From Lake Erie to Montauk Point, State Parks are home to seven historic lighthouses. Plan a trip to visit one of these lighthouses.
President George Washington commissioned the building of the limestone Montauk Point Lighthouse in 1792 because of the dangerous shallow waters found off Long Island’s eastern South Shore; the lighthouse was completed in 1796. Located in Montauk Point State Park, the Montauk Lighthouse continues to help provide safe navigation for ships sailing up and down the eastern seaboard and for ships arriving from across the Atlantic. It is the oldest lighthouse in New York and the fourth oldest lighthouse in the nation.
The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 saw a large increase in boat traffic on the Hudson River and the need for more aids to navigation along the Hudson River. Built in 1826, the lighthouse at Stony Point was the first lighthouse on the Hudson River. It was built by New York City resident Thomas Philips a point of land south of Bear Mountain in the Hudson Highlands. For 100 years, the eight-sided, blue split stone lighthouse helped ships navigate the Hudson River before it was replaced by a steel tower in 1926. Look for the lighthouse in Stony Point Battlefield State Historic Site.
In the mid-1820s, as commerce increased along the Erie Canal and through the Great Lakes, so did the need for lighthouses on the Great Lakes. Winds along the eastern shore of Lake Erie can be quite strong and boats needed safe harbors to protect them from these winds. One safe harbor between Erie, Pennsylvania and Buffalo, New York was Portland Harbor (now known as Barcelona) in the town of Westfield. In 1828 the US Congress commissioned the Portland (Barcelona) Lighthouse to serve as a guide to Portland Harbor. The lighthouse was made of native fieldstone. Completed in 1829 it was the first natural gas lighthouse in the country, using natural gas that was piped in by “wooden conductors from the fountain head, a distance of about a half a mile.”1 The lighthouse ran for 40 years until it was decommissioned in 1859.
The first lighthouse on Horse Island, outside the busy navy port at Sackets Harbor, was built in 1831 using the common practice of erecting the lighthouse on top of the keeper’s house.
John McNitt, the hero of the second battle of Sacket’s Harbor, served as the lighthouse keeper until 1841. His nephew Samuel McNitt, who was also at the second battle of Sacket’s Harbor, served as lighthouse keeper from 1844 to 1860. In 1870, a new brick lighthouse and keepers home was built, replacing the rundown 1831 building. In 1899, the height of the lighthouse was raised from 45-1/2 fee to 55-1/2 feet to enable ships to see the light at a greater distance The lighthouse was automated in 1926 and a metal tower automated light replaced the lighthouse in 1957.
In 1847, the US Congress allocated $6,000 to build lighthouses on three islands in the St. Lawrence River to help ships navigate through the Thousand Islands. One of those islands was Rock Island. The brick lighthouse was first lit in 1848. In 1894, the US Lighthouse Board (Lighthouse Board) raised the lighthouse five feet to increase the visibility of the light, which was being blocked by the lighthouse keeper’s house and trees on the island. However, raising the lighthouse did not increase visibility, so the Lighthouse Board built a brick platform on the north side of the island and moved the lighthouse to the platform in 1903. The light was decommissioned in 1958 after over 110 years of service. You can tour Rock Island Lighthouse State Park from mid-May to early October and you will need to take a boat to get there.
Thirty Mile Point, or Golden Hill, is 30 miles east of the mouth of the Niagara River. It is the northernmost point of land along New York’s of Lake Ontario shoreline. Just offshore from 30 Mile Point, shifting sand bars make navigating these waters a challenge for ships passing by. In 1872 the Lighthouse Board recommended that a lighthouse be built at 30 Mile Point and in 1873 US Congress authorized the purchasing of land and the construction of a lighthouse. The limestone lighthouse was completed in 1876 and ran until 1958. If you are looking for an out of the way place to stay, lighthouse keeper’s house is available to rent year-round.
Fort Niagara, at the intersection of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, was the site of the first lighthouse in the Great Lakes. The British Army built it in 1781 on top of the French Castle, the French trading post and fort built in 1727. The light was used to mark the mouth of the Niagara River, where cargo was offloaded and shipped overland to Lake Erie. The lighthouse keeper did not live in the French Castle, his house was about a quarter mile away.
The opening of the Erie and Welland Canals in the 1820’s reduced ship traffic bound for the Niagara River. In April 1855, a tornado damaged buildings at the fort. The damages were repaired later that year. Despite the repairs, the French Castle fell into disrepair in the middle to late 1860’s. In 1868, the Lighthouse Board reported that:
“the wooden tower stands in the old block-house now used for officers’ quarters, and is so old and out of repair as to let in the snow and rain in stormy weather. Last winter the roof of the building took fire from a spark from one of the four chimneys which surround the tower. The danger of having the valuable lens destroyed by an accident of this kind, and the inconvenience of using the stairway and passages of the officers’ quarters as a thoroughfare for the supply of the light, make it expedient to erect a new tower, (the old one not being worth repairing,) in a safer and more convenient position. The floors and plastering of the keeper’s dwelling and the fences require repair. The barn is in a ruinous state, and should be removed or rebuilt.”
US Congress appropriated $16,000 in 1871 for a new lighthouse at Fort Niagara. Because the Lighthouse Board could not find a good location for the lighthouse in the fort, the limestone lighthouse was built next to the lighthouse keepers house along the eastern bank of the Niagara River.
The lighthouse was replaced by a light on a nearby radio tower in 1993 and the light was decommissioned the same year.
Occasionally, staff from Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site lead programs and events in the lighthouse.
1 New-York evening post., July 14, 1830, Page 2
Sources and additional reading
Historic Lighthouses and Light Stations in New York
Important Dates in United States Lighthouse History
Marinas.com Lighthouses of New York, aerial views of Montauk Point, Rock Island, Stony Point, and Thirty-Mile Point Lighthouses
The Schenectady cabinet., February 15, 1826, Page 2
University of North Carolina, Lighthouses of the United States: Downstate New York
University of North Carolina, Lighthouses of the United States: Upstate New York
US Lighthouses, information on Barcelona, Fort Niagara, Montauk Point, Rock Island, and Thirty-Mile Point lighthouses.