Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Power of One Book

We all know books can change the world, sometimes in big ways but more often in small ways. One of my favorite childhood books, and one that likely planted the seeds of my fascination with lighthouses, changed the world for one small lighthouse…and for thousands of kids.


The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, written by Hildegarde H. Swift and illustrated by Lynd Ward, was in my school library when I was in fourth grade. It was 1962, and a new wing had opened that year in the elementary school I attended. It included a spacious library and a fresh-out-of-college, pretty librarian named Miss Hardy. I was smitten with both the new library and all its new books. I asked Miss Hardy if I could be a library helper.

She put me to work re-shelving returned books. They were arranged by call number on a metal cart, which made pushing the cart through the stacks much easier. It was a wonderful job except that I often got distracted looking at the books I was supposed to re-shelve. Miss Hardy was patient and understanding; she was probably the same way as a child.

One day she found me sitting on the floor next to the book cart looking at The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge. She sat down on the footstool near me and asked if I had ever been to New York City. I hadn’t. NYC seemed a million miles away from the rural area of Western Maryland where I lived.

“Well, that bridge in the book is a real bridge, and it’s amazing. I took a trip to NYC a few years ago to see it. It’s HUGE, with two decks for cars!! Do you know what river that is?”

I didn’t.

“It’s the Hudson River, named after a famous explorer. And big boats go up and down the river. That’s why it needs lighthouses.”


Miss Hardy then proceeded to fetch me some books about NYC and the Hudson River, and she let me check out The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge. I took it home and read it to my mother that evening after supper as she sewed missing buttons on my brothers’ shirts. I even impersonated the voice of the big bridge as it spoke to its little brother, the lighthouse, telling the small tower that even though it was much littler than the bridge, it still had work to do signaling to ships. Mom smiled at the end and asked me how I thought the Little Red lighthouse felt.

“It was sad at first, because it thought the big bridge had replaced it. But in the end it felt important, even though it’s very little!” I said. “It’s glad it still has a job to do.”

(Can you see the little lighthouse on the right below the bridge tower?)

Mom nodded and reminded me of the things I could do because I was small—crawl under the bed to fetch an errant sock, pick up a dropped sewing needle with my small fingers, reach under the nest boxes in the chicken house when a hen laid an egg there, and squeeze between my big brothers in the back seat of Mom’s old Oldsmobile.

The message of Hildegarde H. Swift’s story had gotten through, not only for me, but for all kids who read her story. There are big things and little things, and though we are often impressed by big things, they are no more important than little things. Every kid wants to be big, and sometimes she feels unimportant because she’s small. That was me at time. I was the youngest child in a large family, and the smallest. Time and again I heard admonishments like: “You’re too little to do that” or “When you get bigger you can try that.” Hoyt made me feel important, like the Little Red Lighthouse.

There’s a story behind her book. It’s a tale of a tale—one that started a groundswell of protest about the possible loss of one small, beloved lighthouse. After the George Washington Bridge was completed in 1931, its bridge lights superseded the small beacon of Jeffries Hook Lighthouse, sitting on the east side of the river almost under the bridge. The tiny lighthouse and its beacon seemed inconsequential next to a giant bridge shimmering with lights. Aiming to reduce costs, the Coast Guard announced in 1948 that it would discontinue and sell the little lighthouse.

Hoyt and Ward had published The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge in 1942, and it had been read by thousands of kids. Though Swift never gave a name to the bridge or the lighthouse in her book, everyone knew she had written about the George Washington Bridge and the Jeffries Hook Lighthouse. When newspapers reported that the Little Red Lighthouse was going away, a cry went up from children and their parents. How could the Coast Guard even consider destroying such a beloved icon of children’s literature?

A few years later, the Coast Guard relented, and on July 23, 1951, the lighthouse was given to the New York City Dept. of Parks & Recreation.

For years, it languished; then, the burgeoning lighthouse preservation movement took hold in the 1970s. Jeffries Hook Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and made a New York City Landmark in 1991. Funds were raised—some by children who donated pennies, nickels, and dimes to the effort—and the lighthouse underwent a $209,000 refurbishment in 1986 and was relighted in 2002.

Today, it is well-maintained by the City of New York and opened for tours on occasion. The Little Red Lighthouse Festival is held every September with music, food, games, tours of the diminutive 30-foot sentinel, and celebrities reading aloud The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.

While everyone knows the lighthouse by its nickname of Little Red, its history as Jeffries Hook lighthouse is not well-known. The tower started its career in 1880 at Sandy Hook, New Jersey as the Sandy Hook North Beacon, showing a red light and sounding a resonant gong on its 1,000-pound fogbell when the area turned murky. This beacon, along with the larger Sandy Hook Lighthouse, guided shipping in and out of New York Harbor and past a dangerous strand of unpredictable sand extending north from Highlands, New Jersey.

In 1889, the Lighthouse Service erected a simple pole beacon on the Hudson River at Jeffries Hook, a finger of soil and rocks jutting out into the river and posing a significant danger to shipping, especially the steamers of the day that hugged the east shore of the river on their way north. As early as 1895, the U.S. Lighthouse Board began requesting funds from Congress to upgrade the pole beacon to a better, more useful navigational light, but the wheels of government turned slowly at this time, and funding took twenty-five years to be approved.

Meanwhile, the Sandy Hook North Beacon had lost its usefulness, due to changes in the shoreline and the shipping routes in and out of New York Harbor. It was extinguished in 1917. The Lighthouse Service decided this tower could be moved to Jeffries Hook on the Hudson River for less money than a new tower would cost. In 1921, the Sandy Hook North Beacon was dismantled and moved by barge to Jeffries Hook. It was made somewhat self-sufficient, with a battery-operated red beacon and a fogbell with a striking mechanism. A keeper, who lived off-site, was hired to check on it periodically to be sure it was working properly.

Seven years after its relocation, workmen arrived and began building the George Washington Bridge. From 1931 when the bridge was opened to traffic until the 1970s when the public demanded it be saved, the lighthouse was in limbo. Hildegarde H. Swift surely noticed this and felt sad for the little sentinel. She gave it immortality in a simple, heartwarming story.

Today, that story is revered by schoolchildren around the nation. They know, their voices may be little, but they can be heard...and even something as small as a Little Red Lighthouse under a gigantic bridge is important.

Hildegarde Hoyt Swift died in 1977. She didn’t live long enough to see The Little Red Lighthouse restored. Illustrator Lynd Ward saw the first preservation efforts before he died in 1985.
A footnote to this blog—
I have never visited The Little Red Lighthouse! Yet, it launched my interest in lighthouses. Now, that's the power of one book!

I think it’s time I do go see it. After all, it subtly inspired my successful career as a lighthouse historian and author in the lighthouse genre. I think I’ll go see it next time I visit my granddaughters in Connecticut and take them with me. It’s time for a new generation to get inspired by a cherished, timeless story.
(Photos of Little Red are from Wikimedia Commons and Architectural Digest.)

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