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Spark Plug

The Robbins Reef lighthouse in Upper New York Bay

In an effort to educate as well as preserve relics of public works, the Noble Maritime Collection recently received a $2,500 grant from Investors Foundation to help further the museum’s mission of celebrating maritime history and culture. The NMC also plays a major role in the preservation of electrical marvels: spark plug lighthouses. One of these is the Robbins Reef lighthouse, which has survived traffic and weather in the planet's busiest harbor for almost 200 years.

Also known as "Caisson" lighthouses, spark plug lighthouses are cast iron structures built at offshore locations. The keeper's quarters are generally a round building, usually three stories in height. A round lantern room sits atop the keeper's quarters, and the whole structure rests on a solid foundation, usually a concrete or stone caisson.

The Noble Maritime Collection is the proud steward of Robbins Reef Lighthouse. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Robbins Reef is of historical significance to Staten Island and New York Harbor because of its location, history, and architecture.

The lighthouse is located between Staten Island's North Shore and the Statue of Liberty. Originally constructed of granite in 1839, the station was rebuilt of cast iron in 1883. The tower is 48 feet tall.

The lighthouse has six levels: the cellar, equipped with a cistern; the first and largest floor, was used as a kitchen; the second floor was the sitting room and office; the third and fourth floors, used as bedrooms; and the fifth floor, which opens on to a balcony overlooking the Harbor and leads up to the lantern gallery.

Because of their shape, these lighthouses have come to be called "sparkplugs." Before the day of gasoline engines, they were sometimes called "coffee pots." In many places they were called "bug lights," because at a distance they appeared short and broad, rather like a beetle on the surface of the water.

Sparkplugs were prefabricated, brought to the site by barge, and put in place by floating cranes. They were a low-cost solution to the problem of providing offshore lighthouses in the sounds and bays of the northeastern and mid-Atlantic states, where all but three of the surviving examples are located.

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