Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2013

Street Gang Seeks Revenge on Lightkeeper, Burn House, Almost Kill Keeper’s Daughter

By David E. Cook


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The Jeffrey’s Hook post lanterns that were used ...

By the 1880s, tidal action on the Hudson River had built up a reef and a point that stuck out into the Hudson, known as Jeffrey’s Hook, just south of the confluence of the river and the Spuyten Duyvil Creek at the far northern tip of Manhattan Island. It became such a major obstruction to shipping that the Lighthouse Board ordered an un-manned lantern station erected on the Hook.

In 1889, two red oil lanterns were hung, one above the other (30’ and 20’) on a frame pole with a cross brace. A local man hired to maintain the lanterns at $240 per year was officially designated a “lamp-lighter,” versus the “light-keepers” who were hired to live in government provided housing.

His name was Patrick Roach. He and his wife Bridget and daughter Mary lived in what was nothing more than a shack in the midst of an Irish “shantytown” that had grown up on the rocks in the vicinity of the current Jeffrey’s Hook tower, at the eastern base of the George Washington Bridge. Nearby, a ferry crossed over to the base of the Palisades below Fort Lee on the New Jersey side. The top of the eastern escarpment, just south of Fort Washington, was known as Carmansville, after an extremely successful businessman and contractor, Richard Carman. At the base of the rocks, in the flat river shore area that became Fort Washington Park in 1896, was a collection of warehouses, the ferry, and a ball field ruled over by Billy McDonald, whose gang controlled commercial shipping on the ferry and the movement of freight from the docks up the cliffs to where the “gentle folk” lived.

Following is the story, from The New York Sun of November 27, 1891, of how the McDonald Gang destroyed everything Patrick Roach owned and almost killed his daughter. It was this action that encouraged the residents of Carmansville to petition New York City to clean up the shantytown, rid them of gang control, and turn the river shore into a City Park.

“Old Billy” McDonald is one of the best known characters in Carmansville. He lives in a little old frame house at 175th street and Kingsbridge road, where he also has a number of small stables. He does a large trucking business, employing about twenty-five men who work off and on, according to the condition of business, and play baseball and football when they are idle. All around McDonald’s place on the rocks are ramshackle houses and huts, the owners of which have lived in them a long time, some for over forty years.

Patrick Roach, the keeper of the lighthouse at Jeffrey’s Hook, near Fort Washington, lives in the meanest looking hut of all with his wife Bridget and their daughter Mary, a pretty girl about 10 years of age. Last summer while the “McDonald gang’’ were playing the ball flew into the window of Roach’s hut and smashed several articles. On two or three other occasions the ball did damage to Roach’s property, but he made no complaint until one day about four months ago when the ball struck his daughter Mary and hurt her badly. Then he ordered the gang to stop playing around his house. They refused to obey, so he went to the Harlem Court and got a summons for some of the men. When they appeared in court they promised to stop and did stop, but threatened to get even with Roach for breaking up their sport.

At 9 o’clock on Wednesday night, Mary Roach was sitting in the kitchen reading an evening paper when she saw a tongue of flame appear in a corner of the room. She sprang up and made for the door, but before she could reach it she was enveloped in flames. She lost her head then, and would probably have been burned to death had not a man who was passing sprung to the window, and, grabbing her by the shoulders, pulled her safely out into the open air. She was horribly burned on the hands and around the face, but refused to go to a hospital. Mrs. Roach was upstairs, and escaped by jumping from a window. She landed safely on her feet, and except for a few bruises on the hands, was not injured.

The light keeper was asleep, and the light awakened him. He ran to the kitchen, but found the door locked, and then sprang through an open window out on the rock. An alarm of fire was sent out, but the shanty had gone up in smoke before the engines arrived. All of the household goods of the family were destroyed. The family will live with the neighbors until Roach builds a new house.

The Roaches believe their home was set on fire by the “McDonald gang.” The latter deny the charge, and say that if the Roaches had had less beer on Wednesday night there would have been no fire.”

Roach stayed on as lamp-lighter until 1912, when H.J. Whitely replaced him, still receiving only $240 per year and providing his own housing. The first full-time Keeper, William Knapp, was not appointed until the current enclosed conical iron tower was erected on the Hook in 1921.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2013 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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