Blackwell Island Light

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Blackwell Island Light
Blackwell Island Light (41791).jpg
Blackwell island Light in 2017
Blackwell Island Light is located in New York City
Blackwell Island Light
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
Year first constructed1872
Year first lit1872
Tower shapeoctagonal tower
Tower heightca. 50 feet (15 m)
ARLHS numberUSA-1041[1]
HeritageNew York City Landmark, place listed on the National Register of Historic Places Edit this on Wikidata
New York City Landmark
Arealess than one acre
ArchitectJames Renwick, Jr.
Architectural styleGothic Revival
NRHP reference #72000876[2]
Significant dates
Added to NRHPMarch 16, 1972
Designated NYCLMarch 23, 1976

Blackwell Island Lighthouse, which is also known as Welfare Island Lighthouse and Roosevelt Island Lighthouse is a stone lighthouse built by New York City in 1872.[3][4][5][6] It is at the northeast tip of Roosevelt Island in the East River in Lighthouse Park. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places on March 16, 1972[2] and was designated a New York City Landmark on March 23, 1976.[5]


Blackwell Island, which was called Welfare Island from 1921 to 1973 and is now known as Roosevelt Island, was purchased by New York City in 1828. Various facilities on the island were built including a penitentiary, almshouse, city hospital, the New York Lunatic Asylum, and the Smallpox Hospital.[7]

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.[4][5][6]

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.[4][5][6] For many years, a saying was inscribed on a stone near the lighthouse:[3][4][5][6][8]

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.[9] The 1917 U.S. Coast Pilot indicated that there was a private light at the north end of the island.[10]

The light was operated until about 1940.[4][8] In the 1970s, the lighthouse was partially restored. The restoration was completed in 1998.[4]


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[11] and a 1903 movie[12] 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.[8]


  1. ^ "Blackwell Island Light". ARLHS World List of Lights (WLOL). Amateur Radio Lighthouse Society. Retrieved 17 October 2009.
  2. ^ a b National Park Service (2009-03-13). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
  3. ^ a b Ellen Rosenbrock; Ellen Kramer; Allen Burnham (15 June 1971). "National Register of Historic Places Registration: Lighthouse". New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Retrieved 17 October 2009. See also: "Accompanying two photos, from 1970".
  4. ^ a b c d e f "Blackwell Island, NY". New York Lighthouses. Retrieved 17 October 2009.
  5. ^ a b c d e Landmarks Preservation Committee (March 23, 1976). "LIGHTHOUSE, Roosevelt Island" (pdf). New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee. Retrieved 17 October 2009.
  6. ^ a b c d "Lighthouse". Roosevelt Island Historical Society. 23 June 2006. Retrieved 17 October 2009.
  7. ^ "Timeline of Island History". Roosevelt Island. Archived from the original on 17 May 2009. Retrieved 18 October 2009.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ U. S. Light-House Board (1893). Annual Report of the Light-House Board. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. p. 24.
  10. ^ Department of Commerce (1917). United States Coast Pilot: Point Judith to New York (6th ed.). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. p. 167.
  11. ^ "Lighthouse". Roosevelt Island Historical Walk. Retrieved 17 October 2009.
  12. ^ Thomas A. Edison, Inc. (1903). "Panorama of Blackwell Island, N.Y." Retrieved 17 October 2009.

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