Blackwell Island Light

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Blackwell Island Light
Blackwell Island Light (41791).jpg
Blackwell island Light in 2017
LocationRoosevelt Island, New York, New York
Coordinates40°46′22″N 73°56′24.6″W / 40.77278°N 73.940167°W / 40.77278; -73.940167Coordinates: 40°46′22″N 73°56′24.6″W / 40.77278°N 73.940167°W / 40.77278; -73.940167
Heightca. 50 feet (15 m)
Shapeoctagonal tower
HeritageNew York City Landmark, National Register of Historic Places listed place Edit this on Wikidata
First lit1872
Deactivated1940 Edit this on Wikidata
NYC Landmark No. 0911
Arealess than one acre
ArchitectJames Renwick Jr.
Architectural styleGothic Revival
NRHP reference No.72000876[1]
NYCL No.0911
Significant dates
Added to NRHPMarch 16, 1972
Designated NYCLMarch 23, 1976

Blackwell Island Lighthouse, now known as Roosevelt Island Lighthouse, also was known as Welfare Island Lighthouse, is a stone lighthouse built by the government of New York City in 1872.[2][3][4][5] It is within Lighthouse Park at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island in the East River. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places on March 16, 1972[1] and was designated a New York City Landmark on March 23, 1976.[4]


Blackwell Island (known as Welfare Island from 1921 to 1973; now Roosevelt Island) is located in the middle of the East River, within the modern borough of Manhattan. The island was purchased by the city government in 1828. Various facilities on the island were built including a penitentiary, almshouse, city hospital, the New York Lunatic Asylum, and the Smallpox Hospital.[6]

In 1872, the City of New York built a lighthouse. The supervising architect was James Renwick Jr., who also designed several other buildings on the island for the Charities and Correction Board as well as more famous works such as St. Patrick's Cathedral.[3][4][5]

Legends abound about the construction of the lighthouse. Two names, John McCarthy and Thomas Maxey, are associated with the various legends. The 1870 report of the warden of the lunatic asylum indicated that an industrious patient had built a seawall near the Asylum that had reclaimed land. The legends indicate that an inmate of the asylum built a fort to defend the island against a British invasion that he feared. Some versions indicate that he had incorporated Civil War cannons. The legend indicates that the builder was bribed with bogus money to demolish the fort for the construction of the lighthouse. Other stories indicate that an Asylum inmate constructed the lighthouse.[3][4][5] For many years, a saying was inscribed on a stone near the lighthouse:[2][3][4][5][7]

Blackwell Island Light in 1970

This is the work
Was done by
John McCarthy
Who built the Light
House from the bottom to the
Top All ye who do pass by may
Pray for his soul when he dies.

The lighthouse was operated by the City instead of the U.S. Lighthouse Board. In its 1893 annual report, the Lighthouse Board generally praised the operations of Blackwell Island Lighthouse, but indicated that the Board had been unfairly criticized because of the City's occasional failure to keep the light in operation. The Board advocated banning private lights.[8] The 1917 U.S. Coast Pilot indicated that there was a private light at the north end of the island.[9]

The light was operated until about 1940.[3][7] In the 1970s, the lighthouse was partially restored. The restoration was completed in 1998.[3]


Maintenance of the Blackwell Island Light, including temporary removal of the lighthouse cap and gallery railings, on October 25, 2021.

The lighthouse is approximately 50 feet (15 m) tall. It is constructed of gray gneiss, rough ashlar that was quarried on the island by inmates from the penitentiary. It has an octagonal base and an octagonal shaft. There is an entrance on the south side under a projecting gable and a pointed Gothic arch. Two south-facing slit windows in the shaft light the interior. At the top of the shaft there is a band of ornamented corbels below the gallery, which is surrounded by an iron railing. The lantern is octagonal with a shallow conical roof. An 1893 photograph[10] and a 1903 movie[11] show that it probably had a much taller, steeper conical cap when it was built. The optics were provided by the U.S. Lighthouse Board.[7]


  1. ^ a b "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. March 13, 2009.
  2. ^ a b Ellen Rosenbrock; Ellen Kramer; Allen Burnham (June 15, 1971). "National Register of Historic Places Registration: Lighthouse". New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Retrieved October 17, 2009. See also: "Accompanying two photos, from 1970".
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Blackwell Island, NY". New York Lighthouses. Retrieved October 17, 2009.
  4. ^ a b c d e Landmarks Preservation Committee (March 23, 1976). "LIGHTHOUSE, Roosevelt Island" (PDF). New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee. Retrieved October 17, 2009.
  5. ^ a b c d "Lighthouse". Roosevelt Island Historical Society. June 23, 2006. Retrieved October 17, 2009.
  6. ^ "Timeline of Island History". Roosevelt Island. Archived from the original on May 17, 2009. Retrieved October 18, 2009.
  7. ^ a b c Berdy, Judith; Roosevelt Island Historical Society (2003). Roosevelt Island. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing. pp. 43, 53–54. ISBN 0-7385-1238-9.
  8. ^ U. S. Light-House Board (1893). Annual Report of the Light-House Board. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. p. 24. blackwell island Light-House Board.
  9. ^ Department of Commerce (1917). United States Coast Pilot: Point Judith to New York (6th ed.). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. p. 167.
  10. ^ "Lighthouse". Roosevelt Island Historical Walk. Retrieved October 17, 2009.
  11. ^ Thomas A. Edison, Inc. (1903). "Panorama of Blackwell Island, N.Y." Retrieved October 17, 2009.

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