EXECUTION ROCKS LIGHTHOUSE

These rocky reefs, 1650 yards northwest of Sands Point on the western end of Long Island Sound, carry a chilling legend of how they received their name. According to folklore, which has never been proven true, the British avoided public executions in Colonial times because they would inflame the revolutionary spirit of the American people. Instead, they would carry the condemned to these reefs at low tide, chain them to rings embedded in the rock, and wait for high tide to carry out the death sentence. Some say the skeletons were left to torture the minds of the newly condemned as they faced certain death. The ghosts of the condemned had their revenge. A shipload of British soldiers, sent to pursue Washington on his retreat from Manhattan to White Plains, foundered at the reef. No redcoats survived. The legend of the executions had such hold, that when lightkeepers were assigned to Execution Rocks, they were under a unique contract. No lightkeeper was to ever feel chained to the reef. Instead of stating a set length of duty, their contract read that their length of service was for as long as they were willing. If for any reason, they requested a transfer, it was instantly granted. Another, more benign tale of how the place got its name, comes from the settlers of nearby Manhasset Neck (Cows Neck). It tells that many ships while trying to make their way past the dangerous reef en route to Manhasset Bay were “executed” on the rocks. Built in 1809, Sands Point Light is situated close to Execution Rocks, but proved ineffective at warning mariners of the danger in heavy fog or stormy weather. In 1837, Congress appropriated $5,000 for "a revolving or double light upon the south side of Execution Rocks." Inspectors examined the site and reported that the allocated amount would be insufficient for a lighthouse, but perhaps a "light-boat" could be deployed nearby instead. This triggered some discussion of whether the appropriation applied to a lightship, but the point was moot as the funding was inadequate for a lightship as well.

A decade later, on March 3, 1847, $25,000 was appropriated to build a lighthouse directly on the reefs. The architectural design was granted to Alexander Parris, who, after reviewing the area, selected a site. However, local mariners argued for a different site, and the Lighthouse Board sent out an independent body to study the issue. They ended up recommending yet another site for the proposed lighthouse. Parris insisted that construction at this site would cost four to five times more than at the site he had originally selected. The lighthouse was eventually built at the site first proposed by Parris - the largest exposed rock on the reef.

The construction contract went to the lowest bidder, Thomas Butler, who proved to be less than capable. Subcontractors did the majority of the work, and the lighthouse was completed almost one year behind schedule. The light went into service in 1850, and was tended by Daniel L. Caulkins, who retained his previous position as keeper of the Sands Point Light as well. The Execution Rocks Lighthouse rises 58 feet above sea level, and tapers from 26 feet in diameter at the base to 13 feet in diameter at the top. The original lighting apparatus consisted of 13 lamps with red shades set in reflectors. The red coloring distinguished the light from the white light of Sands Point. In 1856, the light was refitted with a fourth-order Fresnel lens. Initially, there was no keepers’ dwelling at the rocks, though one of Caulkins’ assistants did live at the rock with his wife in the base of the tower. On April 1, 1851, William Craft took over as headkeeper, and both he and his assistant lived in the tower on the rock. Despite the tight quarters, it would be another 16 years, before a keepers’ dwelling was erected in 1867. The two-and-a-half story dwelling was constructed of granite blocks and connects to the tower. Originally painted white, the Execution Rocks Lighthouse received its distinctive brown band in 1895. A concrete oil house was added sometime between 1910 and 1920. Dense fog surrounded the station on December 8, 1918. Keeper Peter Forget had been running the fog signal since 7:00 a.m., when shortly after noon, he decided to take a lunch break. He noticed the engine that provided power to the light and foghorn was running slower then normal and decided to check it out. As he opened the door to the engine house, a wall of flames greeted him. He immediately radioed a distress signal, and New York City's fireboat ‘Cornelius W. Lawrence’ was soon dispatched.

Before aid arrived, the keepers, armed with buckets and fire extinguishers, courageously fought the blaze. They were soon helped by Navy patrol boats, and soldiers from Fort Slocum, who had jumped into rowboats when they received the call. Just in the nick of time, the troops removed barrels of kerosene from a storage unit on the verge of being consumed by the inferno. The lighthouse, though singed, survived the blaze. Fire came again in 1921, when an overheated exhaust pipe set the engine room’s roof on fire. This time, only minor damage was incurred, including smoke damage to the lens and clockworks. The lighthouse remained manned until December 5, 1979, when it was refitted with a white flashing modern optic. Sightings of ghosts on the rocks have occasionally been reported, but USCG Keeper Stan Fletcher, who retired from Execution Rocks in 1970, reassured folks that he never shared the place with a ghost. Nowadays, the only earthly visitor to the Execution Rocks Lighthouse is an occasional Coast Guard attendant performing routine maintenance.

In May of 2007, the Execution Rocks Lighthouse was excessed by the Coast Guard and offered to eligible entities through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. Historically Significant Structures was the only organization to submit an application, however, no announcement of a transfer of ownership has been made.

References
  1. Lights & Legends, A Historical Guide to Lighthouses of Long Island Sound, Fishers Island Sound, and Block Island Sound, Harlan Hamilton, 1987.
  2. Northeast Lights: Lighthouses and Lightships, Rhode Island to Cape May, New Jersey, Robert Bachand, 1989.
  3. Lighthouses of New York, Greater New York Harbor, Hudson River & Long Island, Jim Cowley, 2000.

Operational Characteristics

Position

40° 52' 41.3" N
073° 44' 16.3"

US Coast Guard Light List Number

21440

Light Characteristics

Flashing White 10s

Focal Plane

62 feet

Light Visual Range

15 Nautical Miles

Color

While w/ brown stripe

Sound Signal

None

Sound Characteristics

N/A

Execution Rocks

Last Modified 9/19/2013