The Last Lighthouse Keeper of Coney Island

Encore: February 27, 2014

Max Kutner and Johannes Musial of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism tell the story of the last civilian lighthouse keeper in the United States.

Past the end of the Coney Island boardwalk, away from the flashing lights of the Parachute Jump and the excited screams of riders on the Cyclone, the Coney Island Lighthouse has been guiding boaters since 1890. Its longtime keeper, Frank Schubert, lived there for over four decades. He was the last civilian lighthouse keeper in the country – until he passed away in 2003.

Coney Island was mostly sand dunes when the lighthouse was built. After the turn of the 20th century, developers turned the area into a destination for entertainment and attractions. “It was called the Nickel Empire,” said Scott Schubert, the 35-year-old grandson of Frank Schubert. “You could buy a hot dog for a nickel, go on rides for a nickel.”

After serving with the Army in World War II, Schubert found work as a lighthouse keeper. In 1960 he moved with his wife and three children to the Coney Island Lighthouse. For three generations of Schuberts, the lighthouse became the family’s home. “My parents got married at the Coney Island Lighthouse, and then I was born the next year and they basically raised us there,” said Scott Schubert. “As a kid it was great. We’d be climbing on the lighthouse. It was like our jungle gym. You don’t even realize that it’s really different than any other house. It’s just sort of grandpa’s house.”

The Coast Guard, which oversees all lighthouses in the United States, eventually began automating the structures. It became unnecessary for keepers to live on the premises and wind up the cranks that turned the lights. After automating the lighthouse in Coney Island, however, the Coast Guard allowed Schubert and his wife to stay.

Even as his grandfather grew older, “he was still maintaining the property as much as he could,” Scott Schubert said. When Frank Schubert died at the age of 88, his death brought to a close not only a long chapter in his family’s history, but also one in the history of the American lighthouse.

Since Schubert’s death, the Coney Island Lighthouse hasn’t had many visitors. It’s located in the Sea Gate section of Coney Island, which is a private, gated community. But since the lighthouse survived Hurricane Sandy, there has been a movement advocating for increased accessibility.

“It would make a nice museum and it could be used for different events,” said Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project. “It could be a monument to lighthouse keepers.”

Scott Schubert also started a website to chronicle the structure’s history. “It’s important for me obviously to keep alive the memory of my grandfather, but also it serves as a representation of someone who was watching over Coney Island,” he said. “He definitely wanted people to know really at least someone was there.”

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