The Little Red Lighthouse under the George Washington Bridge
This past weekend, the New York City Parks Department hosted one of the infrequent open houses for the Little Red Lighthouse, the adorable structure in Fort Washington Park beneath the George Washington Bridge. Visitors were invited to climb the steep spiral staircase of the century-old lighthouse and take in the views of the Hudson River. Although gentle breezes and quiet picnics draw attention away from its urban location, the Little Red Lighthouse serves as a stalwart symbol of maritime history.
Originally built in 1880, the 40-foot lighthouse guided ships from Sandy Hook, New Jersey using a 1,000 pound fog bell and a red flashing light. In 1917, the lighthouse became obsolete and was withdrawn from service.
The current light fixture at the top of the building is much brighter than its predecessor
Back in 1921, the existing navigational aids on the Hudson River were insufficient, so the U.S. Coast Guard disassembled and moved the lighthouse to its current location west of Washington Heights. But the construction of the “Great Gray” George Washington Bridge also rendered this location obsolete, just ten years after the move. Because of the sheer scale of the bridge and its construction, the light atop Jeffrey’s Hook became ineffective for any significant navigation.
Overhead view of the George Washington Bridge from the lighthouse deck
Its nickname, the Little Red Lighthouse derives from the children’s book The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge by Hildegarde Swift and Lynd Ward, written in 1942. It would be this book, beloved by schoolchildren, that catalyzed advocacy for its preservation in the 1950s.
In 1951, The Coast Guard saw no reason to keep the building if it could not help direct river traffic, and so moved to have the building torn down. In the face of public disapproval, the Coast Guard turned over the lighthouse to the Parks Department in 1951, which has been maintained and renovated it since.
The lighthouse still has its original 48 cast iron plate steps which surround an equally impressive stairwell.
Unsurprisingly, the interior lacks air conditioning and holds sweltering amounts of heat in the summer. In the name of preserving history, the park staff still uses a large brass key for access to the structure.
The brass key in front of an aged porthole-style window
View of the Manhattan coastline
The George Washington Bridge extends to New Jersey behind a New York City Urban Park Ranger
The U.S. Coast guard still checks up on the site, but through its Auxiliary civilian branch in the vessel named, Lady B. Through the many storms it has weathered, the Little Red Lighthouse stands as a living testament to history, architecture and waterfront recreation.