This month I discovered a rare collection of large early c.1880s mounted albumen photographs of the U.S. Light-House Establishment General Depot in Thompkinsville on Staten Island, New York. The photos detail many of the buildings and workshops there, lighthouse tenders, the caisson lighthouse used for testing lens apparatus that would later become the Romer Shoals Light, and much more. The lot had originated from the estate of Colonel John Millis (Lighthouse Estab./Service 1881-1938), Engineer 3rd District, U.S. Light House Establishment.
John Millis was born on a Michigan farm in 1858. He had a long and interesting career and lived for more than 93 years. Millis entered West Point in June 1877, and was graduated in June 1881, at the head of his class. In November 1883, after service with the Engineer School at Willetts Point, N. Y., he was assigned as Assistant to the Light-House Engineer of the Third District on Staten Island. It was during this period that these photographs were taken. His duties were at first principally in connection with experimental work on the use of electric light for lighthouse purposes. He tested and supervised the installation of the electric plant for lighting the passage through Hell Gate, in New York Harbor, in 1884-5, where the removal of rock to improve the channel at this dangerous point was then in progress. He worked on a number of other projects until in the 1890’s he was assigned to work in New Orleans.
In 1894 he was ordered to Washington as member and Engineer Secretary of the Lighthouse Board. This position was virtually that of Chief Executive Engineer of the United States Lighthouse Service. During his four years service in this capacity many new light stations were constructed in various parts of the country, and a general overhauling and improvement of the lighting and fog signal apparatus throughout the country was inaugurated. He received his promotion to Major of Engineers in April 1900. In 1922 he reached retirement age and thereafter he lived quietly in Cleveland, devoting himself to scientific theories and research, and publishing many pamphlets upon these subjects. This lot of photos would have been taken during the 1883 – 1890 period when he was at Staten Island. Major Millis passed away in Cleveland in 1952. [Information on Millis career courtesy West Point Association of Graduates.]
By 1799, the area on Staten Island that would eventually become the General Lighthouse Depot was transferred to the State of New York to house a quarantine station, intended to isolate passengers and crews of ships coming into New York that were possibly infected with contagious diseases such as yellow fever, cholera, and small pox. The first such station had been erected on Bedloe’s Island, but in response to pressure from worried citizens, the station was moved further away from the city, and finally to this site Staten Island.
In 1815 New York Governor Daniel D. Thompkins oversaw the sale of five acres in the northern portion of the original quarantine station tract to the United States government, subsequently becoming a base for a U.S. Revenue Marine (Revenue Cutter Service), under the US Treasury Department. Maps of this period show that the Revenue Service soon placed a series of structures on the property including, a wharf, two storehouses, a “Store Keeper’s House.” and a “Boarding Officers’ House.”
But, by the 1850’s, citizens of Tompkinsville’s sought to rid themselves of the quarantine station completely.
At about the same time, in an era when most commerce and travel was still maritime, the nation’s lighthouses were of critical importance. By 1852, a new entity was created by Congress known as “The Light-House Board,” also to be under the Treasury Department. This effort to upgrade lighthouse operations now centralized the administration of the nation’s lighthouses, placing all lighthouses in the country under the unified control of this one Board.
The Light-House Board was formed as a semi-autonomous agency. Although it remained linked to the Secretary of the Treasury, who acted as its president, the Board now had complete control over all lighthouse matters. New staff was hired including naval officers, army engineers, and maritime industry leaders. Efforts began to improve the equipment, buildings, the quality of supplies, and the overall organization. The nation was divided into twelve light-house districts, each with one or more depots, staffed with engineers, inspectors and staff. New York was placed in the Third Light House District and the District’s headquarters were soon set up in New York City.
One more thing was needed. The Light-House Board believed that what was truly needed was a “super depot” - a site that could become a base of operations for the nation’s entire light house system (Pickman 2004). The Staten Island site would be perfect. The two acre site eventually chosen here was a portion of the Revenue Marine facility. Much of it was now available and already under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department.
The Staten Island site would soon support the development and testing of new lighthouse technology such as fuels, lamps, and sound signals. The facility would be able to receive and inspect lenses and supplies before distribution to the various district depots, and to inspect and test all lamp oil and fuels received. The site was convenient to shipping and rail lines and could also easily receive the new Fresnel lens and other apparatus from Europe. In addition, the location would become a “safe harbor” for the Lighthouse Tenders, lightships and other vessels of the Light-House Establishment when being fitted out, or between assignments.
As construction began, the quarantine grounds and buildings were burned in 1858, leaving the Revenue Marine structures intact. Pickerman (2004) notes that: “Initial construction of the new Light-House Establishment facilities occurred between 1864 and 1871. The very first work involving the refurbishing of some of the extant Revenue Service structures…”
In 1867, as the plans began to take shape, Acting Light-House Engineer Joseph Lederle drew up a map showing the existing buildings and those which were proposed. Proposed buildings included a large brick workshop, to have a cooper shop on the first floor, and space for lampmakers on the second floor, and laboratories for testing oil and other experiments on the third floor. Other proposed works included vaults to contain oil, new sheds for storage, and a much needed office building.
By the following year, the Revenue Marine had completely relocated to Manhattan. The Light-House Board’s annual reports during this period describe not only the construction of the various buildings but also the preparation of the site. Roads and wharfs were added, as well as coal sheds and storage buildings. Oil vaults were excavated into the steep bank of a hillside extending north-south at the rear of a large storage building. A sea wall was also built. The basin in front of the depot was dredged and the spoil deposited behind the sea wall to add still more space for storage. Additional land would later be filled and graded as engineers quickly realized that the site, although a great improvement, would still be insufficient as the needs of the Light-House Establishment continued to increase. The offices of the 3rd District Engineer were moved from New York City to this site as well, giving him better control over the supplies for the District and of the operation of tenders and light vessels serving the District. More work was needed though.
The former Revenue Marine Boarding Officer’s House was utilized as the Light-House Engineer’s residence in 1866 and the former Store Keeper’s House was utilized as the U.S. Revenue Officer’s residence until 1868. Other buildings on the northeast portion of the site were utilized for storage and as the Light House Engineer’s office.
In the Annual Report for 1868, the Light-House Board reported that: “…the offices connected with the service of this [Staten Island] depot…” are located in the storehouse, a building which is not fireproof, and wherein is usually stored something like a half million dollars worth of Light-House supplies and apparatus, as well as records which could not be replaced. A new building was certainly necessary.
To satisfy this need, a three-story granite and red brick French Second Empire style Administration Building was begun on a central location of the grounds. Well built and of fine design and materials, the building was a brilliant expression of the era. Floors were supported with iron beams and the roof supported by iron as well, laid with slate. The building was completed in 1871. In front an area of grass and rimmed with buoys called the “green” was built, and a large wooden flag mast was erected. In 1901 an east and a west wing were added to enlarge the structure still further.
At this time too, construction began on a Greek Revival-style workshop building. Vogel and Clifford (2007) note that “On the south side of the building, the engineers constructed a double-height open room with pits, ladders, and iron columns so the lampists could assemble and test even the largest size lenses and pedestals…. Four two-story arched windows provided [plenty of] light….” This building would be referred to as (the first) Lamp Shop. Construction had begun in earnest and by 1868 the stone walls were completed up to the second floor level. This building still stands, with the date 1868 in stone above the doorway.
By 1872, with the completion of this round of construction and refurbishing, the depot complex contained an administration building that housed the engineer and inspector for the Third District, the inspector’s residence, a workshop building, storehouses, oil vaults, wharves (one with a derrick), and a coal bin with a capacity of 400 tons.
The Annual Report of the Light-House Board (1872) concluded that “This depot contains the manufacturing establishment, vaults for the storage, and apparatus for photometrical tests, of oil, and store-houses for the general supplies, etc, for the service of the lights in the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf, and Lake coasts of the United States.”
Construction of the oil vaults was completed in 1869. Vogel and Clifford (2007) note that “Five of the masonry vaults, built for maximum safety and security, were 51 feet long, 21 feet wide, and 13 feet high; a sixth was half that size. The caverns were covered with land plantings, with only heavy doors piercing the hillside and opening onto a paved area…. The vaults were equipped with large cast-iron tin-lined storage casks, and barrel storage platforms with shallow iron trays to catch any possible spillage. Upon completion the vaults allowed the storage of 85,000 gallons of oil. It is likely too, that, as the Depot continued to expand, the vaults were modified and enlarged still further as time went on.
A number of residences are shown on maps of the day. The northernmost residence designated as the “Light House Keeper’s residence” in 1866, is indicated as the Inspector’s house by 1872. That year too, two derricks were erected on the wharves to facilitate the loading of the Tenders. Another residence located at site was indicated as the Engineers House on the 1874 map.
A structure with what appear to be large doors on the southern side may have functioned as a carriage house. An attic dormer suggests that it also may have functioned as living quarters for an employee of the Light-House Board during the reconnaissance in the1860s.
The Depot was a busy place. Vogel and Clifford (2007) note that “In 1880 the depot made more than 21,000 cans for transporting oil and 27,000 wooden boxes for the cans. The lamp shop turned out more than 1,500 mineral oil lamps, which were sent to the various districts to replace lard-oil lamps. Conveniences like lamp-shop freight elevators and city water supplies were being added, along with better machinery and increased storage capacity…. By 1890 the depot would receive 278,284 gallons of mineral oil and ship out 308,325 gallons….”
Between 1874 and 1887 two buildings were constructed on the eastern portion of the lighthouse depot property. One project included an extension to one of the earlier buildings. The second was another new storage building, which still stands today near the oil vaults.
In some cases entire lighthouse structures were constructed at the Depot, to ensure that their parts fit properly, and then were later disassembled and transported to their intended site. Such was the case in 1883. The cast iron 45-foot tall lighthouse shown in the photo was erected in the central “green” area. For 15 years the tower was used for the purposes of experimenting with lamp fuels, oils, lamps, wicks, lenses and other lighthouse apparatus. Just in front of the lighthouse tower, a building was erected to serve as a boiler room to generate power and to provide steam for testing fog signal apparatus including boilers, trumpets and valves.
In 1898, the light tower was dismantled and erected a few miles off shore on an existing pier to mark the Romer Shoals (thus dating these photographs prior to 1898.) in Lower New York Bay, on the north edge of the Swash Channel. The four-story tower was topped by a cylindrical watch room and a decagonal lantern room from which a flashing 4th order white light was first exhibited on October 1, 1898. A 1,300-pound bell was added, striking one blow every thirty seconds. The new light went into operation on February 20, 1899.
By the 1890s, as technology improved and the number of light stations in the country increased, the depot site became even more restrictive, making it difficult to conduct the necessary lighthouse supply work. The lamp shop was over crowded, storehouses were filled to capacity and the grounds were filled with buoys and other fixtures. More space and facilities were sorely needed. Some areas of land along the boundaries were added to the depot, and additional areas were filled, and the wharves improved.
As the Light-House Establishment continued to expand, additional office and administrative space was needed as well. In about 1901 two large wings, “East” and “West,” were added to the Administration Building, which also likely incorporated two small buildings to the rear that were shown on earlier maps.
Meanwhile, in 1903, the Light-House Board was removed from the Treasury Department and placed within the Department of Commerce and Labor. The latter soon re-organized the Board, renaming it the Bureau of Lighthouses in 1910. At about this time the organization began to be referred to as the Lighthouse Service.
Growing steadily in both size and capability during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Staten Island Depot reached its peak size during the First World War. More shops were constructed to handle the assembly and maintenance of lighthouse and lightship lenses, many of which weighed thousands of pounds and were up to 16 feet tall. During this time the Lighthouse Depot employed some 200 men.
Between 1907 and 1917, to accommodate this increased work load, at least three buildings were added including a machine shop, foundry, and a new lamp shop. The lamp shop was completed in 1908 and included a spacious lamp shop, as well as machine shops, packing rooms, blacksmith shop, tin shop, storage, and more (Vogel and Clifford 2007). The Lamp Shop building still stands today.
In the machine shop and foundry area, anchors, chains, buoys, and lighthouse structural members were fabricated. The shops were in full operation by the 1920s and continued through the Second World War. Today, this building has been restored and has been opened as exhibit space in the fledgling “National Lighthouse Museum.”
By 1917 maps of the area identified two smaller buildings as “Hose Ho.” and “Fire Eng.”, representing sheds housing firefighting equipment for the Lighthouse Depot. Fire hazards at such a facility would certainly have been great. Flammable materials such as oils, coal, large quantities of wood and other materials abounded on the site and a fire here could have been devastating, not only to the facility, but to the many light stations across the country depending on receiving needed supplies. Certainly much attention was paid to safety on the site. In addition, watchmen patrolled the depot buildings and grounds at all times to guard against fires as well as intruders.
Later maps also show an “Auto Ho,” probably a garage. As reliable autos and trucks became available they were used for some transportation and delivery duties, as photos of the day suggest. In addition, the 1917 map shows a “greenhouse” along the west side of the site, as well as an L-shaped building, apparently a barn or stable.
Over the years the depots continued to be the foundation of the Lighthouse Service. Lighthouse Service Commissioner George R. Putnam noted in his book Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States. (Cambridge, MA. 1933), that “One or more lighthouse depots are conveniently located in each district for carrying on the work of the district in the matter of storing and distributing supplies and apparatus. In addition there is on Staten Island, a general lighthouse depot, established in 1863, where many of the supplies for the whole Service are purchased and stored and sent out for distribution, and where much of the special apparatus of the Service is manufactured or repaired, and where also there is carried on various technical work in the way of testing apparatus and supplies and designing or improving apparatus.”
But by the later 1930’s, the advent of electricity had begun to transform lighthouse technology, eventually making much of the depot’s work obsolete. As increasing numbers of lighthouses switched to electrical power, the supplies and processes involved in maintaining and operating lighthouses were greatly reduced. In addition, as advancing technology reduced the need for light stations, and as keepers, lampists, and metal-smiths retired, much of the knowledge and expertise of the Lighthouse Service was lost. In 1939, in a Government reorganization and cost-cutting measure, the Lighthouse Service was absorbed by the Coast Guard, who assumed the duties of maintaining the nation’s system of aids to navigation. The Staten Island Lighthouse Depot became the Coast Guard’s Third District Headquarters.
The Coast Guard had always been a small service with a multitude of duties. As time went on, lighthouse support became an increasingly minor part of their mission and funding. Lighthouse activities and personnel were gradually eliminated from the depot and by the late 1960s, the Coast Guard had left the area for new headquarters on Governor’s Island. Although some of the depot buildings were briefly used by the New York Harbor Pilot’s Association, the site was vacated by the early 1980’s and was acquired by New York City.
Reacting to public pressure, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission declared the old Administration Building a city landmark in 1980. In 1983, several of the remaining structures were placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the “Office Building and U.S. Light-House Depot Complex.” The area was eventually selected as the site for the National Lighthouse Center and Museum in 1998. Plans for restoring the buildings and developing the site have had some limited success.
Today, much of old General Lighthouse Depot facilities that remain lie in a state of disrepair. Probably the most important lighthouse site in the country, most of the buildings that remain are crumbling. Many of the remaining structures continue to succumb to the weather, vandals, and lack of funds or interest.
For additional reading and reference: Pickman, Arnold and Wendy E. Harris. Stage IA Archaeological Survey National Lighthouse Museum Staten Island, Borough and County of Richmond, New York City. Cragsmoor Consultants. Jan. 2004.
Vogel, Mike and Candace Clifford. The General Light-House Depot Reborn. The Keeper’s Log. Summer 2014.
Old Administration Building…. Landmarks Preservation Commission, November 25, 1980. List 138 LP-1112
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2016 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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