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The Little Red Lighthouse

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Like any big city, New York is full of surprises and hidden treasures. With a free afternoon, a subway ride to Upper Manhattan, and a bit of a walk you can find yourself standing in a grassy park at the foot of the George Washington Bridge looking at a lighthouse. A lighthouse! The lighthouse is The Little Red Lighthouse, and we had come to see it after reading (and loving) The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, a charming and classic children’s book written in 1942.

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Originally constructed for use along the New Jersey shore, the lighthouse founds its way to this spot under the George Washington Bridge in 1921 to help improve navigation for ships moving up and down the Hudson River. Bridge construction began in 1927, and when construction concluded in 1931 navigational lights atop the bridge pylons rendered the lighthouse obsolete. The book, written 11 years later, emphasizes that even small things have a place and an importance in the greater world, and that you are never too small to help others. In fitting fashion, it was the book that helped save the lighthouse in 1948, when the Coast Guard formally decommissioned it and set plans in place to auction it off. Public outcry in the form of donations and letters from fans of the book, most of them children, helped stop the sale and the Coast Guard deeded the lighthouse to the city in 1951. It became a New York City Landmark in 1991.

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There is something magical about bringing a story to life for a child, and I witnessed it firsthand this afternoon as my daughter processed that this lighthouse and bridge, standing before her, were the very same lighthouse and bridge in the story we’d read so many times. She raced toward the lighthouse calling hello, climbing the rock at its base and craning her neck to follow the red walls upward past the top of the lighthouse to the bridge looming high overhead. Later we sat on a rock along the river, the sun peeking through the clouds and the green cliffs of the Palisades rising dramatically across the water. Together we read the now-familiar story once more and I found myself a little more in love with this city and the way its past continues to shape my present.

A few notes:

  • To access the bridge take the A subway train to the 181st Street stop. On foot, follow 181st Street west toward the Hudson River, turning right (north) at the end when you reach Riverside Drive. A block or so down you’ll see a small footbridge spanning the highway below. Cross the bridge and follow the ramp down, proceeding back south toward the bridge. From there the path slopes steeply downward toward the river, the foot of the bridge, and the lighthouse. Bikers and walkers share the path, so be mindful of bike traffic, especially bikes headed back uphill.
  • The grassy area near the lighthouse has a few picnic tables, making it a scenic spot to stop and enjoy lunch. Plan ahead, though: this part of the park doesn’t offer any services in the way of food or restrooms.
  • Each September the city holds a Little Red Lighthouse Festival, with tours of the interior of the lighthouse, readings of the book, and other family-friendly activities. We may need to come back in the fall!

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