CONEY ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE

Coney Island has seen many flashy and amusing fads come and go over its long history, and its name conjures up images of crowded beaches, cotton candy, and roller coasters. Probably few in those crowds ever noticed the Coney Island Lighthouse sitting quietly nearby. Among lighthouse aficionados, however, it is known for one of its legendary keepers.

During the mid-1800s, Coney Island attracted a lot of famous people, including P.T. Barnum, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, and Daniel Webster. The west end of the island, where the lighthouse was to be built, attracted quite a different crowd, and was a very rough area known for its drinking, fighting, and gambling. It wasn’t unusual for bodies to wash ashore on Coney Island during those times.

The growing popularity of Coney Island meant increased ferry traffic to deliver people there. A lighthouse was needed to guide boats headed for the island’s piers, and also to direct garbage barges to their dumping grounds nearby. In 1889, Congress approved $25,000 to build two range lights at the western end of Coney Island. However, when the Lighthouse Board tried to buy the necessary land for the new lighthouse, the property owners asked for twice the estimated value of the land. The properties were condemned instead and obtained for $3,500.

The front light was an 18-foot high square wooden tower, standing on four concrete footings. That light was dismantled only six years later. The rear light was a square skeleton tower with a steel column containing 87 steps in the center. The tower is identical to the former lighthouse at Throg’s Neck. In fact, they literally took the plans for that tower, crossed out “Throg’s Neck” and wrote “Coney Island” above it. The tower was slightly over 61 feet, with an eight-sided lantern at the top. The Coney Island Lighthouse marks the rocks of the appropriately named Gravesend Bay at the Narrows, the entrance to Upper New York Bay.

Click to view enlarged imageThe accompanying keeper’s dwelling was also copied from another station, in this case the Gould Island Light in Rhode Island. Once again, they took the plans, crossed out the word “Gould,” and wrote in “Coney.” The building had two floors, plus a cellar and an attic. A shed was attached, via a covered walkway, to one side of the building, and a water cistern was built in back. A gravel path led to the shoreline, connecting the dwelling, the lighthouse tower, and the fog bell building.

The original beacon, first lit on August 1, 1890 by Keeper Thomas Higgenbotham, was a fourth-order Fresnel lens powered by kerosene, showing a flashing red light. That lens was removed when the station was automated in 1989, and is now on display at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington D.C. The beacon casts a beam 71 feet above sea level, and is visible for over fourteen miles.

The dredging of the Ambrose Channel changed the course of the currents near Coney Island, and the land in front of the station began to erode. In 1915, a 600-foot stone wall was put up for protection, but a large storm six months later undermined much of the wall. In 1918, the fog bell building fell over into the water. Another skeleton tower for a fog bell was built and surrounded by several tons of riprap.

When the station was built, the area surrounding it was mostly vacant. But by 1921 there had been so much construction that there was no way to reach the lighthouse from the shore side, and the Light House Service was forced to buy a right-of-way for $5,000.

The last civilian keeper at Coney Island Lighthouse was Frank Schubert, who began his lighthouse career in 1938 aboard the buoy tender Tulip. He followed that with time at the offshore Old Orchard Lighthouse, and then was assigned to the Army Transportation Service during World War II. After the war, he served as the keeper of three lights at Governors Island. While stationed there, his wife, Marie, and their three children lived on Staten Island.

In 1960, Schubert accepted an assignment to the Coney Island Light as his family would finally be able to live with him at the station to which he was assigned. When interviewed by New York Times reporter, Mrs. Shubert explained “We’ve gone from one extreme to another. We never used to see Frank. Now he never leaves home.” Keeper Shubert’s duties included tending the light and the 1,000-pound fog bell. When he could no longer see Hoffman and Swinburne Islands, he would turn the bell on. In an emergency, or if the power went out, Schubert said that the fog bell could be hit “with a sledgehammer.”

Schubert had other talents and hobbies to keep him busy, including golfing, bowling, cooking, and woodworking, among others. Even with all that, the family apparently seldom left the station; in a 1986 interview, Schubert said that “We haven’t been to the movies since 1946, and we haven’t taken a vacation in 20 years.”

Schubert’s wife passed away in the late 1980s. When the station was automated in 1989, he was allowed to stay on as a caretaker, continuing to climb the 87 steps to the lantern every day to perform required maintenance duties. During his years of service, Shubert was credited with saving the lives of fifteen sailors and was invited for a visit to the White House by President George H. W. Bush. He and his dog, Blazer, remained on duty until December 11 of 2003, when Schubert passed away at the age of 88 as the last of the Coast Guard’s civilian lighthouse keepers. His lighthouse career had lasted 65 years, including the final 43 years at Coney Island Lighthouse.

"The Coast Guard mourns the loss of its most courageous sentry of the sea," said Capt. Craig T. Bone, commander of Coast Guard Activities New York. "His devotion to duty and courage are unequaled."

References
  1. America’s Atlantic Coast Lighthouses, Kenneth Kochel, 1996.
  2. Northeast Lights: Lighthouses and Lightships, Rhode Island to Cape May, New Jersey, Robert Bachand, 1989.
  3. Long Island’s Lighthouses Past and Present, Robert G. Müller, 2004.

Operational Characteristics

Position 40° 34' 35.7" N
074° 00' 42.3"
US Coast Guard Light List Number 34910
Light Characteristics Flashing Red 5s
Focal Plane 75 Feet
Light Visual Range 16 Nautical Miles
Color White w/ separate White and
Brown Keepers Quarters
Sound Signal None
Sound Characteristics N/A

Coney Island Lighthouse

Last Modified 9/19/2013