Merchant Marine Academy and is now the campus of the State University of New York (SUNY) Maritime College at Fort Schuyler, Bronx, New York. The museum at the site now offers one of the largest collections of maritime materials in the nation, which are displayed chronologically.

When the Skipper retired in 1944, he and his wife moved to a home that was near the lighthouse and Ferreira would often come back to Fort Schuyler for visits. His retirement years were his time to recall and share the stories of yesteryear with the younger generation, stories of the big ships, the sailors and the lighthouse he loved.

In 1956 the Skipper, “Captain” Charles Ferreira, at the age of 81, passed away. He was buried in his lighthouse keeper’s uniform. But, shortly before his death, the Skipper had witnessed one more change. When the new Throgs Neck Bridge was approved the city decided to use only one letter G in the name, something that eventually also changed on maps and street signs.

Although the lighthouses Ferreira served at are gone, lost to the pages of time, he and his family left a legacy of dedication to duty and country that we can all be proud of; one that must be remembered and told to future generations that will help us understand where we came from as a people who helped develop the United States into one of the greatest nations the world has ever witnessed.

We wish to thank Paul A. Miller and Emily Miller for the wealth of information they shared to help us develop and tell this story that is a vital part of America’s lost lighthouse history which, we can now proudly say, will live on forever.

There were more photographs available in the print edition of this story. To purchase a PDF of the original story with all the photos, click here.

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This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2011 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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