By Allynne Lange, Curator
The most famous of the fourteen keepers of Kingston/ Rondout’s lighthouses was Catherine A. Murdock, who faithfully served for fifty-one years. Born Catherine Parsell in the town of Esopus, she married George W. Murdock in the 1850s.
According to government records, Mrs. Murdock arrived at the old wooden lighthouse, built in 1837 on the south side of the entrance to the Rondout Creek, in 1856 when her husband was appointed head keeper. She arrived with a host of personal belongings, including furniture, and two small children – George and Emma. A third child, James, was born in the lighthouse.
Within a year of his appointment, George W. Murdock, who had gone ashore to Rondout to purchase groceries, was found floating drowned near his loaded rowboat. Despite this tragedy, his widow continued to faithfully maintain the light while also caring for her three young children.
Although there were many applicants for her late husband’s position, Mrs. Murdock was officially appointed by the United States Lighthouse Service as Head Keeper at Rondout on July 11, 1857 with the help of local friends. Her appointment was also due to her own diligent efforts in maintaining the light.
Mrs. Murdock spent ten years, including those of the Civil War, living in the old wooden lighthouse which each year became more and more rickety. The building was threatened by severe storms and the spring freshets, or floods, which regularly occurred. One storm was so fierce that “the house rocked to and fro like a church steeple.” Despite her fear that the building would collapse, Mrs. Murdock faithfully kept the light shining in the tower. Had the light gone out it could have resulted in scores of boatmen losing their bearings and wrecking the vessels with loss of life.
In 1867 when the substantial bluestone lighthouse was built Mrs. Murdock moved her family into their new home. Characterized by a newspaper of the day a “little waterborne castle… where the children were raised to the music of merry waves and dashing spray…,” the new lighthouse must have been a cozy and delightful home. The house was roomy and pleasant with four rooms on each of its two floors. Photographs taken in the family parlor indicate that it was filled – in typical Victorian fashion – with dark furniture that obviously belonged to the family, and wallpapered walls covered with framed photos and prints.
For more than forty years Mrs. Murdock made her home in this bluestone lighthouse. For her vantage point on the river she witnessed the sinking of the passenger steamboat Dean Richmond, the burning of the steamboats Thorn and Clifton, and the barge Gilboa. She effected several rescues, usually with the help of her sons, sometimes nursing the victim back to help. However, due to the extraordinary paperwork required with each rescue, she seldom officially reported these efforts.
One morning before the dikes were built on each side of the Creek’s entrance, as Mrs. Murdock sat in her “little sewing room”, she heard a loud crash and the sound of breaking glass. She turned around and saw a schooner’s bowspirit sticking through the window and half way into the room. The schooner had been crowded into the lighthouse by a steam tug and a large tow of barges which was leaning the Rondout Creek.
According to her own accounts, the worst time that Mrs. Murdock experienced was the night of December 10, 1878 when a large flood occurred in the Rondout Creek and the Hudson River. As the weather worsened the previous day a family friend visited the lighthouse and urged Mrs. Murdock to take her family and go ashore. She replied, “I’m a woman, I know, but if the lighthouse goes down tonight, I go with it.” At midnight Mrs. Murdock went to the top of the tower where she was greeted by the pitch dark night and the sound of rushing and rapidly rising water. At three in the morning, the guard lock at Eddyville gave way. The waters swept everything before it: boats, barges, and tugs were town loose from their moorings and caught up in the raging flood. The lighthouse remained steadfast.
In 1880 her son James Murdock was appointed assistant keeper, and officially began to help his mother in her duties at the lighthouse. James and his wife lived in the lighthouse with his mother. When the new lighthouse was opened in 1915 James was its first keeper.
In 1907 Catherine Murdock, who had by this time remarried someone named Perkins, retired from the lighthouse service and moved ashore. Her fifty-one years of service as a head lighthouse keeper made her the oldest lighthouse keeper in continuous service in the United States at the time of her retirement.
Living full time on the mainland must have been quite an adjustment for this indomitable woman whose whole adult life had been spent on a small island.
Mrs. Murdock Perkins out lived two husbands, both of whom died by drowning. She herself died in 1909 and is buried in the Port Ewen Cemetery with her family, the Parsells.
This blog is written by:
Hudson River Maritime Museum
50 Rondout Landing
Kingston, NY 12401
The Hudson River Maritime Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of the Hudson River, its tributaries, and related industries.
Become a member and receive benefits like unlimited free museum admission, discounts on classes, programs, and in the museum store, plus invitations to members-only events.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum receives no federal, state, or municipal funding except through competitive, project-based grants. Your donation helps support our mission of education and preservation.