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Fort Washington Park

The Daily Plant : Thursday, September 18, 2003


Most people might assume that rain and fog would not be ideal conditions for a celebration. And, although sunshine would have been preferred, there was something fitting about the mist that floated over the Hudson River last Saturday when New Yorkers gathered in Fort Washington Park to celebrate the Little Red Lighthouse. For the past 11 years, Manhattan’s most beloved lighthouse has had one day in the "spotlight" every year, and this year was no different. Organized by the Historic House Trust and the New York Restoration Project, the free event included hayrides, a fish fry, lighthouse tours with the Urban Park Rangers, music by the Stout Trio and others, and celebrity guest readings of Hildegarde H. Swift’s The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge by Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden and Sex in the City’s Cynthia Nixon. The all-day event was sponsored by ConEdison, with additional support from Commerce Bank.

Originally named the North Hook Beacon located at Sandy Hook, New Jersey from 1880-1917, the lighthouse was dismantled in 1917 and was reassembled at Jeffrey's Hook in Fort Washington Park as a navigational aid for boats on the Hudson. As readers of Swift’s book know well, the completion of the brightly lit George Washington Bridge in the 1930s caused some to question whether lighthouse was still needed. It was decommissioned by the US Coast Guard in 1947, and plans were made for its sale and removal. Swift’s book, very popular among children, effected national outcry over the potential destruction of the lighthouse.

"Thanks to a children’s letter writing campaign, our Little Red Lighthouse was saved," said Historic House Trust Executive Director Therese Braddick. "Every year, we read Hildegarde Swift’s book and celebrate the magic of lighthouse." In 1979, Little Red was added to the National Register of Historic Places. And in 1996, it was placed in the care of the Historic House Trust.

Throughout the day, Urban Park Rangers led adults and children up to the very top which, in spite of the weather, afforded breathtaking views along the Hudson. Throughout the year, the Urban Park Rangers lead scheduled free tours to individuals and school groups. On a tour to the top, visitors learn that the lighthouse—after its reconstruction in 1921—was equipped with a 100-candlepower acetylene flashing red lamp, part of a fifth order Fresnel lens. It flashed every 3 seconds with each flash lasting 1 second in duration. However, the lighthouse was stripped of this light after it was decommissioned. Wanting to relight the lighthouse, the Historic House Trust added Little Red's name to the Coast Guard wait-list for Fresnel lenses. In 2001, the Coast Guard gave them a 300mm fresnel, running on electricity. A very close match, the light was relit last year and now flashes every night in a sequence of 1 second on, 2 seconds off.

Both of this year’s readers—Cynthia Nixon and Marcia Gay Harden—are New Yorkers and mothers. During each of the readings, children gathered around the actors on the stage and were often called on to answer questions about the book. Although the book was written before they were born, the lesson of Little Red—that even small things can be very important—still holds true.

At the event there were many other activities for visitors to enjoy, including nature activities with the Urban Park Rangers, and clowns acts. Among the many exhibitors also there were the South Street Seaport, the United States Postal Service, Alliance for the American Revolution, the Cloisters, and the John J. Harvey, the decommissioned fireboat that helped battle the fires during the 9/11 tragedy.

Of course, as the Little Red Lighthouse festival continues to grow, more people become aware of the New York City treasure. As the final line of the book says, "If you don’t believe it, go see for yourselves!"

For information about visiting the lighthouse, please contact Parks & Recreation’s Urban Park Rangers. For information about visiting other historic house sites in New York City parks, visit The Historic House Trust of New York City works in partnership with Parks & Recreation and is a not-for-profit organization created in 1989 to preserve and promote the historic houses located in New York City parks.


"We cannot tear out a single page of our life,

but we can throw the whole book in the fare."

George Sand


Directions to Fort Washington Park

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