Until a few years ago I didn’t know that this book from 1942 existed, and once I did, I still didn’t quite grasp where it was set, which little red lighthouse and great gray bridge it was talking about. How silly I felt when I was flipping through this one after a long day to discover that it is set along the Hudson River and the great gray bridge is the George Washington bridge which I drive over several times a year.
In some ways this is just another children’s book about knowing your place, and that being little doesn’t mean that you don’t have value and worth in a world dominated by those that are “great”. But as I dug in a little deeper it’s the story of life on the river a century ago. Even deeper than that, it is a story of a love affair with an inanimate object. In some ways, this book saved its titular little red lighthouse. This children’s book is part in a great tale of historic preservation, a cause near and dear to my heart.
The lighthouse started its life on New Jersey’s Sandy Hook in 1880, guiding ships into New York Harbor. But by 1917 it had become obsolete and was dismantled and put in storage. Four years later, it was reassembled on Manhattan’s Washington Heights. The relocated lighthouse, renamed Jeffrey’s Hook Light, stood forty feet tall, and was the only lighthouse on the island of Manhattan. The George Washington Bridge was built to tower over it in 1931 and its bright lights rendered the lighthouse obsolete once more. It had already captured the hearts and imagination of the community and in 1942 Hildegarde Swift wrote The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge telling the tale of the landmark. In 1951, after decommissioning the lighthouse, the U.S. Coast Guard moved to dismantle it and auction off the parts, but a public outcry bubbled up. The USCG then gave the property to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. In 1979, it was inducted into the National Register of Historic Parks, and in 1982 $1.4 million was raised to restore the lighthouse and Fort Washington Park.
The other neat feature of this book are the illustrations by Lynd Ward, godfather of the graphic novel. He is most famous for his woodcuts (which I don’t think the illustrations in this book are, but I might be quite wrong) and his six “wordless novels”. There’s an award given each year by the Pennsylvania Center for the Book in his name for excellence in graphic novels and the 2018 winner was My Favorite Thing is Monsters.