Beneath the George Washington Bridge: A Beautiful Park and a Bygone Beacon of Light
June 6, 2012

Beneath the George Washington Bridge: A Beautiful Park and a Bygone Beacon of Light

“Once upon a time a little lighthouse was built on a sharp point of the shore by the Hudson River. It was round and fat and red. It was fat and red and jolly. And it was VERY, VERY PROUD.” 

Thus begins Hildegarde H. Swift’s classic 1942 book, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge. The story chronicles the important life of a 40-foot lighthouse that was built in 1880 and moved in 1921 from Sandy Hook, NJ, to Jeffrey’s Hook, an isolated rocky point in the hinterlands of Manhattan. The lighthouse was crucial for boats that were navigating a challenging stretch of river that separates New York City and New Jersey.

When the George Washington Bridge was completed in 1931, however, the lights of the lighthouse were overwhelmed by the beams emanating from the 600-foot towers above. “Very likely, I shall never shine again. Dark and silent it stood. And it was VERY, VERY SAD,” concludes Swift’s book.

Inspired by this tale, a nationwide campaign prevented the demolition of the lighthouse, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A Modern-Day Beacon for Outdoor Enjoyment

Fort Washington Park now surrounds the lighthouse, which is Manhattan’s only one. The lighthouse no longer operates but it is occasionally open to the public.  The park is out of the way, but well worth the walk to get there.

Starting in late spring, it is a perfect place to teach children about the lifecycle of a dandelion, as samples from bud to cotton-ball stages abound. We imagine there are also four-leaf clovers somewhere in the massive swaths of the three-leaf variety, but search though we might, we have yet to find one. A series of enormous boulders forms a loose border near the lighthouse that practically begs our children, Riley and Halina, to climb and leap from one to another.

And as nerve-wracking as it is to be in a car among the constant rush of traffic on the bridge, it is delightful and oddly soothing to hear the hum of hundreds of vehicles way up above. 

We treat this trip as a destination unto itself, or as a long stopover on a bigger journey. We always come prepared with snacks or lunch to eat at one of the picnic tables. We have visited in all seasons and almost always have seen anglers along the Hudson’s rocky shores, fishing for striped bass or bluefish. All in all, the Little Red Lighthouse must be VERY, VERY PROUD again. 

The Journey is Part of the Experience

Our preferred way to visit the Little Red Lighthouse is via the paved Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, which runs along the Hudson River. Take the 1 train to 125th Street and go about two blocks east. The grid here is crossed by some diagonal streets that interrupt the regular block count, but the river—and New Jersey in the far distance—will be in sight. Pass under the awesome arches of the Henry Hudson Parkway overpass, and enter West Harlem Piers Park, which is a newly refurbished link of the greenway.

Turn right (north) to set off on a wonderful 2.5-mile walk that will take you past Riverbank State Park (located atop a sewage-processing facility but fortunately, you wouldn’t know it), some ball fields and courts, a playground with a restroom (at about the halfway point), and ultimately to the lighthouse.

After enjoying the park, you can either return the way you came, or head to the A train at 181st Street. To do so, return to the paved path and turn left (north). Follow this around some sharp curves, over a bridge that spans railroad tracks and another that spans Riverside Drive, and ultimately to Plaza Lafayette Street. Turn right and then left on 181st Street. Follow that to the top. This is a relatively short but very steep walk: you gain 132 feet in elevation walking from the river’s edge to the crest of 181st Street.

There are many coffee shops and restaurants representing cuisines from around the world along 181st Street. Our personal mecca is Moscow on the Hudson, a wonderful shop packed with Russian treats and delicacies. In fact, a stop there is such a tradition that the kids alternately call this trek “the walk to the Russian shop.” 


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