Race Rock, New York
The "This Little Light of Mine" series by Harbour Lights are miniature versions of the Harbor Light's lighthouses.
At the eastern end of Long Island Sound, a string of islands, Fisher, Little Gull, and Plum, span most of the distance between Orient Point on Long Island and Watch Hill in Rhode Island. Through the gaps in the islands pass numerous vessels as well as a large volume of water as the tide ebbs and flows. The deepest part of these openings, known as “The Race,” is just off the western end of Fisher Island near Race Rock. There, the current can reach four knots, which contributed to the stranding of eight vessels during an eight-year-period in the early 1800s.
In 1852, the Lighthouse Board noted that Race Rock was “one of the most dangerous obstructions to navigation on the coast,” and that various efforts had “been made, and numerous appropriations expended, in endeavoring to place an efficient and permanent mark” near the location. Buoys would often be swept away by the strong currents, and spindles, two of which had been sunk eighteen inches into the rock, would only last until the breaking up of ice the following spring. $7,000 was requested that year by the board to mark Race Rock with “some material which will resist the action of the sea and ice.”
An examination of Race Rock was made in 1854 to determine “its character and the proper plan to be adopted in the erection of a beacon thereon.” The rock was determined to be a large boulder, about 200 feet in diameter that rested upon a rocky ledge and was covered by less than ten feet of water at low tide. As the rock would not permit a structure of much lateral magnitude, a “beacon” with a central shaft of iron, sunk four feet into the rock and topped with a globular iron cage at a height of twenty feet above high water, was recommended. Records indicate that this day-beacon was completed in 1856.
Still, a lighted aid was deemed necessary for the rock, and on July 28, 1866 a sum of $90,000 was allocated for the erection of a granite tower on Race Rock and an associated keeper’s dwelling on Fisher Island. This plan was based on soundings made with an iron rod from a vessel trying to navigate in the strong currents surrounding the rock. However, due to the difficulty of the proposed construction it was thought prudent to make a more careful examination of the site and to this end, an “apparatus” was contrived to provide more reliable soundings. The prior soundings were found to be inadequate as the new apparatus determined that the area upon which the tower was to be constructed was made up of not just one giant rock but an aggregation of boulders smaller in size than Race Rock itself, which made the use of a cofferdam to construct the foundation impracticable.
The Lighthouse Board came up with a new design that called for a granite pier topped by a granite keeper’s dwelling and a lantern. This plan had two advantages over the original. First, the pier would be of greater diameter and thus be more capable of resisting the pressure of storm waves and pack ice, and second, the keepers would always be at hand to attend to their duties and not located nearly a mile away on Fisher Island. This improved plan did come at a price, namely $200,000, which was quite the sum for that time.
The Lighthouse Board had $90,000 on hand from the 1866 appropriation but this sum, by an act of Congress in July of 1870, was returned to the treasury, and a mere $10,000 was provided to pursue the work.
Construction of the foundation for the Race Rock Lighthouse began in April, 1871 after congress had provided an additional $150,000 that March. F. Hopkinson Smith, a well-known and highly regarded structural engineer, as well as a painter and author, was contracted for the work. Smith's other work includes the foundation for the Statue of Liberty, a breakwater at Block Island, RI, a seawall at the Lighthouse Service’s depot on Staten Island, and the design of the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse in Florida.
A riprap foundation, consisting of ten thousand tons of irregular stones weighing from three to five tons, was completed in November, 1871. After workers noticed that some of the giant outer rocks had disappeared, Smith donned diving gear and personally examined the foundation. His fears were realized, and he had to convince the Lighthouse Board that the foundation was not stable enough to support the proposed superstructure and a concrete foundation was needed instead.
Work on the concrete foundation, which required the removal of 1,000 tons of previously placed rock, began in May of 1873. Iron bands were put in place and a circular slab of concrete, with a diameter of sixty-nine feet and a thickness of three feet, was poured. Atop this lower layer, three concentric, stepped layers were added making the height of the foundation nine feet. The top of the concrete foundation reached eight inches above low water and on this a conical pier with a height of thirty feet and diameter of fifty-seven feet was built. The pier, made of heavy masonry backed by concrete, was home to cisterns and cellars.
A shanty was erected on the foundation and Smith lived with his workers on-site during the working months. When laying the first of the foundation stones, the top button of Smith’s coat popped off, and he swore that he would not replace it until the stones rose above the water. Later, he resolved that he would not cut his hair until a certain course of the pier was finished. As a result, his hair grew until it nearly reached his collar. Hopkinson Smith later penned the fictional novel “Caleb West, Master Diver,” based on his experiences constructing Race Rock Lighthouse.
By the end of 1875, the concrete foundation was finished and the second course of the pier had been laid. The pier had ten courses when work stopped for the winter in 1876, and by the end of 1877 the pier was complete.
Although it had taken seven years to finish the foundation and pier, it took just the working season of 1878 to complete the lighthouse so it could be activated on January 1, 1879. The granite dwelling, built in a Gothic Revival style, rises a story and a half, with a tower protruding upwards from the center of its front. The tower is square at its base and octagonal below the lantern room, which was originally home to a fourth-order, revolving Fresnel lens displayed at a height of sixty-eight and a half feet.
In 1895, the Lighthouse Board reported that the station at Race Rock was of great use to vessels entering and leaving Long Island Sound, but would be of much greater user if it had a fog signal. An appropriation of $3,000 was requested for the signal, and a second-class siren began operation at the station on October 20, 1896.
During the construction of Race Rock Lighthouse, one of the boats working at the site was carrying 200 pounds of gun powder when it exploded and killed some of the workers. People had previously perished at Race Rock when vessels had run aground there, and the first keeper, Neil Martin, reportedly died at the lighthouse. These events might give some credit to the mysterious whispers and footsteps reported by Coast Guard personnel who served at Race Rock. Some keepers even reported being touched or prodded by an unseen person.
Race Rock Lighthouse was automated and its personnel removed in 1978. In 2004, reportedly at the request of the Coast Guard whose maintenance personnel continued to report strange occurrences at the station, The Atlantic Paranormal Society visited the lighthouse. Their findings, which included a chair moving unaided across a room and an electromagnetic field that moved up and down the stairs, were shown in an episode of SciFi Channel’s Ghost Hunters.
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