bonus walk (little red lighthouse)

Kyra Sims
8 min readApr 1, 2020

A special essay for Patreon followers. ❤

I swear to God I didn’t know I’d be writing about this walk.

I didn’t record the weather. I didn’t have a destination. I don’t even know how I ended up at 181st and Riverside, watching the sunset six feet apart from the few strangers nearby. I wasn’t even listening to music- I was catching up on a goofy improvised fantasy podcast, Hello from the Magic Tavern. But that view.

That view.

The little landing lower right is where I ended up.

It reminded me of the song “Lush Life”. Specifically the recording done by Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane in 1963. It’s the only recording of that song that I trust with my life. It’s a recording that pulls on the little string in my chest that connects me back to Young Me, 13 years old, sitting in a lamplit dorm room after a day of academic camp, summer breeze from an open window, listening to the Jazz Sampler CD I’d bought for $4.99 during the camp mandated Target Run™. That recording shook me then, and it shakes me now.

I used to visit all the very gay places
Those come what may places
Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life
From jazz and cocktails.

a sleepy kyra

I had to look through my photos and posts to remember how this all started. In the park across the street from my apartment. Just wanted to get some air while the weather was nice, before the sun went down. I was so tired from having an erratic sleep schedule- a combination of my brain’s inability to slow down enough to sleep and not speed back up again before it’s time to wake up. But I made it out. I was proud of myself, and took a selfie in the warm glow of early evening.

Maybe the sun rejuvenated me. Not sure. All I know is, next thing I knew, I had walked the ten blocks to that Bridge view, then turned north and headed down to a path below I’d never visited before, following a series of ramps used by pedestrians and cyclists (some pumping up with bravado, some respectfully walking their bikes up the path). I later found out this path is called the Hudson River Greenway.

The path slipped along between the two sections of Henry Hudson Parkway, then curved around, down, and through a tunnel to the riverbank.

“Fuck the Corona Virus and Trump (smiley face)”

At this point I wondered if I should stop, turn back, explore more later. But something in me urged me to continue on forward. Maybe it was the song. Or, more likely, laziness- going back would have meant schlepping up all those steep hills I’d just walked down.

This part of the Greenway truly earns its name- suddenly I was among trees, with wild grasses and large rocks leading down to the riverbank. As I passed over a short bridge that went across the Amtrak railway, I wondered if the shantytowns I’d heard about had an entrance near here (I later found out they begin farther downtown-perhaps another area to explore someday. The entrance, not actually down below ground hahahaunless?).

Down one of the rocky slopes I saw a group of men drinking together near the water, a big bottle of brown sitting on a rock next to them. One man spoke animatedly and with his hands, and occasionally looked at me askance. Didn’t want trouble, so I moved on.

At the next outlook I walked into a weed cloud. A few people stood around here, silent. It felt like we were all trying to catch our breath. I stayed there for several minutes, watching a small set of moss-covered stones in the lapping water. I had an urge to climb down and stand on it, even though I knew it’d be slippery. Moss is so seductive.

After a few more minutes of walking down the path I suddenly realized where I was: The Little Red Lighthouse! I had been meaning to come here since I first moved uptown, but had never made it before now.

As is suggested by its name, The Little Red Lighthouse has a semi-adorable history. It started life as a little brown lighthouse- the North Hook Beacon, to be exact. Built in 1880 to serve the northern shores of Sandy Hook, NJ, the North Hook Beacon worked in tandem with the East Beacon Lighthouse and the Sandy Hook Lighthouse (which still holds the title of oldest working lighthouse in the United States) to guide ships into the nearby New York Harbor.

The North Hook Beacon in its original location (1880–1917). Some sources mention it was originally called the East Beacon, and then North Hook Beacon when the cast iron tower was built. It’s a little confusing. (photo source)

Many sources I found simply state that the lighthouse became obsolete and was taken down in 1917, but after digging up some primary sources I don’t think “obsolete” is quite the right description- the nearby Fort Hancock put in multiple requests for it to be moved, as it was right in the line of fire of their newly constructed gun battery (built to protect New York Harbor from invasion). So it seems the reason for it being disassembled and put away into storage was more military presence, not obsolescence.

Happening in parallel to the events of the lighthouse’s early days was the problem of the perilous Jeffrey’s Hook- an area several miles north up the Hudson River (near what in the future would become 181st Street), where many transport ships crashed during nighttime travel. Folks came up with some weak-ass solutions for this- first just a red pole sticking out from shore, then when that didn’t work (shocker), in 1889 they added…two lanterns. After about six years of the two-lantern system, the U.S. Light-House Board began to advocate for more adequate light and sound for that stretch of the Hudson, but after about twelve years of this the requests lapsed due to continued lack of funding (apparently bureaucracy is as big a part of our country’s history as anything else).

People finally got their shit together and erected the formerly named North Hook Beacon, now called the Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse, in 1921. Its 100-candlepower light and loud fog signal vastly improved navigation for that stretch of the river. I wasn’t able to find out when or why the tower was painted red, but it was that bright crimson color that eventually rescued the lighthouse from obscurity.

Pre-Bridge Lighthouse! (photo source)

A good ten years passed by uneventfully for the lighthouse, but then, unfortunately, true obsolescence came to call. The George Washington Bridge, built almost right on top of the lighthouse, opened to traffic in October 1931, and a few years later it gained an aeronautical beacon, rendering the little lighthouse useless.

Damn beacon. *shakes fist* (photo source)

The lighthouse kept diligently shining into the dark, tended by a part-time keeper (it was one of the first battery-powered lights of its time) for another 17 years, until the Coast Guard finally shuttered its light in 1948, and put it up for sale a few years later, in the summer of 1951.

Then, something wonderful happened. Turns out, the Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse had captured countless hearts and minds due to Hildegarde H. Swift and Lynd Ward’s picture book The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge. Author Swift felt inspired by the lighthouse when she saw its 40-foot frame beginning to be dwarfed by the construction of the George Washington Bridge, and the artist Ward created vivid watercolors based on Swift’s story and his own sketches of the area.

The story personifies both structures- the lighthouse at first proud of the work it does in tandem with its part-time keeper, losing its confidence when the great gray bridge suddenly towers over it with its own light, and then later regaining its purpose when the bridge assures it that it still has an important job to do. It became an allegory that taught children that, no matter how small they were, they still had a special purpose in this world.

Needless to say, such an important symbol could not simply be torn down and sold off. Children and adults alike from all over the city wrote in to plead the lighthouse’s case- one 4-year old boy even offered to buy it himself. Soon, the overwhelming outpouring of support had its intended effect, and the Coast Guard transferred the lighthouse to the NYC Parks Department, making it an official part of Fort Washington Park. It joined the register of Historic Places in 1979, became a New York City Landmark in 1991, and began shining its light once again in 2002. A small victory, but a lasting one, shining through the ages, and life’s disappointments.

Twilight bloomed across the river. A very small scattering of people still occupied the space around the lighthouse with me. Two women chatted on separate stones near the riverbank. Cyclists stood next to their steeds, surveying the area before riding off again. A man strolled with his dog.

I walked over to the lighthouse to get a closer look, and once I was about ten feet away I looked to my left and suddenly realized that, from this angle, I could see a giant swath of downtown Manhattan, its own towers glittering in the distance. It all seems so far away, now.

Life is lonely again,
And only last year everything seemed so sure.
Now life is awful again,
A troughful of hearts could only be a bore.
A week in Paris will ease the bite of it,
All I care is to smile in spite of it.

Let’s all have a picnic someday, under the gaze of a happy red lighthouse and its big bridge friend.

In the meantime, we will shine our own lights, no matter how small, and guide each other through the darkness.