Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2015

A Lady of the Light

By Gaye Buzzo Dunn

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Old newspaper image of Catherine Murdock. ...

I recently drove to the small town of Kingston in the Hudson Valley on a sunless, overcast June morning. Only a short hour and a half from my home in upstate New York, I was looking forward to the Hudson River Day celebration, especially the tour of the Rondout Creek Lighthouse, a lighthouse I had only glimpsed from afar many years ago.

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An old post card showing the second and no longer ...

While awaiting the beginning of the tour, I spent time visiting the Hudson River Maritime Museum enjoying the maritime exhibits of the Hudson Valley lighthouses. However, my main interest focused on gathering knowledge on the historic past of the Rondout Creek Lighthouse. There were three Rondout lighthouses: the first built in 1837, the second in 1867, and the one existing today built in 1913. Construction of the current lighthouse began in 1913, and it is the last and largest lighthouse constructed along the Hudson River. This year, 2015, as described in the last edition of Lighthouse Digest, the Rondout Creek Lighthouse celebrated its 100th year. In 1984, the Hudson River Maritime Museum entered into a thirty-year lease with the Coast Guard and took charge of the structure. In 2002, the City of Kingston received ownership of what many call the Kingston-Rondout Lighthouse, and partnered with the museum to care for the building. Although no longer inhabited, the Rondout Creek Lighthouse continues to operate. Until this visit, I never realized that many women living in the Hudson Valley served as lighthouse keepers. I was eager to begin the tour, especially after reading the experiences of Rondout’s lady lighthouse keeper – Catherine A. Murdock.

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Old sketch of the first Rondout Creek Lighthouse ...

The George Murdock family served as lighthouse keepers at all three structures that served as the Rondout Creek Lighthouse. George Murdock came to the first lighthouse in 1856 with his pregnant wife, Catherine, and their two small children, George and Emma. Roughly a year later, George drowned as he was returning home from picking up supplies. The tour guide spoke of an old circulated tale indicating that George might have imbibed some drink at a local bar before leaving town. It was also rumored that his wife, Catherine, was alleged to be quite the formidable lady. When George died, she became a widow with three children and, like any mother bear bent on protecting her cubs, she had to find a way to survive.

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Catherine Murdock in the parlor of the Rondout ...

Catherine later recalled that event. “It was a sore time for me - no one to help, but the light – taking care of that as I had to—did help me bear up. I kept on for a month after the funeral cleaning and tending the lights, and in the winter, after navigation had stopped, some good friends gave me letters and on I went to Washington with this big boy here (pointing to her son James) just a baby in my arms. I wanted to be made lighthouse keeper of Rondout. At first the gentlemen at Washington told me it was impossible, the board didn’t employ women, and besides there was my infant. But I said, ‘Gentlemen, I’m a-going to bring him up to be a lighthouse keeper, and where could he learn it so well as in a lighthouse, and who could teach him better, d’ya think, than his own mother who knows well how to care for the light.’”

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Vintage U.S. Lighthouse Service photo of the ...

Catherine was fearful they wouldn’t give her the light, but they did. And before navigation resumed, she was made the regular lighthouse keeper. The men in Washington also sent her a fine kitchen range because she told them she needed one. Catherine also tells of a nerve-wracking night in 1878 when an unusually heavy snowstorm turned to rain, and locals urged her to abandon the lighthouse and go to the mainland. Catherine refused. “The safety of the lives of many boatmen depend upon the lights being lit in the tower. I will never desert my post of duty. If the lighthouse does go down tonight, I go with it.” The Eddyville dam burst upstream and the ensuing flood carried away houses, barns, barges, and boats. Catherine could hear the turbulent crashing river screaming through the darkness toward the lighthouse, but she continued to keep the light beaming and held firm in her resolve. The next morning she surveyed the damage and found that the lighthouse had sustained little injury.

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Modern view of the Rondout Creek Lighthouse.
Photo by: Brian Valentine

When I toured the current Rondout Creek Lighthouse, I noted the reconstructed décor of the 1930s. The rooms were small, windows appeared drafty, and black metal steps surrounded the rooms on each floor. I couldn’t help but wonder how Catherine coped with the children while she manned the lights in the first two lighthouses, climbing steps numerous times each day. She was dependent on supplies provided by boat with only sporadic visits to the mainland. I imagined there were many bad weather days when the children could not attend school. Or perhaps the children received respite from relatives and friends on the mainland, especially during the winter months. Catherine’s life could not have been an easy one in such spartan quarters.

When I look back at Catherine’s life in the nineteenth century, I note she was a steadfast, spirited woman ahead of her time. Title VII of the Civil Right Act did not yet exist, and the law was not enacted until 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law, creating the EEOC in 1965 that protected women from workplace discrimination. The roster of Rondout Creek Lighthouse keepers before and after the years the Murdock family members served (1858 through 1923) indicated that Catherine was the sole female lighthouse keeper at Rondout. Catherine remained in charge of the light for 50 years (1857-1907) until her retirement, serving at both the first and second lighthouses. I believe what Catherine accomplished came from a deep reservoir of necessity, a strong character, and steadfast dedication to responsibility in an often difficult lifestyle that she embraced for a half century. Her son, James B. Murdock (the babe in her arms), kept up the family tradition and became assistant keeper in 1880 and then head keeper upon Catherine’s retirement.

I found it interesting to note that there were 142 female lighthouse keepers listed in J. Candace Clifford’s book Women Who Keep the Lights, 1776-1947. Clifford mentions that women lighthouse keepers were not common; typically, those appointed as keepers were the spouse of an assistant or head keeper and assumed the duties when husbands became ill or died. However, many of these were women appointed in their own right, and served their country with distinction for many years in a time when employment for women was extremely limited. Catherine Murdock was one of these exemplary women.

I would hope Catherine A. Murdock’s 50 years of service might still be honored and revered by future generations. Catherine was truly the grand lady of the Rondout Creek Lighthouse.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2015 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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