Ninety-one years ago a small cast iron and steel lighthouse sent its beams of light and tolling bell into the fog and dark on the Hudson River. The lighthouse was painted red and sat on a rocky projection on the edge of the treacherous river currents. By the time The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge was published in 1942, the lighthouse had been decommissioned for a decade, made redundant by the completion of the George Washington Bridge. But the children’s classic is a romantic tale of a plucky little lighthouse that owns the river and beams out confidently, saving steamers, tugs and all the river traffic from a disastrous end on the rocks.
And then, one day, a bridge begins to rise on the banks of the river, a monstrous gray edifice that dwarfs the small lighthouse. What happens next is delightful fantasy and very satisfying for small children who love to root for the underdog. There is just enough threat, loss, peril and redemption to be exciting without being too scary. And the book has a few facts about rivers and what they carry–added to the history, you could call it educational. In fact, should you really want to cement the lessons, and should you live or visit anywhere near the Upper West Side of Manhattan, you could stop by the side of the road and walk down to check out the real Little Red Lighthouse. The city restored it on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the massive bridge that spans the Hudson and dwarfs the tiny structure. If you contact the park rangers, you could arrange for a tour, climb the winding stairs and look over the river from the catwalk.
The lens no longer beams out its warning on the night river and the lighthouse is almost hidden by the gray bridge towers. But it’s charming, a reminder of simpler times when ferries, not spans clogged with cars and trucks, transported travelers from New York to New Jersey, and something as small as a red lighthouse on a rocky promontory could play a big role in river traffic.
The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge: Restored Edition Hildegarde H. Swift and Lynd Ward