Rockland Lake Lighthouse
Rockland Lake is a large, freshwater lake located quite close to the Hudson River, just across the river from the city of Ossining. Throughout the 19th century, it was the primary source of natural ice for New York City. South of Newburgh, the Hudson River is brackish - as a tidal estuary it contains a mix of fresh and salt water in the lower part of the valley, making it unsuitable for ice harvesting. Rockland Lake, on the other hand, was fed by a spring and remained largely unpolluted. In 1831, the Knickerbocker Ice Company formed at Rockland Lake, where it remained in operation until the turn of the 20th century. (Learn more about ice harvesting on Rockland Lake)
A large steamboat landing was built on the Hudson River near Rockland Lake to accommodate the ice trade. The need for a lighthouse at Rockland Lake was first reported in October of 1899 by the New York Herald, which noted that "many of the new steamers are propellers of such draught as to make the shoal dangerous."
On December 7, 1892, the Brooklyn Union Daily Standard reported that an appropriation of $35,000 was made "[f]or establishing a lighthouse and fog signal at or near Oyster Bed Shoal," off of the Rockland Lake dock. The brief noticed continued, "Steamers lay their course near there, making an important turning point, and it is said that the placing of this lighthouse at that point may have an effect in preventing wrecks there."
A year later, the New York Herald reported that the Lighthouse Board had completed the plans for what would become the Rockland Lake Lighthouse, to be located "1,100 feet northeast of the northeasterly end of Rockland Lake landing."
In July, 1894, the Rockland County Times reported on the construction of the new lighthouse. "The structure, when finished, will be a facsimile of the Tarrytown lighthouse, with the addition of several recent improvements." The article noted, "There is at present no lighthouse between those at Tarrytown and Stony Point, and boatmen traveling between those two points are now troubled at times to find their bearings. This will be obviated by the Rockland Lake lighthouse, which will afford them a safe guide on the darkest nights."
Before it could be completed, however, it was struck by the steam canal boat Richard K. Fox, which had four barges in tow and destroyed the wooden construction dock "together with the workshop and other buildings connected to the works." According to the August 1, 1894 report from the New York World, the steam canal boat Richard K. Fox managed to carry "away on its bow part of one of the buildings and an Italian laborer who was sleeping in his bunk." An article from The Sun on the same incident named him as Guiseppe Luigi. Other workers dove into the water or clung to the iron lighthouse caisson to escape the wreck, which destroyed their living quarters. The lighthouse workers speculated that the captain of the Fox must have been asleep at the wheel. The Richard K. Fox appeared largely unharmed, though some reports indicate she "lost her pilot house," and continued on her way to New York City. The New York World article ends with this sentence, "Hudson River navigators think the lighthouse a menace to navigation." The Sun indicates, "It [the lighthouse, upon completion] will then prove dangerous in foggy or misty weather, boatmen say."
By September 5, 1894, notice was given to mariners that the light would be lit "on or about October 1, 1894, a light of the fourth order, showing fixed white for 5 seconds, separated by eclipses of 5 seconds." The cast iron caisson was to be painted brown on the lower half, and white on the upper.
Like the lighthouses at Tarrytown and Jeffrey's Hook, the Rockland Lake lighthouse structure was pre-fabricated.
By the 1910s, the Rockland Lake lighthouse had acquired a serious tilt. Most theories blame the oyster beds under the foundation. A the time, newspapers speculated that the shoals had washed out from under the lighthouse. Later historians speculate that the weight of the structure could have compacted the shoals, destabilizing them.
Righting the lighthouse was considered too expensive a project, so the clockwork mechanism which turned the light was simply adjusted to account for the angle of tilt. One can only imagine what it was like to live there as keeper.
By the 1920s, ice harvesting was also in decline, starting to be replaced by electric refrigeration. Perhaps this decline in traffic to the Knickerbocker Ice Company Landing played a role in the decision to decommission the lighthouse in 1923. That same year, a red-painted skeleton light was built adjacent to the lighthouse before that structure was demolished. A skeleton light still exists at that spot today.
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This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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