Digest>Archives> May 2004

Memories of North Brother Island

"It Was A Nice Life"

By Jeremy D'Entremont

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Keeper William J. Murray with daughter, Lillian ...

Tom Murray of Garden City, Long Island, New York, has spent more hours in boats than he can count. He grew up the son of a New York City lighthouse keeper, served in the Navy during World War II, and patrolled New York Harbor for 25 years out of the 37 he spent as a policeman.

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U.S.C.G. photo of North Brother Island Lighthouse.

Tom’s memories of his early life at North Brother Island Lighthouse have special significance now that the building is a decaying ruin that soon might be lost forever. Recalling his lighthouse days, Tom, father of four and grandfather to six children, sums it up by saying it was “a nice life.”

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William Murray (right) as a young assistant ...

Tom’s father

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An early 1900s postcard view of North Brother ...

Tom’s father, William Murray, was born in Ireland in 1883, and came to America as an infant. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and at the age of 16 sailed to China as a crewman on a ship.

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Ruins of the North Brother Island Light. Courtesy ...

Following some time working at lumber mills in the Pacific Northwest, he returned to his home on the East Coast and married 16-year-old Brooklyn native Lillian Roden. William and Lillian eventually had four girls and five boys, including one who died in infancy. Tom was the seventh of the nine children.

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Left to right: Martin O’Connor (William ...

William Murray’s first assignment as a lighthouse keeper was Latimer Reef Light near Fisher’s Island, where he served as an assistant. He then spent an eight-month stint at Long Island’s Cold Spring Harbor Light in 1909, followed by almost eight years at Little Gull Island Light at the eastern end of Long Island Sound.

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Tom Murray with his wife, Mary, and their ...

Keeper Murray tended lobster traps at Little Gull and for a time planned to leave the Lighthouse Service for the life of a lobsterman out of New London, Connecticut. His wife went to New London for a couple of weeks, and she longed so much for her lighthouse home that the plans were abandoned.

The Murrays’ next stop was the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse on the Hudson River, followed about four years later by a move to the Waackaack Range Light Station in Keansburg in 1922.

An interesting side tale

An interesting side tale is that William Murray’s brother Thomas J. Murray was also a lighthouse keeper. From 1917 to the early ‘20s, he was stationed at Long Island’s Sands Point Light.

A neighbor of the lighthouse, the vastly wealthy and influential Alva Ertskin Smith Vanderbilt Belmont, complained that the keeper’s visitors had to cross her property to get to the station.

As a result, Keeper Thomas Murray was told he needed permission to have visitors. “He was a hard-nosed guy from Brooklyn,” says Tom. “He told her (Alva Belmont), ‘This is government property, and we have the right of way.’ So she bought the light. He was the last keeper.” Alva Belmont did indeed buy the lighthouse station at auction in 1924 for $100,000. Four years later, she sold it for four times that amount to William Randolph Hearst.

Next stop

Next stop for Keeper William Murray and his family was North Brother Island Lighthouse in 1930. Twenty-plus-acre North Brother Island, officially part of the Bronx, is probably best known for its hospital.

The City of New York moved the Riverside City Hospital for Contagious Diseases there in 1885. The hospital was converted into a drug rehabilitation facility in the 1950s, and it closed in the early 1960s.

The island is also famous for a monumental shipping disaster, the 1904 fire on the steamer General Slocum that killed more than 1,000 people on the East River. The ship eventually went aground at North Brother, and the staff and patients from Riverside Hospital were instrumental in saving many passengers.

North Brother’s lighthouse

North Brother’s lighthouse was established in 1869 to aid navigation through Hell’s Gate, the narrow and treacherous strait between Astoria and Ward’s Island. “It was a very important light,” explains Tom Murray. “It was the last light coming from the Sound, and the first light coming from the East River.”

The handsome building consisted of an octagonal tower on top of the keeper’s dwelling, similar in style to several built in the northeastern U.S. around that time, including Vermont’s Colchester Reef Lighthouse and Esopus Meadows Lighthouse on the Hudson River.

Keeper’s duties

The keeper’s duties at North Brother included looking after six smaller acetylene gas-powered lights in the vicinity, referred to locally as “bug lights.”

As he grew older, Tom would accompany his father on work trips to these lights. “It was kind of a hairy job in winter,” he remembers, “particularly going into Hell’s Gate.”

By the time he was 15

By the time he was 15 or 16, Tom was tending the bug lights by himself. “You had to nose up to the riprap at the lights,” he says. “You had to swing a rope and catch one of the legs of the lights and pull yourself up. If the tide was ripping, it was very difficult to land at the Hell Gate Light.” Landing or launching the boat at North Brother Island wasn’t always so easy either. “One time the boat got away and I had to swim after it,” Tom remembers.

Travel by boat could be hazardous in certain parts of the harbor. “Once we were passing Riker’s Prison, “ Tom recalls, “and somebody on the island fired a shot and we heard the whiz of the bullet.

“My father had a hunch it was the warden’s son. You weren’t supposed to go too close, and we gave it a wide berth after that!”

Tom Murray traveled from North Brother Island by ferry and trolley car to the City for school. The ferry crew would sometimes let Tom or his brother steer the vessel. “I thought that was kind of cool,” he says. Tom had a Scotch terrier at the light station, and he remembers that one of his brothers also had a dog and a guinea pig. There were specific rules about where the lighthouse kids could go on the island. “We were on the tip of the island, fenced off,” says Tom. “There was a hospital there. We used to get chased by the head doctor and he’d tell us to get back.”

Typhoid Mary

Probably North Brother’s best-known resident was Mary Mallon, better known as “Typhoid Mary.” In 1906, Mallon was employed as a cook by wealthy New York banker Charles Henry Warren. Six of the eleven people living in the Warren household became ill with typhoid, and the outbreak was traced to Mallon.

She was also blamed for typhoid among seven of the eight families for whom she had previously worked. The New York City Health Department eventually quarantined her in a cottage on the grounds of the hospital on North Brother Island, and she remained there until her death in 1938.

To young Tom Murray, “Typhoid Mary” was just another island neighbor. “I’d pass her going to the ferry and she’d give me an apple or an orange, and I’d take them to be polite,” he says.

Tom left the lighthouse home

Tom left his lighthouse home in 1944 to enter the Navy, and his father retired as keeper two years later. William Murray died in 1956. A Coast Guard crew ran the North Brother Island Light Station for a few years after the Murrays left, then in 1953, the lighthouse was decommissioned and an automatic light was installed on the nearby fog bell tower.

The light was eventually replaced by a buoy near the island.

Tom says it wasn’t long before everything that could be taken from the lighthouse was gone. “Scavengers took everything they could—pipes, everything.” He visited his childhood home as a policeman in 1962 and says, “It was so overgrown I couldn’t tell where I was.”

One piece of the old light station was salvaged — the fog bell was refurbished and is on display at the New York City Police Department’s Harbor Unit at College Point. The bell serves as a memorial to the unit’s police officers that have died in the line of duty.

Tom’s younger brother looked into buying the lighthouse portion of the island at one time but didn’t get too far, and the lighthouse has continued to fall into ruin.

Today

Today the tower has collapsed and the rest of the building has virtually crumbled. This is a “Doomsday List” light that appears to be sadly beyond any hope of restoration. Along with neighboring South Brother Island, North Brother is protected today as a bird sanctuary.

This story appeared in the May 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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