9. Blackwell Island Lighthouse
The Blackwell Island Lighthouse is a mysterious remnant of Roosevelt Island’s distant past. Before the slender East River island came to be owned by the city in the 1920s, it was owned by the Blackwell family and hence bore the family name. The lighthouse was commissioned by the city, not the Coast Guard, in 1872. The private tower was meant to help illuminate the New York City Insane Asylum for incoming boats. James Renwick, Jr., the architect of the island’s nearby Smallpox Hospital (which still stands in ruins) and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, designed the tower and it is likely that patients were used for labor.
The mystery which surrounds the lighthouse is that of two possible asylum inmates whose names are associated with it. Legend says that before the lighthouse was constructed, asylum patient John McCarthy was building a clay fort to defend against British invasion on the site. When the lighthouse was to be built, his fort was destroyed. Supposedly what happened next was that another patient, Thomas Maxey, a self-styled architect, mason, carpenter, civil engineer, philosopher, and philanthropist built the lighthouse tower. Despite this version of events, a plaque at the lighthouse’s base, which disappeared in the 1960s, credited the lighthouse construction to McCarthy, leading historians to conjecture that either Maxey and McCarthy were the same person or that neither ever even existed.
The lighthouse was decommissioned in the 1940s and became a landmark in the 1970s. Today the site is run by the NYC Parks Department. The grounds surrounding the tower are open to the public but the lighthouse tower remains closed.