Blackwell Island Lighthouse (Lighthouse Park)

Location: Roosevelt Island, northern tip

Date of Visit: March 21, 2017

Blackwell Island Lighthouse, with Manhattan in the background.
Blackwell Island Lighthouse, with Manhattan in the background.

Sometimes, do you ever grow tired of New York’s trademark hustle and bustle? Officially a part of the Borough of Manhattan, Roosevelt Island is presently advertised as the ability to escape the heart of Manhattan Island and into a more subdued, suburban-esque area of the city. North of the tram, Roosevelt Island is quiet with only the noise of rushing seawater, wind, birds, and occasional bus. At the northern tip is one of Manhattan’s most serene sanctuaries: Lighthouse Park, home of the Blackwell Island Lighthouse.


History surrounding this lighthouse is very inconsistent. James Renwick, Jr., who designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral, was the architect for the Blackwell Island Lighthouse. Who built it remains a mystery. In 1870, the warden from a nearby mental hospital allegedly reported that a patient reclaimed some land at the tip of the island and built a fort, fearing a British invasion. Legend has it that either the patient was bribed to destroy the fort and replace it with the lighthouse or that a Lunatic Asylum inmate built it.

Hell Gate, a strait separating Wards and Long Islands, was considered dangerous for travel because of the rocks that protruded out of the water and tide-affected currents. With Roosevelt Island (then named Blackwell Island and Welfare Island in 1921) right in between Manhattan and Queens and in the middle of the East River, navigation became really dangerous, especially at night. Therefore, the city commissioned a lighthouse to help ships navigate to and fro New York. Construction broke ground in 1872 and was completed later that year. In 1972, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and became a city landmark four years later.

Building & Atmosphere

The fifty-foot-high lighthouse shows its age. Some moss grows from the left side of the door jam, absorbing the moisture from the humid sea air. Beneath the gallery, the stone structure marbled in coloring with lots of gray tones, including white drip stains under the balcony. Small cracks are visible underneath the rail and on the walls.

Yet, these traits give it its character. For nearly one and a half centuries, it stood on the island’s northern corner. Until 1940, it warned ships of incoming land and the hospitals behind it. During New York’s dark ages in the 1960s and 70s, it decayed, only being restored less than twenty years ago. Years of gusts, saltwater, graffiti, and inclement weather pounded on the stone, but it survives. Each crack, leaf, discoloration, and lock on the door tells a story of Roosevelt Island’s years, both today and over a century ago.

Vicki Holland memorial plaque.
Vicki Holland memorial plaque.

Until Rikers Island opened in 1935, the majority of the mentally ill spent most or the rest of their lives being confined into hospitals, including the Lunatic Asylum, Smallpox Hospital, City Hospital, and prisons. Corruption corroded every hospital, and the residents were forced to live under vile conditions. Today, Roosevelt Island has one hospital: Coler Goldwater just south of Lighthouse Park.

The most interesting part of the park, however, is not merely the lighthouse itself, but the copper plaque beside it. Vicki Holland was a polio patient at one of Roosevelt Island’s old hospitals and eventually became a resident. During her lifetime, she advocated for the rights of the disabled.

Aside from its long and rich history, Lighthouse Park’s seclusion from traffic and lack of urbanization offer people time to escape from the city’s logjam. Car and people traffic bustle in many busy neighborhoods in and out of Manhattan. Other than the FDR Drive or cars on a very still day, the most noise you’ll hear is the seawater crashing onto the shoreline below, an occasional boat, or seagulls and Canada geese cawing as they fly around and land at nearby sanctuaries, one of them adjacent to Coler. On a clear, bright, sunny day, when clouds speckle the sky, and you want to do nothing except get away, you can easily spend a good ten, twenty, or thirty minutes sitting at the picnic table before the lighthouse, eating lunch, and then realizing a chunk of your day wafted by before you know it.


Along the waterway, the salt and humid sea air aged the barriers rapidly; some of the metal grates are rusty with paint coming off. Watch out where you walk, especially near the grass. Geese pellets are everywhere around and behind the hospital.

Secondly, the lighthouse’s remoteness makes it a little difficult to get to. South of the Roosevelt Island Bridge, the Astoria-bound Q102 only travels halfway up before crossing, but the Roosevelt Island-bound version travels the full length. If you’re south of it, your best option is the Octagon Express, a free shuttle bus service that runs from the tram station to The Octagon. However, once you begin walking north of the bridge’s exit, the bus options double for the reasons already described. If you take the Q102, your northernmost stop is Coler; you must walk the rest of the way.


Regardless of the issues, Lighthouse Park is a fascinating little treasure. In a city mostly urbanized, Roosevelt Island carries a little bit of its past with its remote park and calm atmosphere. The Lighthouse is old, weathered, and beautiful. Pay close attention to its exterior, and it’ll tell you a story that you may carry back with you home. Altogether, it’s beautiful, breathtaking, and worth the trek.

Best Directions:

  • From Manhattan, take the Queens-bound F train or Roosevelt Island Tram at East 60th Street and 2nd Avenue.

    From Queens, take the Manhattan-bound F train or Roosevelt-bound Q102 to Coler.
  • At Roosevelt, hop on the Octagon Express to the Octagon or Q102 north of the Roosevelt Island Bridge to Coler.
  • At Coler, walk along the waterway north. Lighthouse Park will be about five minutes away.