Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2011

The Greatest Light Never Built

Lighthouses have captured the hearts and imaginations of millions of people worldwide. Only a few ever know of the human dynamics that shape their creation.

By Mel A. Hardin


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
United States Lighthouse Establishment lens ...

On November 22, 1896, the Inspector of Lighthouses for the First District, Albert S. Snow, excitedly pointed at the chart of New York Harbor on his desk in Tompkinsville, Staten Island, New York. This was no ordinary man; this Inspector Snow. He had proposed the erection of a new lighthouse that would have made city planner Robert Moses jealous fifty years later. This lighthouse no doubt would join the wonders of the world, as it would incorporate the new lens, which was in his warehouse. The new light would be called Southwest Spit and have a beacon that would reach out an estimated one hundred miles, guiding mariners to the safety of New York Harbor. Southwest Spit Light, if built, would have eclipsed the power of every lighthouse in the world at that time.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Vintage image of the Statue of Liberty. Today, it ...

Inspector Snow surely must have had the mind of an engineer who has listened well to the complaints of ship captains and the Sandy Hook Pilots and, by an account of the time, he was delighted with the logic of this bold proposal to The Lighthouse Board in Washington, DC. The only problem was that, while the inspector understood candlepower, he had little understanding of the danger that this light could cause for ships.

Southwest Spit Buoy marks the edge of a shoal and is easily identified on charts as Flynn’s Knoll; it is just south and west of Sansdy Hook Lighthouse. Charts in1896, as well as now, show Flynn’s Knoll as the confluence of three of the four busiest deep-water channels in the lower bay. They are named Sandy Hook, Raritan Bay Reach, and Chapel Hill channels. In 1896, Chapel Hill channel was the channel from Spit Buoy through the Narrows and into the upper Bay of New York Harbor.

In terms of a landsman, this was indeed the Times Square of world ship traffic. There is no doubt that this fact did not escape the attention of Inspector Snow, who told a reporter for the New York Herald, “It’s a wonder there has not been a lighthouse there a long time ago!”

Without giving the inventor of the lens, Mr. Fresnel, any free publicity, Inspector Snow referred to it as a “catadioptic” lens. It was built in France and was first displayed by the French Government at the Chicago Colombian Exposition in 1893, where in 184 days, 28 million people, about one-third of the population of the United States, had visited.

It was a first order lens, incorrectly described as being nine feet tall and four feet in diameter. The United States Lighthouse Service (USLHS) purchased the lens after the fair for $10,000, and in 1893 announced that it would be installed at a first class lighthouse on the Atlantic coast. Fire Island Light Station was to be considered to receive the lens as it was the most important light to shipping on the East Coast of the United States. After the Exposition it was shipped to the U.S. Lighthouse Depot on Staten Island. For three years what was to become the most important lens in the world languished in a crate in a warehouse in Tompkinsville, Staten Island. For Inspector Snow, having this lens in his warehouse must have been like having a pocket full of money on Saturday night with no place to go.

Years ago I met the keeper of the Cozumel Island Light, Yucatan, Mexico, who tended a beautiful fuscia-colored lighthouse with a fourth order lens powered by a 500-watt bulb. The keeper told me that in his sleep he dreamt of having 1000 watts. At that time I had just finished a very large exhibition about lighthouses and had easy access to 1000-watt bulbs. I promised the keeper I would send one via post. Back in the states I realized that the doubling of the wattage could have resulted in it being a menace to shipping, because navigators might think that they were closer to the coastline. I decided against helping the keeper boost his ego and the power of his light.

I understand how the thought of this new Fresnel lens in Inspector Snow’s warehouse would have excited his imagination. In 1893, after the lens arrived in Tompkinsville, NY, his dream must have been the same as that of the keeper in Mexico - a one hundred mile light in New York Harbor. He would have the first electrified lens in the world and his dreary life of chasing buoys that were off station would be brightened.

Bad Time for New Projects

When Grover Cleveland was inaugurated for his second term in March 1893, the country had suffered six years of depression. The enactment of the McKinley Tariff had seriously affected foreign trade, which in turn had reduced shipping. The United States was on the edge of financial panic and in March the amount of gold in the treasury fell below the amount needed for the government to meet its financial obligations. Financial panic ensued. Added to this, German naval vessels were cruising ninety miles south of Florida, waiting for an opportunity to add Cuba to their small empire.

Because of the state of the Treasury, the U.S. Light House Establishment already known for its frugality, would have to suffer more budget cuts. This must have been troubling to Inspector Snow who was after all a man with a new mission. Inspector Snow must have known about the lens before it went on display in 1893. Like any good company man, he must have also known that its assignment to Fire Island was tenuous, as there was also talk about building a new lightship to be stationed south of Fire Island Light. If the assignment by Washington had been firm, he never would have been so bold as to make the proposal in 1896 which would use the new lens for his brand new lighthouse.

The Inspector must have quietly stewed about the French and the new statue on Bedloe’s Island that had been plunked down in 1885. The French just seemingly shipped it here and now his budget had been chosen to pay for maintenance and electricity. Someone in Washington, D.C., looking for a budget line to assume the cost of maintenance, logically concluded there is a light on top so it must be a lighthouse; let the USLHS pay for it. Snow must have thought it strange that it didn’t even have a proper lens, just a blinking electric light. And they called it a lighthouse!

In late 1893, Inspector Snow had to be desperate with the responsibility of maintaining his district. In the past few years, ice floes coming down the Hudson River had been savage and relentless in moving his electrically lit channel buoys off station and dragging more than a few out to sea. It took many days, men, and buoy tenders to get them back to where they belonged. The Sandy Hook Pilots reported every missing buoy, and shipping companies also must also have complained to his boss at the Department of Treasury. As if the ice wasn’t enough of a problem, the New York Herald, on October 21, 1893, reported that the iron bolts fastening the base of the statue were corroded and were badly in need of repair after only six years.

Inspector Snow reacted much the same as any mayor of New York. There is no glory in repairing bridges; the glory is in building a new bridge. His career had been reduced to chasing buoys and now, replacing bolts in New York’s newest “lighthouse.”

These findings must have weighed heavily on his mind in the closing months of 1893. He boldly proposed a solution: shut down the light in the torch! This act would effectively remove the statue from being listed as a lighthouse and remove it from Albert’s budget. Oddly enough, this incredible suggestion drew no attention at all with the New York newspapers.

On February 12, 1894 at a meeting of the Pilot Board, the Sandy Hook Pilots and the Hudson River Pilots vigorously renounced the Inspector’s suggestion to discontinue the use of the Statue of Liberty as a lighthouse. If the now seven-year-old statue had not yet become a national symbol, it had none the less found a very private audience since its opening in 1886. The Sandy Hook and Hudson River Pilots saved Miss Liberty’s light. The torch of the Statue of Liberty is 312 feet above sea level. Pilots had used the steady flash as a marker when the fog obscured the buoys in the main ship channels. One pilot of forty years said, “…in bringing up one of the French Liners, the fog settled down and left him without a mark to guide his course except for the electric flash from the statue which was too high to be dimmed by the fog.” The Secretary of the Pilot Commissioners stated, “The loss which would result to the government if a single vessel should run aground on account of the absence of the light would be more than the sum to illuminate the statue for a year.” I would suggest that Inspector Snow’s proposal was made so that the cost of the Statue would be removed from his budget, but he obviously didn’t consult with the Harbor Pilots. This rejection must have been a big disappointment. Inspector Snow’s suggestion must have had tacit approval in Washington or it would never have been presented to the Pilot Board. It is indeed poetic knowing that it was the safety of ships, most carrying immigrants to New York, which kept the Statue of Liberty lit.

Inspector Snow’s real mission was to build a new lighthouse, and the failure to dump the Statue from his budget was a major setback. The activities and logic of Inspector Snow can be explained. Evidently at the end of the 1893 Chicago Exposition, the USLHS intended to install the electrified lens in a first class Atlantic coast lighthouse. At this time, the most valuable light to commerce was the light station at Fire Island. At some point between the end of the Exposition and November 1896, Inspector Snow must have had some inside information that the USLHS was planning to build a new light vessel to be placed six miles south of the Fire Island light. Moreover, the lens would go to the light station at Barnegat, New Jersey. He must have figured that if he could remove the Statue of Liberty from his budget, it would enhance his chances to build a new lighthouse and justify the expense with the many complaints of the pilots about the missing buoys on the channels.

The Brightest Light

In 1895, a first class lighthouse illuminated by an oil lantern could be seen 22 miles at sea. Southwest Spit would have had a coal powered dynamo (generator) to create the then still new electrical power. The lighthouse itself was a Chesapeake Bay type design and likened by the New York Herald to Thimble Shoal Light in Virginia. The foundation of the light was to be built by driving piles into the sand and then attaching iron supports, enclosed with an iron superstructure. It would have keeper’s quarters, coal bunkers, and a steam engine. The original plans have not survived and the only record of Southwest Spit Light’s design appeared in the New York Herald on November 22, 1896. One can only assume that if the inspector had chosen a design like Thimble Shoal the height would be no more than 55 feet above high mean water. Sandy Hook Lighthouse, about one mile northeast, would be thirty feet taller.

The concept of the power of Southwest Spit Light was in electricity and in its reflector. The actual light beam may only have been seen a bit more than 20 miles, but as described then, “when the great reflector is so directed as to make the high distant cloud a screen, the mighty beam of light from a powerful electrical apparatus would be seen five times the distance.”

Just a bit short of one year passed and on January 13, 1897 the New York Herald reported the findings of the committee of shipping interests at the regularly scheduled meeting of the Pilot Board:

They find that a lighthouse is not necessary on the Southwest Spit and would not be very useful, but would be an added hindrance to free navigation by the smaller and more numerous class of vessels which can now pass over its site.

The consensus was to reject the proposed lighthouse. Shallow draft vessels can use the main channel but can, without peril, move out of the deep-water channel to make space for the larger ships in an emergency. Recently I asked several Sandy Hook Pilots about this decision and they pointed out the additional possibility that the Southwest Spit Light could have been easily confused with the nearby light at Sandy Hook, making the light even more dangerous. They also agreed that the placement of a lighthouse at Flynn’s Knoll would impede smaller vessels.

While ship channels are frivolously likened to automobile highways, they have many undesirable characteristics in that they contract and expand with tides and winds. Try to imagine a normal busy interstate six-lane highway, which twice a day becomes two lanes only. The concept of a powerful one hundred-mile light was excellent, but positioning it at the junction of three channels that contain ships maneuvering would have the same effect as placing trees in an ice-rink. Collisions and groundings between the years 1893-1897 were numerous, expensive, and many times deadly. Even Inspector Snow, while being interviewed and making his point about the need for this lighthouse said:

These lights [buoys] may be sufficient under favorable circumstances; but circumstances are seldom entirely favorable. There are heavy fogs and thick smoke [sea smoke caused by varying temperatures of ocean and air] to obscure the beacon lights, and even without these they may be, and often are, obscured by the presence in the line of vision of some of the numerous craft that fill these waters. Again the electrical buoys are often run into by passing boats and the light extinguished and not infrequently these accidents disarrange the entire electric system and leave the channel in darkness so far as the buoys are concerned.

Inspector Snow had a great vision, but with his own words and previous pilot complaints, he had already recognized problems with channel buoys that were frequently moved by ice floes, set without correct bearings, or run down by maneuvering ships. But it was the Sandy Hook Pilots who recognized that an iron pile lighthouse that shouts a one hundred-mile beacon is of little use in fog, when your 30’ draft inbound ship is less than 50 feet away from a shoal. At that time a pilot may depend on whistles from an outbound ship in the same channel. A lesser draft vessel can leave the main channel and make the shallow water of Flynn’s Knoll and avoid collision if there are no obstructions such as a 55-foot tall lighthouse.

The Lighthouse Board decided against building Southwest Spit Lighthouse and the United States Lighthouse Establishment announced on June 5th, 1897 in The Sun, New York, that the coast of New Jersey would receive what would become, for a short time, the most powerful light in the world. Barnegat Light would be the lucky lady to flirt with mariners long distance. It was also announced that all the first class light stations, like the Highlands Light, those at the Capes of Virginia, and those off Hatteras, would have electricity substituted for oil as an illuminant. The electric light in 1897 was reported to be ten times as powerful as kerosene, and being reflected on the sky proved to be discernible more than triple the distance of the current oil lights.

In 1898 the new light vessel Fire Island No. 68 took station, and Inspector Snow’s problems continued. The New York Herald, February 3, 1898, reported that “The lighthouse authorities have a fleet of craft in the lower bay this afternoon as far down as the point of Sandy Hook, trying to intercept the runaway buoys and replace the damaged ones. All the ‘can’ buoys will be replaced by spar buoys, which take more kindly to ice packs.”

Southwest Spit Lighthouse fired the imagination of Inspector Snow, but had it been built, the heavy ice most certainly would have torn the iron from its moorings.

One hundred and three years later, it is still the Pilots of Sandy Hook who report to the Coast Guard that a channel buoy has moved off its station. The torch in the Statue of Liberty is still lit.

The print edition contains more photographs and information that this online edition. To order a subscription or a single edition of the Digest, click here!

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 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.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History