Of all the time worn majestic structures flashing lights for the appreciated guidance of ships avoiding dangers, there are two lighthouses along Long Island sound, which stand out. Execution Rocks and Stepping Stones can be seen atop rock islands of the choppy blue expanse, known as Long Island Sound, which is just east of Throgs Neck, south of City Island and west of the westernmost edge of Long Island.
Stepping Stones is the first lighthouse everyone encounters when entering the Sound from the East River. This red brick building was built in 1878 and looks like a miniature schoolhouse. It marks the edge of a shallow reef between The Bronx and Queens.
A top notch team of Coast Guard inspectors regularly visits these and other lighthouses four times a year to make sure all is in working order. But no one lives in these lighthouses. Solar panels and backup batteries power their navigational lights because there is no electricity inside these buildings.
On a sunny, windy day in early October, three City Islanders and Jacob Quesnell, Mike Bonifas, Roberto Rivera and Mike Cassidy, four US Coast Guardsmen from the Secaucus, NJ station set out from the dock, at Kings Point, just off the Sound, to check out these two iconic lighthouses.
Requirements are a shallow-bottomed craft with a captain who has great eyes and a careful hand at the rudder. The only point of access to our first stop, Stepping Stones is a salt-bitten metal ladder attached to the stone base of the lighthouse. In calm waters, the bobbing boat must be tethered to the base with a hook to avoid swaying into half-submerged boulders on either side of the approach. But this day, the choppy waters made it impossible and unsafe for our City Island team to leave the boat and enter the lighthouse, therefore only two electricians went inside the small structure to perform preventive maintenance. Stepping Stone is totally surrounded by a chain-link fence, with white stone quoins and a black mansard roof. Broken shells from seagulls’ droppings crunch underfoot, and weeds grow inside the building’s gutters.
The first of the two USCG officials banged on the rusty door, to apparently scare any rodents. Wrenching it open, the two went ahead, peering into the corners of the structure. The windows on the main floor of the lighthouse have long been boarded up. They inspected the bulbs, the batteries and connections and all were reportedly fine inside, so we agreed to move on to our next destination.
On the way to Execution Rocks, we passed under the City Island Bridge and watched those who are supposed to be hard at work there standing around doing very little. We took an up-close and personal look, but that is another story on another day.
Mariners usually steer clear of each and every lighthouse because they often signal shallow water or other nautical hazards, and are typically protected by rugged embankments.
But our 26-foot boat bouncing over the chop in Long Island Sound cruised straight up doing nearly 30 knots towards Execution Rocks, a lighthouse that sits by a shipping lane that leads out of the East River. As we arrived, we were impressed by the beauty of this infamous lighthouse.
The boat was a steel-hulled United States Coast Guard vessel, which nosed up against the big boulders surrounding the lighthouse, allowing the first two men to hop out. Both were first class electricians, who were conducting their regularly scheduled maintenance visits. They carried tool boxes and supplies over rocks stained white, with bird droppings. We then followed them with camera bags, tripods, and portable lights after they opened and entered the padlocked door of the lighthouse, we quickly followed.
Execution Rocks was sealed from the wind and waves, and inside was eerily quiet. In one corner of the house rested old musical instruments that no longer make sounds. In the attic hung a ghost like of an image hanging from the ceiling that will become quite appropriate for anyone wacky enough to sail over at night to say "Trick or Treat". According to folklore, the British avoided public executions in Colonial times because they would inflame the revolutionary spirit of the American people. Instead, they would carry the condemned to these reefs at low tide, chain them to rings embedded in the rock, and wait for high tide to carry out the death sentence. Some say the skeletons were left to torture the minds of the newly condemned as they faced certain death. The ghosts of the victims later had their revenge when a shipload of British soldiers, sent to pursue Washington on his retreat from Manhattan to White Plains, foundered at the reef and no redcoats survived.
Inside, a fine dust covered the entire floor. At the far end of the structure, spiral staircases wound into the tower. Finding the bottom stairs was like playing hide-and-seek in an unfamiliar house. Up in the lantern room, however, sunlight poured in through giant glass panes, offering soaring and majestic views of the Sound.
The beam occults lights every few seconds on, and then off. Checking the wiring electricians of the Coast Guard stepped up to the signal apparatus, the mechanism that powers the light, and flipped up its cover, and checked the giant, clear light.
Inside Execution Rocks, we walked through the attached light keeper’s house, which has not had a human being living there in over 30 years. We then mounted a 50 + foot granite tower via an ornate steel staircase that led to a small octagonal room with windows all around. In the center was a modern apparatus powered by a broad bank of solar panels, which sits outdoors.
The electrician removed the top of the device and inspected a series of two-ampere bulbs that seemed much smaller than one might imagine a lighthouse lamp to be. In fact, there are a few bulbs wired so that if one burned out, the next one is activated. The men then learned that the backup batteries, which were supposed to last for ten years had to be prematurely replaced. They also checked the bearings that allow the light to rotate fully every few seconds, which is what makes it appear to be blinking.
These men try to bring an extensive selection of tools and parts along on their visits because it’s not like you can run down to the hardware store if you need to purchase something.
We found the steel door to the balcony jammed and with a firm kick, it was forced it open and the group walked out onto the circular walkway, which offered broad views of Westchester County, Connecticut, Long Island and the Manhattan skyline.
Execution Rocks and the other area lighthouses are inspected about every three months, said the Coast Guard senior chief and officer in charge of the team. He and his group document any structural damage suffered by the equipment it maintains. After Hurricane Sandy steamrollered through, a coxswain found that an entire lighthouse, Old Orchard Shoal Light in Lower New York Bay, had been wiped out.
On this day, the boat was idling off Execution Rocks as Dick Sadler took these magnificent photos and Jimmy Breen shot video, which will be seen later on. Meantime, these dedicated electricians checked solar panels and batteries, as well as a fog detector, rigged to a foghorn.
Electricians work together because their job requires them to be climbing tall buoys and towers to get to lights, which is a difficult task if the buoys are rocking and when they're covered with droppings it makes the surface slippery and the ambiance just a bit smelly.
Before leaving Execution Rocks the men inspected and added water to the battery cells on a lower floor of the tower, and found that several needed replacing. They joked about the legend that the lighthouse was haunted and how it had gotten its name from accounts of British colonial soldiers executing people by chaining them to the rocks and leaving them to drown by the rising tide.
Despite its spooky history and ram-shackled condition, Execution Rocks is an interesting and unusual space. But the road to occupying it and later leaving it was rather bumpy and somewhat complicated because the waters became increasingly choppy throughout the day.
These four-man teams belong to the Coast Guard’s aids-to-navigation team, which is based in Bayonne, N.J., and maintains navigational aids from the Shrewsbury River in New Jersey through New York Harbor and up the Hudson River to West Point, as well as in Long Island Sound.
They inspect, maintain and position more than 800 buoys in waterways in and around New York City that are equipped with some combination of lights, bells, gongs, and devices that emit radar signals. Team members also maintain the navigational equipment on nine major lighthouses, from Execution Rocks and Stepping Stones, south to Sandy Hook Light and Great Beds Light in Raritan Bay.
Tens of thousands of commercial vessels pass these lighthouses each year, not counting the countless amounts of pleasure boats. We thank the men and women of The US Coast Guard for their professional service.
City Images wishes to thank the following US Coast Guard personnel for their assistance and support.
LT Karen Love Kutkiewicz
BM2 (E-5) Jacob Quesnel - Coxswain
Mk2 (E-5) Michael Bonifas - Crewman/ Engineer
EM2 (E-5) Michael Cassidy - Crewman/ Engineer- Light House Tech
EM1 (E-6) Roberto Rivera - Crewman/ Engineer- Light House Tech
Photos: Dick Sadler
Looking ahead to 2015. Long Island Sound Lighthouse Tour http://vimeo.com/115455748 #Vimeo #coastguard #lighthouse #cityisland #NYC Videography: J Breen * Producer: Roberto Soto