WEST BANK LIGHTHOUSE

The lighthouse at West Bank on Staten Island was built as part of a number of improvements to New York Harbor. Construction of the 55-foot iron tower began in August of 1900. Four courses of cylinder-shaped foundation plates were first sunk into place at the lighthouse site south of the Verrazano Bridge and filled with concrete. Then workers assembled the other five sections that would form the base. When that work was completed, the iron superstructure, weighing over 67 tons, was lifted into place. The beacon became operational on New Year’s Day of 1901, showing a fixed white light from a fourth-order Fresnel lens. A fog signal was installed later that year.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1906, as the nearby Ambrose Channel neared completion, Congress approved funding for a number of lights for the new waterway. Besides the establishment of the Ambrose Lightship and the relocation of the North Hook Beacon, the West Bank Lighthouse was raised to a height of 70 feet to bring it into range with the newly proposed Staten Island Lighthouse. Two stories were added to West Bank’s tower in late 1907, between the watch room and the deck below it. A temporary light was erected while the work was being done.

The first keeper at West Bank was a lighthouse legend named Ed Burge, who for a period of thirty-four years between 1886 and 1920 manned a number of lights around the Lower Bay of New York. Burge’s lighthouse career began with stints as keeper at Twin Lights at Navesink and then Old Orchard Shoal before spending six years at West Bank. Following that, he was keeper at Elm Tree Light on the Swash Channel Range for thirteen years.

Burge brought a small fox terrier puppy with him when he arrived at the newly built West Bank Lighthouse. Like his owner, the lighthouse life quickly got into the dog’s blood, and he refused to live anywhere else. In a 1924 magazine interview, Burge talked about his dog:

You couldn’t get that dog to live ashore. Sometimes when I took him with me after supplies, he’d run down to the edge of the water and look out toward the light, and whine. If the light dimmed at night, or the fog signals stopped, he’d bark and tear around. He recognized a lot of boats, too, and would bark to the tugs he knew. I used to tie a flag to his tail, and he’d run out onto the gallery and wave signals. He always slept outside on the gallery, no matter how stormy it was, and watched the light and the boats. He was a lot of company. When I was transferred to Elm Tree I brought him ashore with me, but he wouldn’t live here. He was homesick, so I had to take him out and give him to the new keeper on the West Bank. He lived on the offshore lights for eleven years. Then the keeper brought him ashore, and he died in three days.

Burge also described to the interviewer life at West Bank – watching the lights glow at night from Coney Island and New York. Once in a while, he briefly thought about being over where the action was, but “if I had been ashore I wouldn’t have had the money to go to those places, and if I had gone the chances were that I wouldn’t have fitted in.” He also destroyed any romantic illusions the readers may have had about the exciting adventures that lighthouse keepers witness, saying, “No lighthouse keeper sees much, because when big things are happening it is mostly when you can’t see a thing…usually a keeper can’t see twenty feet beyond the tower.”

Burge also destroyed any notions people may have had about lighthouses being places for quiet contemplation:

I met a lady once who was all filled up with what she called the romance of the lighthouse. She said she often longed to be a keeper and live alone in a tower on a rock far out in the sea, and have peace and quiet. She couldn’t understand why I snorted. Peace and quiet! A lighthouse is about the noisiest place in the world. Out there on West Bank, for instance, with a gale blowing. When I was there the tower rose right out of the water, with no footing at all around it, so the waves crashed against the whole tower; shook it until sometimes the mantles over the burners in the light broke. Sometimes the waves went clear over the gallery, and the spray over the light itself.

Forty or sixty tons of water, driven by a fifty-mile gale, racing in with the tide and slamming against a solid tower of stone and iron makes it about as quiet as when two railroad trains butt each other head on. Down at the floor level, there is a gas engine pounding away, with the exhaust exploding outside, the iron plates in the tower groaning, the fog siren screaming, and the bell ringing, and up in the light a stream of kerosene burning under a hundred pound pressure, and roaring louder than gale. Nice, romantic spot - so quiet that the keeper can scarcely hear the whistles of steamers and tugs in the channel.

On December 28, 1904, Assistant Keeper Frederick Nielson was stationed at the lighthouse along with Ed Burge. It was a cold, but crystal, and a nor’east gale was ripping through the channel, blowing the tops off the seas. Suddenly, Nielson felt the tower shudder and heard the sound of glass breaking and metal scraping. The vessel Carrie Winslow, being towed past by a tug, had hit the lighthouse and torn its railings off.

Burge recalled the incident: “She tore out one side of the tower, ripped free and drifted on, leaving that gale pouring through my bedroom. Nope, I didn’t do anything heroic. A man can’t be much of a hero without his pants. I just saw that the pup was all right and the light burning, and that the barkentine hadn’t sunk, and hunted another room that wasn’t busted wide open.”

The lighthouse received over $1,200 in damage, and the ship had a large hole in its bow. The tugboat company was assigned all blame for the accident. In 1915, another ship being towed by a tug crashed into the lighthouse, tearing a section of cast iron from the tower’s base.

West Bank Lighthouse was automated in the early 1980s, when it was one of only six manned stations remaining in the Third Coast Guard District. In 1998, the beacon was converted to solar power. In May of 2007, the lighthouse was excessed by the Coast Guard and offered at not cost to eligible entities. After no qualified owner for the lighthouse was found, the General Services Administration auctioned off the lighthouse during the summer of 2008. The winning bid was $245,000.

References
  1. Northeast Lights: Lighthouses and Lightships, Rhode Island to Cape May, New Jersey, Robert Bachand, 1989.
  2. "Could You Live Alone, Like Ed Burge Did Long Ago?," Hugh S. Fullerton, Lighthouse Digest, January 2004.

Operational Characteristics
Position 40° 32' 16.8" N
074° 02' 34.1" W
US Coast Guard Light List Number 34790
Light Characteristics Flashing White 6s (RF)
Red sector light
Focal Plane 69 Feet
Light Visual Range 16 Nautical Miles on RF light
23 Nautical Miles on white of sector light
12 Nautical Miles on red of sector light
Color Brown
Sound Signal Horn
Sound Characteristics 2 Blast every 20s
West Bank
Last Modified 9/19/2013