History

A Brief History of Romer Shoal Lighthouse

A US Coast Guard history

  1. The William J. Romer sank off the New Jersey shore over fifty miles south of the shoal in 1863.
  2. The Lighthouse Service had already erected a daymark on the shoal in 1838.
  3. Maps, predating the sinking of the vessel, clearly mark the shoal as “Dry Romer.”

An 1870 edition of The Historical Magazine records that the shoal was actually named after Colonel Wolfgang William Romer, who sounded the waters of New York Bay in 1700 on order of the governor of New York.

The steamer The Home ran aground on Romer Shoal on October 7, 1937 while leaving New York Bay. It lay grounded for several hours until high tide set the vessel free. Congress allocated $15,000 in 1837, and then another $10,000 in 1838, for the creation of a day-beacon to mark the shoal. Captain Winslow Lewis was chosen as the engineer to survey the area and select the site for the tower.

Captain Lewis surveyed the shoal and determined the position for the erection of a day-beacon, but after construction had started at the site, two naval officers complained that the tower was being built in the wrong place. Work was allowed to continue, but mariners were warned not to “run for the beacon, or they would infallibly get on shore.” Still, the misplaced daymark did help mariners avoid the underlying shoal.

1838

Year Established

1898

Year First Lit

1966

Automated Light

1997

Solar Power Installed

By 1877, the tower was off vertical after years of erosion to the shoal. Steps were taken to shore it up, but it was clear that a new structure would be needed in the not too distant future. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1886 has the following entry for a Romer Shoal Lighthouse, near the northeast side of Swash Channel, entrance to New York Bay:

“The work of establishing the light at this point was steadily pushed forward, although severe weather frequently made a landing at the site impracticable. The foundation was well advanced, and the first section of the pier set up in October. In November the second section of the pier was erected, and work was suspended during December on account of the weather. In January, 1886, the iron-work of the tower was received at the lighthouse depot. The foundation was strengthened in May with a cargo of stone, and by the end of June the entire structure was completed ready for lighting. The light will on July 15, 1886, be exhibited for the first time. This second beacon, now equipped with a light, was a twenty-five-foot-high skeletal tower that stood atop an iron pier with a diameter of thirty feet. A tank of compressed gas was capable of powering the unmanned light for up to ninety days, saving the expense of an on-site keeper. After a decade of service, however, the tower and light were requiring more frequent attention, and funding was obtained for a manned lighthouse on Romer Shoal.”

The present 54-foot sparkplug lighthouse was established on the shoal in 1898. It is believed that this tower was used on the grounds of the Staten Island Lighthouse Depot as an experimental lighthouse for testing fuels, wicks, bulbs, and other lighthouse equipment before it was disassembled and relocated just a few miles offshore.

Following World War I, six signal quartermasters from the Navy were crammed into the lighthouse along with the three regular keepers, who were responsible for the light produced by the tower’s fourth-order Fresnel lens. The duty of these post-war additions was to monitor all vessels entering and leaving New York Harbor. Much to the relief of the keepers, the six guests were removed after about a month due to shortage of Navy personnel.

The following year, the Navy took control of the entire lighthouse, assigning three of its men to mind the light and observe ships. Shortly after the men had arrived at the lighthouse, a vessel approached the station on November 13, 1920 to deliver provisions. William Walker set off in the station’s launch to meet the vessel as choppy seas prevented it from tying up near the lighthouse. As the two ships were maneuvering near each other, a large wave pushed them close to the rocks that protected the lighthouse. Seeing the danger, the captain of the larger vessel ordered his engines reversed. The resulting prop wash swamped Walker’s craft and pulled him under the water to his death. The Navy removed its men from the lighthouse on October 16, 1921, and keepers from the Lighthouse Service returned to the station.

In 1939, Romer Shoal Lighthouse, along with all navigational aids in the country, fell under the control of the Coast Guard, who stationed four men at the light. Three of the Coast Guardsmen were always on duty at the lighthouse, while a fourth enjoyed a week’s leave. The daily routine of watching the light and maintaining the structure was a bit monotonous, but one of the crew explained to a reporter that the job had its advantages as well. “About the only excitement we have is running the launch out in heavy seas, or going out to help a boat with a broken-down engine. That doesn’t happen very often. But it’s not so bad here. And how many people get a week’s vacation every month?”

The Romer Shoal Lighthouse was automated in 1966, but it continued to help mark the entrance to the busy harbor with a pair of white flashes every fifteen seconds. After a storm in December of 1992 damaged the lighthouse, the Coast Guard considered scrapping the lighthouse and replacing it with a steel skeleton tower. Joe Esposito, who served as caretaker of the Staten Island Lighthouse at the time, refused to let the tower be destroyed, and through his ardent efforts it remains in place today.