First lighted on January 1, 1901, the West Bank Light was erected as part of a series of New York Harbor improvements. The lighthouse marked a shoal extending north past Swinburne and Hoffman Islands. It had depths of less than 8 feet at low tide. On January 22 of the same year, work began on a new waterway for New York Harbor, the Ambrose Channel. Prior to its completion, the most common access to the harbor had been via the four-mile longer Main Ship Channel, with its difficult 155 degree turn. Completed in 1914, Ambrose Channel was dredged to a depth of 40 feet and 2,000 feet wide, extending from the Narrows (Verrazano) to the open sea.
As dredging progressed in the new channel, work also began on the West Bank Light to add structure, increasing its height from 59.5-feet to 70 feet. With completion of the changes, the light became the front range for its rear range, the Staten Island Light. A temporary beacon was erected during new construction of the lighthouse.
In a 1920 American Magazine article, the author told the tale of the West Bank’s colorful first keeper, Ed Burge, and his companion fox terrier. Keeper Burge moved into the new lighthouse, taking his young puppy with him. The little dog soon became attached to his new digs. When the keeper and his canine companion went ashore for supplies, the terrier would run down to the edge of the water and whine as he looked out toward the lighthouse. As the pup patrolled the lighthouse’s main gallery, he barked at passing tugs. With a flag tied to his tail, the dog would run around the gallery, seemingly waving a signal at any nearby vessel. “He always slept outside, no matter how stormy” keeping an eye out for marine traffic.
After serving six years at West Bank Light, the keeper was transferred ashore to the Elm Tree Light. The terrier “was homesick.” Burge thus decided to give away his dog to West Bank’s new keeper, Herbert Sission. The canine lived another eleven years at offshore lighthouses, but when his master was transferred ashore, the pup died just three days later.
In 1914, the steamer Sandy Hook began delivering newspapers to the West Bank Light. The service had started after one of the keepers requested having the Sandy Hook deliver important family papers. As the morning steamer arrived at the lighthouse on its twice daily run, Keeper Robert Buske would row out with his Irish terrier, Buster. When they approached the Sandy Hook, the very excited pup seemingly danced at the rowboat’s bow. With many of the steamer’s passengers watching from its railing, the ship’s purser or second mate would then try to toss a package containing several copies of the New York Times into the small boat. If, as it often did miss its mark, the terrier plunged into the water to retrieve the bundle. On one occasion, when a lucky toss landed the package in the boat, the saddened terrier began to whine. To satisfy his disappointed terrier, Keeper Buske tossed his hat into the water and the pup happily retrieved it.
Whenever fog rolled in, Buster barked at the keeper, alerting him to start the signal horn. When they went ashore, the dog always selected the boat he wanted to ride in. Keeper Buske went on to say that he “wears my cap and he don’t like the assistants because they don’t bring him treats when they go ashore. I always do.”
In 1948, tragedy was narrowly avoided at West Bank Light when two Coast Guard keepers were overcome by gas fumes from the station’s coal gas heater. As a third lighthouse guardsman descended to the lower level, he found two men unconscious. Failing to revive them, he called the Coast Guard headquarters for help. A patrol boat was quickly dispatched along with a PBY5-A amphibian plane, out of Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennet Field. The plane landed a short distance from the lighthouse. The two still unconscious men were taken out to the aircraft aboard a rubber raft. They were then flown to Floyd Bennet Field’s dispensary where they were nursed back to health.
In 1975, West Bank Light was one of the last manned lighthouses on the coast of New Jersey. The light was operated by three young Coast Guardsmen. They frequently expressed how they loved the view of New York’s Lower Bay and the great fishing from the light’s gallery for striped bass, fluke and porgies. They enjoyed the station’s small boat and commented on air conditioning provided by the sea breeze, “without having to put up with mosquitoes.”
Duty at West Bank consisted of two weeks “on the light” followed by one week ashore. They also had a month’s leave per year. Their usual duty at the lighthouse consisted of 8-hour watches. For leisure time, the station had a television, stereo equipment, a pool table and a variety of books for their small library.
About every six weeks, a lighthouse tender delivered 2,000 gallons of fresh water along with diesel fuel for the station’s two generators. Typically, every Wednesday, a boat brought out mail, provisions and provided transportation for crew rotation. When the light was finally automated in the early 1980s, there were only six remaining manned stations in the Third District. Nearby Coney Island Light was manned until 1989, when it was automated. Civilian Keeper Frank Schubert remained there as caretaker until his death in 2003.
West Bank Light was sold at auction in 2010 like the nearby Lower Bay’s Old Orchard Shoal Light. Many other coastal and inland lighthouses had proceeded its sale to private owners such as Long Island Sound’s Stamford Harbor Ledge Light and Greens Ledge Light. Lighthouses at Execution Rocks, Great Captain, New London Ledge and Race Rock were turned over to non-profit groups. The U.S. Coast Guard however, continues to maintain the beacons at many of these privately owned lights.