Digest>Archives> December 2008

Another Type of Lighthouse

By Timothy Harrison


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he United States Lighthouse Service and the United State Coast Guard were not the only branches of the government to use lighthouses as a warning beacon.

In the early 1880s the United States Signal Service built a lighthouse atop the Equitable Insurance Company Building in New York City, to warn mariners at sea of dangerous weather conditions. In describing the Signal Service tower, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper of March 25, 1882, in which this image appeared, said that at 118 feet above the pavement, it was atop one of the highest buildings in New York. It went on to say, “Homesick Americans strain their eyes from ocean liners to catch a glimpse of its lofty tower.”

The article went on to say that people who were drawn to the roof of the building for a tour would gaze in “awe and bewilderment at the vast and wondrous panorama spread out so far beneath them, Long Island, the Hook, supported by the Navesink Highlands, the Narrows, Staten Island, Jersey City and Hoboken, backed by the Orange Mountains.”

The story went on to say, “But a glimpse of the Equitable tower is not sought exclusively by travelers of ocean steamers. Captains of grand and stately barks, captains of coasting schooners, captains of tug boats, captains of fishing smacks, all look out for the red light which is exhibited in the tower lantern room when certain 'winds do blow.”

The article later went on to say how from this tower the Signal Service Station atop the building had direct communication via telegraph to and from various locations, including all the way to headquarters in Washington DC. The tower was equipped with all the modern weather inventions known to man at that time and the “blood-red light burns fiercely when a storm warning report is received.”

According to a public report issued by the Signal Service in 1884 it stated that the Signal Service had a two fold mission; (1) of providing for the Army an efficient corps charged with the work of opening and maintaining communication, at the front in time of war, and (2) of noting the development and progress of storms and other meteorological phenomena and reporting the same to the public with predictions of probable future atmospheric conditions. The report also praised the fact that the “economic feature of the Weather Bureau is that it is a military service.”

That same report highly praised the fact that the signal stations were also established at many United States Life Saving Service stations and that many of theses stations were connected by telegraph. In addition to displaying storm-warning signals by flag to mariners at sea, those stations also filed meteorological reports, which included such things as reports on the changing temperature of the water, tempests at sea, and sea-swells. They would also use their signal flags to summon help from vessels at sea notifying them of a distressed vessel that was in need of immediate help or rescue. Those same signal flags were used to signal the distressed vessel with instructions for them to follow for a rescue that was about to take place by the crew of the life-saving station. There is no mention in the report of lighthouses, probably, because most lighthouse stations were not as equipped to handle a rescue as was the crew of a life saving station. However, lighthouse keepers did assist in many rescues and performed many acts of heroism, as is evident in the annals of history.

In referring to the Signal Service station atop the Equitable Insurance building the old newspaper story ended by stating, “A better position for taking meteorological observations could scarcely be conceived.” Little could that reporter have imagined the amazing and rapid advances in technology that were about to take place.

The tower atop the Equitable Building brings to mind other towers built atop buildings, such as the 1913 Titanic Memorial Lighthouse that was once atop the Seaman’s Church Institute in NYC or the H.W. Wilson Lighthouse atop the H.W. Wilson Publishing Building in the Bronx. However, those towers are and were never used for the same purpose as the Signal Service tower. The same can hold true for the Portland Observatory in Portland, Maine and a few others similar to it, which were built to signal with flags, but for a different purpose than the Signal Service tower.

How many towers like this did the Signal Service build? We don’t know, nor do we know when this tower was discontinued. Perhaps some of our readers can answer those questions or supply us with more information. But with the rapid growth of New York City and its skyscrapers, the awe of such a tower, as was described in the 1882 newspaper, was soon forgotten and replaced by many other facets of life that people began to view, experience and accept with a much greater awe.

However, we are proud to share with our readers this nearly forgotten slice of history that has been rediscovered; a type of story that can be found only in the pages of Lighthouse Digest.

This story appeared in the December 2008 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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