At one time in New York City there stood a structure called the Vesey Street Lighthouse, and the controversy of whether or not it was ever a real lighthouse may never be solved.
Old newspaper accounts from 1906 to 1909 were filled with controversy, intrigue, and mystery about the structure, a mystery that may never be solved unless someone invents a time machine. One newspaper said that the old structure was nothing more than a tavern designed for the comfort of the mariner at shore, and another newspaper reported in 1904 that Charles Hemstreet, in his book Nooks and Corners of Old New York, said it was the oldest structure in New York. But one thing is for certain; it no longer stands.
Controversy seems to have started to swirl around the structure as early as 1895 in a story that appeared in the New York Times when there were complaints about the condition of the structure, which they said was originally built in 1772 or 1773. That 1895 story indicated that the building was originally located on a small jutting point hard by a cove to the south of where the ferryboats once landed and picked up passengers on property once owned by the East India Company. But they also reported that, contrary to previous reports, the structure was never a lighthouse.
By 1895, when complaints about the condition of the structure were written, the building housed a number of small shops. At that time the property was held in a trust that was part of the estate of Joseph F. Graham, who had made a fortune in the shoe business. A newspaper account reported that on the southeast corner of the roof of the building, “there was perched a large black boot, made of wood, bearing the inscription, ‘Joseph F. Graham, The Largest Boot in the World, 1832.’ Tradition says that this boot was carried as a trophy in the pageant which celebrated the bringing of the Croton water to the city.”
Records state that the structure once stood at the corner of Vesey and Greenwich Street. At the time it was to be torn down, a 1909 New York Times story said, “The shore line of the North River was originally about where Greenwich Street is now, and up to a few years ago it was a popular tradition that part of the old stone structure on the Vesey Street corner was at one time surmounted by a beacon to guide the river-going craft.”
However, it was a reporter for the Canton Commercial Advertiser in 1906 who gave the most detailed account from some apparent in-depth research that provided, what appears to be, proof that the structure known as the Vesey Lighthouse was in fact, at one time, a lighthouse. He wrote the following account in describing the structure.
A queer old building stands at Vesey and Greenwich streets in this city. It was standing there 104 years ago and no one knows how many years earlier it was built. It was then and for two generations afterward a lighthouse to guide river traffic at night. It then stood alone on a rock out in the Hudson separated from the shore by a moat. Now it is two blocks from the river.
In 1850 the ancient lighthouse was the scene of a notable murder. A beautiful young woman was killed by the lighthouse keeper and her body secreted in the shallow cellar under the house, where the skeleton was found many years later.
In referring the fact that the structure would soon be torn down, he wrote the following:
Today this strange little stone hovel, with its darkened shops under the shadows of the elevated railroad, is in the line of the march of the skyscrapers.
When the Revolutionary War broke out, in 1776, old St. Paul’s church, now its only surviving companion of those days in this part of the city was separated from the river lighthouse by a few straggling low-walled dwellings skirting the shore of the Hudson.
The old building is of two stories and a garret under a mansard roof. In the center of the house, the wooden lantern, which held a large oil lamp that sent its rays along and across the river. It is built of rough stone crudely laid and patched in places with brick.
The story went on to say that it was amazing that the march of progress had gone on all around the old building and, while other buildings in the area (with the exception of St. Paul’s) had come and gone, this old structure that was once a lighthouse remained and the thousands who passed by it everyday never knew that it was once a lighthouse.
The 1906 newspaper story said the building was in bad shape and that the crumbing foundation of the cellar was only four feet deep. It then referred back to the mysterious murder at the lighthouse.
It was in a niche in this cellar that the bones of a woman, supposed to have been Anna Jordan were found 25 years ago. And this discovery is regarded as clearing away the last vestige of the mystery of this beautiful girl’s disappearance.
Interestingly, the newspaper gave no other details to provide closure to the story, which leaves us with a number of unanswered questions.
For example, how did they know the woman was murdered by the lighthouse keeper? Did the keeper confess? Was he tried and found guilty? What was the keeper’s name? Was he executed or sent to prison? Without some very in-depth, time-consuming research, we may never know all the answers to those questions or the biggest question of all: whether or not the structure was actually a lighthouse.
Our guess is that the structure, although not a federally built lighthouse, was in fact once used as a lighthouse of some sort. However, we have a feeling that one of our readers might know more about the Vesey Street Lighthouse than we do, or may be able to uncover more information for a follow-up story. Whatever the case; the Vesey Street Lighthouse is truly an interesting slice of American history.
Editor’s Note: We wish to thank lighthouse historian and author David Cook, who uncovered the information for this story, which would not have been possible without his research. One final note is that the St. Paul’s church mentioned in the old newspaper accounts of the Vesey Street Lighthouse is the one that has been imbedded in history and in our minds forever from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2012 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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