Before the Erie Canal opened its locks in 1825, the navigational system on the Hudson River was haphazard to say the least. The US Lighthouse Establishment tried to create a system of lamplighters, hanging lanterns at treacherous spots along the shore to warn sailors of danger, but this was not always a reliable method. River commerce, in those days, was limited to the local river-towns and the economy generated from New York City. With commercial access to the heartland of America and the increase in international trade, the need to protect the increasing flow of commercial traffic was crucial to the river economy. From the Battery to Troy, NY, the constant change in the characteristics of the river, due to its tidal flow, made charts in the old days obsolete very quickly.
For years, ocean mariners depended on lighthouses to help guide them safely around dangerous shoals and reefs on the coast. The need for a similar system of navigational aids became imperative with the increased traffic on the river. A year after the birth of the Canal, the first lighthouse shined on the mighty Hudson River, insuring the safety of those ships that sailed her waters.
At one time, there were 14 lighthouses lining the shores of the Hudson, guiding ships safely up and down the river. Today, only seven exist, the others falling victim to neglect or the harsh elements of the river, with some dismantled because their services were no longer needed, due to automated light towers. The remaining seven have a new breed of lightkeeper, keeping a caring and vigilant eye on their future. The new generation is not just one keeper, but many. Lighthouse preservation groups, consisting of individuals with the same motives and objectives to save our lights have emerged. Unlike the keepers of old, they are volunteers offering their services free of charge. They come from all walks of life and bring to each lighthouse their own and different expertise, from sweeping a broom during a spring cleanup to architectural advice during a restoration.
Underneath the George Washington Bridge, the Little Red Lighthouse (Jeffrey's Hook) sits quietly beneath the shadows of the bridge on the New York shore. Famous to children all over the world because of the wonderful children's book The Little Red Lighthouse and The Great Grey Bridge by Hildegarde Swift. It was the endless outcry of children who loved this light that saved it from destruction. In 1951, the USCG relented to children's protests and turned over the light to the NYC Parks Department. Today, the City of New York Department of Parks & Recreation and The Historic House Trust tend the light, making sure it remains part of our maritime history. Tours of the lighthouse are conducted regularly by the Urban Park Rangers, and each October a Little Red Lighthouse festival takes place, with a special reading of the famous children's book. Although it does not serve as a navigational aid, its spirit shines bright as a constant reminder that all things big and small have a place in our society.
Sailing north to the village of Sleepy Hollow, we discover the Tarrytown Lighthouse, located at Kingsland Point Park. This light fell victim to the same obsolescence as the Little Red Light, due to the construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Serving the river proudly from 1883 - 1965. The red and white cylindrical lighthouse is the pride and joy of Westchester County, with the Westchester Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation serving as its current keeper. In 1979, the lighthouse gained its rightful place on the National Register of Historic Places, recognizing its historical significance. Tours of the light are conducted regularly, educating visitors about the lighthouse and different facets of river-life along the Hudson. On display in the light is memorabilia such as logbooks, photographs and turn of the century furnishings depicting the life of a keeper.
Across the river in Rockland County, just north of the Tarrytown Lighthouse, stands the Stony Point Lighthouse. The Stony Point Light was the first lighthouse on the Hudson River to serve the river captains. In 1826, one year after the opening of the Erie Canal its light shined for the first time. It saw active service until 1925, when the US Lighthouse Service replaced it with a tower light, near the shoreline. In 1986, the initial restoration effort began, with a restoration to the exterior and the reglazing of the lantern. On October 7, 1995, the Stony Point Lighthouse was re-activated as a historic light, complete with a new period fourth order Fresnel lens and a restored interior. Today, regular lighthouse tours and special events are offered during the season, educating the public about this first beacon on the Hudson.
Moving north on the river is the last remaining wood frame lighthouse on the Hudson. The Esopus Lighthouse, built in 1871, is fortunate to have the Save Esopus-Meadows Lighthouse Commission (SELC) as its current keeper. The SELC, formed in 1990, is responsible for restoring and preserving the more affectionately known "Maid of the Meadows." Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, the lighthouse is dangerously in need of major repairs. The major problem is that it is listing to one side and needs major repair to its foundation. Listed on the Doomsday List of endangered lights, the SELC is working desperately to save it, but time (against nature's elements) and money are needed to help secure its future.
Under the watchful eye of the Hudson River Maritime Museum, is the Rondout II (Kingston Lighthouse) Lighthouse standing at the mouth of Rondout Creek in Kingston, NY. This lighthouse is a showcase for this vibrant river-city, rich in maritime history and committed to preserving its waterfront. The present day lighthouse is the third lighthouse built at Kingston, first lit on August 25, 1915. Its predecessors, built in 1837 and 1867 fell victim to the elements of nature and obsolescence.
In 1954, automation of the Rondout II almost caused its downfall. It went through years of neglect, after the last keeper left and the station was closed and left unattended.
Finally, in 1984, the Hudson River Maritime Museum entered a long-term lease with the USCG, working cooperatively towards the lighthouse's future. The Museum is now raising funds to restore the interior walls and rooms, replicating the period between 1930-1940 complete with period style furniture. Lighthouse tours conducted by the Museum, with its educational programs and special events during the season, further demonstrates the commitment the Hudson River Maritime Museum has in preserving not only the lighthouse, but also its history.
Traveling north on the river is the next treasure of the Hudson, the Saugerties Lighthouse. First established in 1836, it guided ships safely past the shallows around the mouth of Esopus Creek. This lighthouse is the perfect example of what can be accomplished by the new breed of keepers. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1954, when the USCG decided to use an automated tower light. Without keepers to tend the station, it fell victim to vandals and disrepair. The placement of the lighthouse into the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and the formation of the Saugerties Lighthouse Conservancy in 1986 helped give the old light just what it needed. The Conservancy generated the needed public interest in the lighthouse, conducting fundraisers, and a complete restoration. On August 4, 1990, the light was reactivated, proudly shining its light. The Saugerties Lighthouse functions as a museum with old photos and artifacts from its heyday with tours of the light conducted regularly. The lighthouse is accessible by either foot or boat. A unique feature of Saugerties is that it functions as a bed and breakfast, complete with a live-in lightkeeper, one of the few lighthouses in the New York area offering these accommodations.
Completing our lighthouse journey up the Hudson, we arrive at the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse. This Second Empire Style beacon is celebrating its 125th Anniversary along with the 15th anniversary of the group that restored it to its present day beauty. The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society (HALPS) is the proud keeper of this active aid to navigation light, established in 1874 to guide ships around the "Middle Ground Flats." The HALPS has been active on many levels in securing the future of the lighthouse. As part of the Congressional Appropriations Act of 1999, approval of the transfer of title (formerly the USCG) to the society, is in progress. The society conducts tours of the lighthouse on the second Saturday of each month, starting every June, with a special ringing of the original working fog bell, as a treat for those visiting the restored light. Current plans towards making the light a museum, complete with exhibits, photos and furnishings (circa 1930), are actively underway.
The hard work and dedication of the preservation groups to our Hudson River Lighthouses must be applauded. It is their endless hours of fundraising, letter writing, sheer sweat and determination that kept these treasures alive on the Hudson. Without their dedication, love and commitment, the remaining seven lighthouses would have vanished forever.
This story appeared in the
August 1999 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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