Festival celebrates book, importance of being small

— It's been 56 years since its flashing light guided ships past the Hudson's rocky shoreline. But the Little Red Lighthouse's message -- that small things in a big world really matter -- beams ever bright.

On Saturday, thousands of people -- both young and the young at heart -- were expected to flock to Fort Washington Park for the 11th annual Little Red Lighthouse Festival, directly under the 600-foot-high George Washington Bridge.

A fun-filled day of music, hay rides and crafts paid tribute to the stout 40-foot-high tower that was immortalized in the 1942 book, "The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge," written by Hildegarde H. Swift and illustrated by Lynd Ward.

The story is told through the "eyes" of the lighthouse, which "felt very, very proud" as "the master of the river ... (until) great steel girders began to rise against the sky (and) the strange new gray thing" grew bigger and bigger and "made the little red lighthouse feel very, very small."

But the lights of the bridge were too high for boatmen below and Little Red -- as it is affectionately called -- again began to feel "very, very proud" that it had an important job to do.

'Very, very proud' lighthouse

Many people are surprised to learn that a lighthouse exists beneath the bridge.

Its out-of-the-way location makes it all the more adventurous: Reached from the apartment blocks of Washington Heights, by way of a footbridge over the Henry Hudson Parkway and down a winding dirt path to the Hudson River, it suddenly comes into view. The New Jersey Palisades, across the river, also provide good views -- but at a distance.

Little Red was nearly destroyed in 1948. But was saved because of the protest that arose. It was, after all, a cherished icon of children's literature. One 4-year-old even offered to buy it with his own money -- proof again that "you don't have to be big to play a big role," said Adrian Benepe, commissioner of the city parks and recreation department, which manages the lighthouse.

The lighthouse, powered in its early days with tanks of gas, was run by a part-time keeper. Charles Collins, 83, its second keeper, took over the job from his father, William, and now lives in the Bronx.

He vividly remembers the upkeep of the multiprismed Fresnel lens as a big job. "I had to polish the brass, clean the prisms and wash the windows on the outer part of the room that contains the light." He also trekked twice daily down to the river -- once to turn on the lighthouse and once to turn it off.

Collins was pleased that the lighthouse has survived. "You don't have to junk everything that once served a vital function," he said. "It boils down to this: It was, and remains, the only lighthouse situated on Manhattan island."

Today, the lighthouse is open by appointment for guided tours by urban park rangers.

On one recent tour, two park rangers produced a very large brass key with great fanfare to unlock the lighthouse for a visiting group from New Jersey. The children and grown-ups -- many of whom recalled having the book read to them as kids -- from the First Presbyterian Church in Englewood, N.J., climbed a spiral staircase to the top for a close-up of the lens and views of the Hudson, the Manhattan skyline and a unique perspective of the George Washington Bridge and its underbelly.

"When I read this story, I felt like I was the small lighthouse against this big bridge," recalled 11-year-old Afton Thomas, who said she felt very scared the first time she crossed the bridge in a car when she was 5.

Overshadowed, not forgotten

At Saturday's festival, visitors climbed the lighthouse and heard the endearing story read out loud -- this year by actress Cynthia Nixon ("Sex and the City"). Last year, James Earl Jones was the celebrity reader for the 60th anniversary of the book's publication.

"We hold the festival to celebrate the lighthouse's existence," said Therese Braddick, executive director of the Historic House Trust, a nonprofit group that preserves historic city properties. "It's a symbol of history, of something that survived. It was slated for demolition, and through a little creative thinking and a lot of support and tenacious letter writing on the part of children, it was saved so many other people can enjoy it."

Its history indeed is storied.

Its official name is the Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse, named after the treacherous rocky shoreline and site of numerous shipwrecks before its installation.

Constructed of 48 cast iron plates, it first stood in Sandy Hook, N.J., at the mouth of New York Harbor, from 1880 to 1917, and was reconstructed at its present site in 1921.

But much like the fictional tale, the lighthouse's usefulness was overshadowed by the George Washington Bridge after it went up in 1931.

By 1947, Little Red was rendered obsolete and decommissioned by the Coast Guard. Four years later it was slated for demolition to make room for development of Fort Washington Park. The vociferous public outcry saved it, and it was turned over to the parks department.

Benepe, the 46-year-old parks commissioner, remembers the lighthouse as "graffiti-filled and overgrown with weeds" 25 years ago. Today, he is a big promoter of Little Red, recalling that the book made a huge impression on him as a child.

He also sees it as a wonderful reminder of the city's seafaring past during the first decades of the 20th century, when the Hudson was the major transportation artery between New York City and Albany.

"It's also a great story of how different people came to its rescue," he said.

In 1986, its concrete foundation was restored and new steel doors were installed. A fresh coat of red paint was applied in 2000.

Honors also were bestowed. In 1979, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, made a city landmark in 1991 and added to the city's roster of Historical Houses in 1996.

And finally, with the help of the Historic House Trust, a Fresnel lens, nearly identical to the one the Coast Guard removed after decommissioning the lighthouse, was installed in 2001.

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