In 1648, Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch Director General of what would become the city of New York, ordered construction of the Manhattan’s first wharf; it was built on the East River. Entry into the harbor was tortuous, with its many bends and shallows. A fully loaded vessel frequently had to wait for high tide before making its way to the Narrows and into the harbor. Vessels bound for the port from the south, via Jersey’s Along Shore Channel, were warned that the maximum depth, at some points, was barely 10 feet.
Marine surveyor Thomas Gedney, in 1808, located a deeper channel. Named after him, depth of the Gedney Channel was approximately 23 feet at low tide and 35 feet at high tide. By the end of the 1700s, growth of the harbor was phenomenal. It had become a major site for shipping wheat to Europe and the West Indies. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, New York became the most important port in the Western Hemisphere. But larger ships navigating the Gedney, all too frequently ran aground.
In 1881, a well-known New York contractor John Wolfe Ambrose began to lobby for a wider, deeper and more direct channel into city’s harbor. He argued that 66 percent of the nation’s imports and 56 percent of its exports passed through the port. He proposed dredging a 2,000-feet wide, 40-feet deep channel leading from the Atlantic to the port. In 1899, federal funding was approved for the project but Ambrose never saw its completion. He died a few months later but the waterway was named after him.
RMS Lusitania, in 1907, was the first large vessel to enter the harbor via the new Ambrose Channel. First launched a year earlier, the 787-feet long passenger ocean liner would gain much greater notoriety on May 7, 1915 when it was torpedoed by a German submarine. Within 20 minutes, the British ship went to the bottom, taking the lives of 1,313 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans. Its sinking hastened the entrance of Americans into World War l.
Marking the channels leading to New York City, at least three lightships and 17 lighthouses once served mariners navigating in and out of the harbor. Ambrose Lightship, the last of its kind, was discontinued in 1967. It was replaced by a 76-feet tall Texas-like Tower. In October 1996, a Greek oil tanker Aegeo struck the tower. Repairs were made, but when they were deemed inadequate, the tower was demolished and replaced by a new one.
Variously situated in reach of the open ocean, the area’s lighthouses and lightships were always at the mercy of Atlantic storms. In September of 1960, Hurricane Donna had severely weakened Texas Tower 4, a Surveillance (military early warning system) Radar Station some 63 miles southwest of Long Island. Four months later, the tower was completely toppled in a winter storm. It is a wonder that none of the city’s lighthouses or lightships were destroyed until Hurricane Sandy, on October 29, 2012
During the late 1800s, winter ice frequently forced vessels to hug the Staten Island shoreline. Their course however, took them very close to Old Orchard Shoal’s dangerous shallows. Buoys were installed to mark the site, but ship operators found them to be insufficient. Congress thus appropriated $60,000 to erect a lighthouse on the site. It also funded rebuilding of the Waackcaack iron skeleton tower (Keansburg, New Jersey), to form a range between the two. The 51-feet tall Old Orchard Shoal Lighthouse, built in the commonly used “spark plug” style, became operational on April 25, 1893.
Old Orchard Shoal’s first head keeper, Alfred Carlow, had served aboard the Sandy Hook and Scotland lightships prior to his new assignment. Life however, in the confines of the lighthouse was apparently very difficult for him. In 1902, he was admitted to the U.S. Marine Hospital in New York, suffering from “nervous exhaustion.” Carlow was hardly the only lighthouse keeper to become overwhelmed by a lighthouse’s endless isolation. Assistant keeper Nils Nelson, stationed at the Southwest Ledge Lighthouse (New Haven, Connecticut), had an exemplary career prior to his reassignment to Southwest Ledge. He had been awarded a medal by Congress for his daring rescues from a Rhode Island lighthouse, but something went wrong at his new station. Over a period of several months, he became very moody and prone to unrestrained anger. After a couple of incidents, Nelson went to shore where he took his own life.
\Frank P. Schubert is possibly the best know lighthouse keeper that served at Old Orchard Shoal. His career with the lighthouse establishment, which began in 1938, was interrupted by military service during World War ll. But at the end of the conflict, he returned to tending lighthouses. After serving at various lighthouses, he was assigned for three years at the Old Orchard Shoal Light. Then, in 1960, he was reassigned to the Coney Island Lighthouse. He remained there even after it was automated in 1989. When he passed away at age 88, he was the Nation’s last civilian keeper.
Old Orchard Lighthouse was equipped with a fourth-order Fresnel lens that produced a white beam toward the southeast. It showed for 11 seconds and went dark for 4 seconds. In 1896, the lighthouse was then provided with a fog signal. During its operation, a long list of head keepers and assistants were assigned to the light for periods of 1 to 3 years. Along with their lighthouse duties, they remained on the lookout for sports fishermen or other boaters that might find themselves in trouble, especially during a storm. Typically, after a rescue, they housed and fed their unexpected guest until they could get them back to shore.
The lighthouse was automated in 1955. No longer requiring keepers, as usual, the U.S. Coast Guard personnel continued to maintain it until 2007, when it was declared as surplus. The General Services Administration put the light up for auction. It was then sold on August 27, 2008, for the bid of $235,000.
In late October of 2012, Hurricane Sandy originated in the Caribbean. Making its way across eastern Cuba, it headed up the Atlantic Coast. As it moved north, it was accompanied by a huge storm surge, especially along the coast of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Water levels on parts of Staten Island reached nearly 8 feet above ground level. Old Orchard Shoal Lighthouse, located in new York’s Lower Bay, just off Staten Island, was struck by 80 mph wind and 32.5-foot waves. The lighthouse was swept away leaving only concrete and stone riprap foundation. The October 29th storm took the lives of 44 people in New York City.
Since it was automated, there was no loss of life at Old Orchard Shoal, but the Great 1938 Hurricane was responsible for the loss of the Assistant Keeper Walter Eberle, at Rhode Island’s Whale Rock Lighthouse. Alone at the light while the Head Keeper was ashore picking up supplies, neither one was unaware of the approaching storm. During the height of the hurricane, wind and waves swept away the “spark plug-shaped light, taking the life of a father of six children. Similar to Old Orchard Shoal Lighthouse, its stone riprap foundation is a reminder of its former presence.
Boaters can view the remains of Old Orchard Shoal Light, some two miles southeast of Staten Island’s Crook Point, near the entrance to Great Kills Harbor. Whale Rock’s remains are located in the “bay,”at the entrance of Narragansett Bay’s West Passage, about one mile southwest of the Beavertail Lighthouse.
Experienced Scuba divers wanting to explore the sunken Texas Tower 4, located at Latitude 39 41’ 59.99”N, Longitude 72 39’59.99”W, should consider making the trip aboard a properly licensed charter boat. The bottom of the wreck lies at a depth of 185 feet of water; the top of the wreck is at about 105 feet. It is one of the more interesting coastal Atlantic wrecks.