As the waters of Long Island Sound move past King’s Point and swing around Throg’s Neck on the mainland, they turn due east past Willets Point on Long Island and become the East River.
Prior to 1850, a congregation was formed and a church was built on the south shore. It was called White Stone Chapel after a very large white boulder on the beach that was visible from a great distance. When the area incorporated into a town in 1869, it took its name, “Whitestone,” from those two famous landmarks.
Just twenty years later, on the promontory that overlooked the boulder near where present day Clintonville Avenue ends at Powells Cove Boulevard, the Lighthouse Board erected one of the most unusual lighthouse structures ever built in America. There were similar structures to Whitestone Point, such as at Hell Gate, just a few miles to the southwest of Whitestone; and one on the Hudson River at Gee’s Point, the rock reef at the south end of West Point, home of the US Military Academy. Interestingly, historian Vincent Seyfried claims in his 1991 book Old Queens, New York that the minor lights at Rikers Island and Flushing Bay were of the same design, but photographs of those structures have been elusive, and none may exist.
Whitestone’s tower raised a fixed white beacon, shining from a 6th order Funck lamp thirty-six and one-half feet above mean tide. A low bluff rounds the point and overlooks a narrow strip that was called Dandy Beach when the light was first erected. A platform built into the hillside was leveled by front concrete piers which rested on a fieldstone and mortar beach-retaining wall. On the platform stood a two-and-one-half story square pyramid wooden tower. The bottom floor, white painted clapboard, housed a workroom and oil storage tank. The second floor, which had natural wood shingles and circular openings on each side, housed a fog bell that was mechanized to strike a quick double blow every thirty seconds. Above the bell was a half story lantern room. Straight ladders led to trap doors between each floor. The tower was 15 feet square at the base and 6 feet square at top.
Unfortunately, this unique structure only lasted for nineteen years. Had it been saved, it probably would be one of the most cherished architectural treasures of modern day Queens. But alas, it was replaced in 1908 by a black skeleton tower on top of a white oil tank resting on a black concrete base. That raised the beacon 48 feet above sea level. After 1917, those structures were moved to a man-made crib built atop the off-shore reef, approximately twenty-five yards east-south-east of the original warning light. The new off-shore tower shone a steady green beacon, powered by electricity from a 2700cp, 375mm lantern. That tower was replaced in 1934 and downgraded to a 200mm lens. The replacement lasted until the 1990s when the station was completely automated. Between then and the 21st century, the keepers’ bridge was removed.
The current tower is a black steel skeleton cylinder with black and white diamond day mark panels just below the beacon, shining from 56 feet above the river. It stands next to a small, white, square, flat-roofed iron building that once housed oil cans and a work room with an emergency shelter for the keeper. There is now an electronic fog whistle which sounds every 15 seconds, when needed.
What a shame that the three beautiful light towers that once guarded this east-west section of the East River are now all gone: the rooftop tower on the graceful Second Empire house on North Brother Island, the conical red brick tower at Throg’s Neck, and this unique combination fog bell/light tower on Whitestone Point.
Keepers of Whitestone
Because, most the keepers at Whitestone Point were apparently never employees of the Lighthouse Board or the U.S. Coast Guard no names are listed on the National Archives’ Keeper Payroll Files. Usually keepers who were employees but did not live in government housing and have responsibility for the care and upkeep of a complete “station,” were called “lampists” or “lampman.” Keepers like those at Whitestone, who were not full-time government employees and who lived in their own homes, were called “laborers,” if they appeared in any records at all. For that reason, finding any information about those who cared for Whitestone, has been extremely difficult. Also for that reason, lighthouse authors and researchers have generally believed that Whitestone was completely automated and de-manned in 1908 when the second tower was built, or in 1917 when the first off-shore tower was built. In fact, though electrified in 1908 (with a back-up IOV lantern), contract keepers still switched the power on and off as needed, all the way until true automation in 1990 when Catherine Straub passed away. We thank Judith Todman, the Queens Public Library Archivist, for her help with research, and especially Steven, Catherine (DiPaola) and Timothy Straub, the children of keepers Victor and Catherine Straub, for their recollections and photos.
On Oct. 29, 1895, while walking to the light tower to extinguish the lamp in the early morning, Keeper O’Connor discovered the mutilated body of a man wearing nothing but a t-shirt. According to the report in the New York Times printed the following day, “The right leg had been pulled from the socket at the hip joint. The left arm was broken, half of the head above the ears was gone, and there was a gash in the back. The face from the mouth up was gone.” So much for the “romanticism” of a keeper’s life. It was not possible to determine if the man had been murdered and the body mutilated to make identification impossible, or if the man had somehow fallen off a boat, or had been in the water already and been dragged into a paddlewheel.
According to a July 22, 1901 article in the Brooklyn Eagle, O’Connor himself drowned while swimming. The tide was too strong and held him down.
As of this writing, there is still a big gap in the history of the light station and it is unknown who the keeper or keepers of Whitestone were from 1901 to 1951. However, something is known about the last keepers from 1951 and beyond.
Victor and Catherine Straub
1951 to 1990
Victor Straub was born in College Point, New York in 1924 and died in Spring Hill, Florida on October 1, 2001 at 77 years of age. He lived in Whitestone most of his life, until he retired from his full-time job as a maintenance engineer in the public schools. Straub was a WWII Navy veteran (Fireman 1st Class, 1944) who became a fill-in “lamp-lighter” for the U.S. Coast Guard in 1951, caring for the lenses and manually turning the mechanism that struck the fog bell on and off as needed. His wife, Catherine Elizabeth Graham, was the daughter of a Scottish immigrant family, born in Queens two years after Victor (1926). Their children do not remember for sure whether their parents were not yet divorced or just separated in the late 1960s, but they moved into a second home, a few blocks from their father. Some of the children lived with each parent, sometimes switching back and forth, and not generally undergoing any significant upheaval. In spite of the family breakup, the three children I spoke to remember a happy home and the thrill of going to visit the lighthouse with their parents. They had an access, that none of their friends had, to the best fishing spot on Whitestone Point.
Spending so much time at the light, Victor decided that he had learned the river well enough to open a marina, rent boats, and guide fishermen. Strictly for row boats and outboard engine dinghies, the small marina was just a few blocks east of the off-shore light tower. Like caring for the tower, the marina was a family affair. Obviously, the breakup was reasonably amiable, as Victor continued to work full time for the local schools and to help Catherine out as needed at the marina, which became her primary source of income after the divorce. The children didn’t know how much the Coast Guard paid, but generally in those years, lampists made $500 per year. That would obviously have increased significantly as the 20th century passed, but you can be sure that it was never enough to support a family.
Stephen Straub recalled that all of their supplies came from a U.S. Coast Guard Station at Fort Totten on the inner shores of Little Bay, a couple of miles farther east, opposite the river gate at Throgs Neck. (The station had replaced the one on Throgs Neck when the State of New York took that point over and turned it into the State University Maritime College.) Tim revealed that each year, when it came time to paint the access bridge, railings, oil building, and tower, they always requisitioned the paint from Fort Totten. Because the Coast Guard could not say how many layers of paint were going to be required to cover that particular winter’s wear and tear, the Straubs always ended up with a freshly painted marina.
Tim Straub believes that it was about 1955 when his father first began caring for the Whitestone tower, although other records indicate 1951. According to Stephen Straub, “My father, Victor F. Straub, was building a house at 244 149th Street and was approached by a Coast Guard representative, regarding my father’s interest in becoming the (full time) light house keeper. Dad told me that he was singled out because of the location of the new house. Except when there were heavy leaves on the trees, the light of the lighthouse could be seen from a second floor bedroom. This room later became my room and as a child I was asked to check the light almost every night. Our house was a few blocks from the East River, and whenever it was damp or rainy weather my siblings and I were asked to walk down to the river and look out across the river. If we could not see the other side because of the fog, we would turn on the fog bell for which there was a switch box up on the street. There was also an easement between two homes so that the lighthouse keeper could get to the beach and walkway leading to the lighthouse.
There was a small wooden house on a concrete platform that was only two rooms with a pot belly stove. This little building was removed about 1960. (It has since been replaced.) My mother, Catherine Straub, not only did all the paper work for the light but also did most of the maintenance on the dock and the light tower. Every year, she scraped the rust off the tower and painted both that and the 400 foot wooden railing of the dock. About 1963 a large boat hit the dock and caused a lot of damage. The Coast Guard did not repair it but removed most of the dock. From that date the only way to get to the light was by boat. There was a small row boat kept on the beach just for that purpose. In those days, the responsibility of the lighthouse was pretty loosely spread out. Not only did my whole family help out but so did some of my father’s friends. Bobby Hessler, Bob Gates and Fred Stien would from time to time be called to change the light when it burned out. I myself changed it a half dozen times. About 1985, after 30 years of being the keeper of the light, my father retired from the job. My parents were divorced and my mother applied for the job and was successful. She kept doing the paperwork and taking care of the fog bell until her death in 1990.”
The obituary of Victor F. Straub, who died at the age 77 on October 1, 2011, stated that he died at his Florida home. “He was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and moved to this area seven years ago from Elisaville, New York. He retired as a maintenance engineer with the New York City School System, was a World War II U.S. Navy veteran, a life member of VFW Post 8681, and a member of American Legion Post 186 and St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, Spring Hill. Survivors include five sons, Victor, Steven, Frank, Timothy and Daniel, all of Long Island, N.Y.; two daughters, Rita Blundel and Catherine DiPaola, both of Spring Hill; 13 grandchildren; and 4 great-grandchildren.” Interestingly, his obituary never mentioned his lighthouse duties.
Editor’s Note: This story is excerpted from an unpublished manuscript, The Lighthouses of New York City’s East River Gateway © 2011and used by permission of its author David E. Cook.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 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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