Digest>Archives> July 2010

Collecting Nautical Antiques

General Lighthouse Depot, Tompkinsville, Staten Island, New York

By Jim Claflin

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I just picked up this wonderful image that I hope you enjoy as much as I. The image was taken at the turn of the century and was hand colored, showing in wonderful detail one of the piers at the U.S. Lighthouse Service Depot in Thompkinsville on Staten Island, New York.

Moored at the pier can be seen Lightship No 16, used as Relief in New York waters. The lighthouse visible on the pier has no lens and may have been used to evaluate lamps, oil, lens apparatus, etc. Note the lighthouse lantern sitting on the pier beside the lighthouse. In the background can be seen a lighthouse tender (note the walking beam of the steam engine), as well as buoys and other equipment.

Lighthouse Service Commissioner George R. Putnam noted in his book Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States. [Cambridge, MA. 1933.], that “One or more lighthouse depots are conveniently located in each district for carrying on the work of the district in the matter of storing and distributing supplies and apparatus. In addition there is on Staten Island, a general lighthouse depot, established in 1863, where many of the supplies for the whole Service are purchased and stored and sent out for distribution, and where much of the special apparatus of the Service is manufactured or repaired, and where also there is carried on various technical work in the way of testing apparatus and supplies and designing or improving apparatus.”

In 1864, the warehouse building was completed, and work soon began on the Lamp Shop, which would be completed in 1868. The Administration Building was completed the following year. In some cases entire lighthouse structures were constructed here to ensure that their parts fit properly, and then were disassembled and transported to their intended site. Such was the case with a 45 foot tall “spark plug” style lighthouse, constructed here in 1897. After ensuring that the structure was properly fitted, it was removed and placed on Romer Shoal reef in Ambrose Channel.

Each district was also provided with one or more light-house tenders for the purpose of distributing supplies to the various stations and light vessels and for transportation of materials for construction or repair, for the placing and care of the buoyage system in the district.

Growing steadily in both size and capability during the late 1800s and early 1900s the Staten Island Depot reached its peak size during the First World War. Two additional shops were constructed to handle the assembly and maintenance of lighthouse and lightship lenses, many of which weighed thousands of pounds and were several feet tall. Subterranean storage areas, called “The Vaults” were built to store fuels for lighthouses, and an entire machine shop and foundry where anchors, chains, buoys, and lighthouse structural members were fabricated were all in full operation by the 1920s. During this time the Lighthouse Depot employed some 200 men.

However, as advancing technology reduced the need for light stations, and as keepers, lampists, and metal smiths retired, much of the knowledge and expertise of the service was lost. By 1939 the Coast Guard had assumed the duties of the Lighthouse Service. The depot became the Coast Guard’s Third District Headquarters, but lighthouse support soon became an increasingly minor role.

In 1968, the Coast Guard abandoned the old depot on Staten Island and today the old General Lighthouse Depot lies in a state of disrepair. Probably the most important lighthouse site in the country, the buildings that remain are crumbling. Recent plans for a lighthouse museum on the site seem to have fallen by the wayside as the site continues to succumb to the weather, vandals, and lack of funds or interest.

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Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service,

Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at:

www.LighthouseAntiques.net

This story appeared in the July 2010 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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