The National Lighthouse Museum, located in the St. George neighborhood of Staten Island New York City, United States, is a newly created museum dedicated to the history of Lighthouses and their keepers. Officially opened in 2015, the museum stands on the former site of the United States Lighthouse Service General Depot.Beginning in 1799, the present site of the National Lighthouse Museum was the location of the New York Marine Hospital, also known as The Quarantine. Long before the construction of the famous processing center on Ellis Island, immigrants found to be in poor or questionable health were segregated from other immigrants and from the local population in the hospital. The Quarantine was New York City’s first line of defense against immigrant-borne infectious diseases like Smallpox, Cholera, Typhus and Yellow fever. As many as 1500 individuals could have been accommodated there at one time.
After a series of epidemics in the 1850s, a riotous mob of locals burned the twenty buildings of the hospital complex to the ground. The Staten Island Lighthouse Depot was constructed on the former hospital site in 1862 by the United States Lighthouse Service (USLHS). It was the key manufacturing, storage, supply and maintenance center for the US Lighthouse Service’s 3rd District, an area which extended from Sandy Hook to the South, Albany to the North and the Massachusetts border to the East.
Growing steadily in both size and capability during the late 1800s and early 1900s the Staten Island Depot reached its peak size during and after the First World War. Two shops were constructed to handle the construction and maintenance of Lighthouse and Museum Site 4 Lightship lenses, most of which weighed thousands of pounds and were several feet tall. Subterranean storage areas, called ‘The Vaults’ were built to store fuels and other combustible materials for lighthouses, and an entire machine shop and foundry where anchors, sinkers, chains, buoys, and lighthouse structural members were fabricated were all in full operation by the 1920s.
Advancing technology saw many lighthouses automated during the 1920s and 1930s and replaced with more reliable electronic beacons, something which heavily altered the scope of the Depot’s mission as much of the upkeep, maintenance and lighthouse keeper supply work it performed was severely curtailed. This tail-off of work was checked by the massive increase in the use of Floating Aids-to-Navigation, or buoys. The Staten Island Depot’s foundry became one of the key manufacturing and maintenance point for many of the buoys used along the US East Coast, its quayside spaces became a forest of ocean buoys, channel markers, ice buoys, day-marks and their chains, anchors and sinkers.
With the US Lighthouse Service’s merger into the US Coast Guard in 1939, the Staten Island Depot continued its work, but during the Second world war it became more of a ship repair and outfitting space as many USCG Cutters, buoy tenders and harbor patrol craft called the Depot for wartime repainting, arming and voyage repairs. Following the war, the depot continued this work in addition to its maintenance and fabrication work and by 1950 it was one of the US Coast Guard’s major supply depots in the Northeast.
Advancing technology again caught up with the Depot by the 1960s as all lighthouses had been automated with low-maintenance beacons, only two lightships were in service, and the amount of Buoy Tenders in USCG service began to drop as each ship became more operationally capable. Budget cuts and Consolidation in the late 1960s saw much of the Staten Island Depot’s workload sent to the USCG Yard at Curtis Bay, MD and by 1965 the Staten Island Depot was closed. Following a period of inactivity, the land was formally donated by the US Coast Guard to the City of New York in 1978, and several of the pier side buildings were razed to make room for a Staten Island Ferry maintenance facility, which utilized the former depot’s piers.
Today, Building 11 has been renovated and is the home of the National Lighthouse Museum Educational Resource Center. Several of the original buildings including the lamp shops, barracks and administration building still stand onsite, but are in a near-ruin state. The present owner of the site, the New York City Economic Development Corporation has awarded the development of the entire land tract to Triangle Equities. Plans for the Lighthouse Point development project include residential and commercial space with renovation and reuse of several of the site’s historic structures. The National Lighthouse Museum, the cultural component of the site development, plans to expand into Building 10 within the next five years.The National Lighthouse Museum concept was born out of the need to educate and preserve the navigational history of lighthouses, which is being lost due to modern technology such as GPS’s, Solar panels, etc. As these structures become obsolete, their desirable locations drew developers eager to build on the magnificent sites.
In the 1940s, the Shinnecock Light, on the south shore of Long Island, became unstable and U.S. Coast Guard safety concerns initiated the process of having it removed. Despite the desire of local residents to preserve the lighthouse, the iconic structure was demolished and eventually replaced by a golf course.
A similar fate seemed inevitable for the famous Fire Island Light in the 1990s, when it too was targeted for destruction and development. The local community came to the rescue and the Fire Island Light Preservation Society saved the iconic structure from the wrecking ball.
The threat of destruction of many of these fabled landmarks created a groundswell of public support for the preservation of lighthouses. The rescue of the Fire Island Light, and similar efforts around the country, inspired the creation of an american Lighthouse Coordinating Committee, whose purpose was to find a site for a prestigious national museum that would be entrusted to preserve such history for generations to come.
In 1998, the ALCC issued a nationwide Request for Proposals (RFP) for a National Lighthouse Center and Museum. Seventeen proposals were submitted from groups around the USA. After a series of presentations and deliberations, the former site of the U.S. Lighthouse Service (USLHS) General Depot at St. George, Staten Island, was selected as the winner.
The site was selected from the many deserving entries considered because of its historic significance and because of its high profile location in one of the busiest harbors in the country. The USLHS General Depot was established on the site in 1864. The Depot served as the central lighthouse technology and operations center for the entire country. In its heyday, the Depot consisted of eighteen buildings and a series of piers designed to design, fabricate and repair the components of the powerful lights that served to keep ships from harm’s way. This activity included experimentation on lamps, illuminants, and the all important Fresnel lenses.
The site’s location adjacent to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal was also a primary consideration in the selection. Millions of tourists automatically became potential museum visitors due to the location’s close proximity to the terminal.
The opportunity to have a national level museum on Staten Island and the cultural and economic opportunities of luring tourists off the Staten Island Ferry inspired the support of New York Governor George Pataki, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, who provided over $7 million to begin the renovation of the site.
The National Lighthouse Center and Museum was issued its Museum Charter by the New York State Board of Regents on November 9, 2001.