Editor’s Note: The following text is a verbatim transcription of an article featuring stories by Captain William O. Benson (1911-1986). Beginning in 1971, Benson, a retired tugboat captain, reminisced about his 40 years on the Hudson River in a regular column for the Kingston (NY) Freeman’s Sunday Tempo magazine. Captain Benson's articles were compiled and transcribed by HRMM volunteers. See more of Captain Benson’s articles here.
This article was originally published June 2, 1974.
Stuyvesant Lighthouse. The Upper Kinderhook or Stuyvesant Light during one of its long years of service to Hudson River boatmen. The structure shown here was built in 1868 to replace a previous light first erected in 1829. The lighthouse pictured here was replaced by an automatic beacon in 1933 after the building was dismantled. Image courtesy of hudsonriverlighthouses.org
The lighthouses along the banks of the Hudson River have always been considered inanimate friends to boatmen. Years ago before the electronic wonder of radar, on foggy and stormy nights, the light houses were often friends indeed.
In recent years the efforts of the Hudson Valley River Commission to preserve the last five lighthouses at Tarrytown, Esopus Meadows, Rondout, Saugerties and Hudson have drawn attention to these old navigational beacons. Other lighthouses that have passed from the scene have virtually been forgotten.
Two lighthouses in his latter category that always intrigued me were the Old Maid’s Light on Rattlesnake Island at Coxsackie and the Upper Kinderhook Light north of Stuyvesant. Both have long since been torn down and replaced by automatic beacons — the Old Maid’s Light in 1939 and the Upper Kinderhook Light in 1933.
The Old Maid’s Light on Rattlesnake Island allegedly got its name from two old maid keepers who maintained the lighthouse for years and years. The channel used to pass very close to the lighthouse and the keepers would always come out and wave to passing Day Liners and other steamers. Day Liners in turn, would invariably blow a salute on their whistle to the keeper's friendly greeting.
The first lighthouse at Upper Kinderhook was put up in 1829. This was replaced in 1868 by a more substantial structure. The old stone block foundation of this lighthouse is still there.
On a little piece of ground or island made there at that time to protect the dwelling from the freshets and ice jams in the Hudson of long ago, there are lilac bushes. In the spring, one can still see them there in full bloom.
I suppose in the far distant past, some keeper or his wife placed or planted the lilacs to lend some color to their austere surroundings. Now, the lighthouse is long since gone and no one goes there. Everything else around the old lighthouse site has returned to a wild state. But the lilacs still flourish and bloom in May and lend color to the river bank — a living memorial to some long departed keeper of the light.
On the river a story is told about a keeper of long ago at the Upper Kinderhook Light, who at one time placed a large mirror on the ground on the north side of the lighthouse. The mirror was placed there so that the keeper could look out a window at night from his bed and see if the red light in the tower above was still burning.
As the story goes, one of the government lighthouse tenders happened to be going by late one night, which they very seldom did, and the lighthouse inspector was aboard. While looking at the lighthouse, the inspector could see a red reflection on the ground north of the tower.
The inspector had the tender stop and he was rowed ashore. Sure enough he found the mirror. Allegedly the keeper was admonished and transferred to another lighthouse.
Strangely, for years neither the Old Maid’s Light or the Upper Kinderhook Light were equipped with fog bells.
The keepers, however, were always true to their jobs and responsibilities. If a steamboat or tow was coming down the river in heavy fog or snow blowing their whistles to get an echo, one could always depend on the keepers of the lights to be out either banging on a dish pan or making some suitable noise to let the boatmen know where they were.
Now, on passing the sites of those two old lighthouses on stormy or foggy nights, all is silent. Both lighthouses are gone, along with their friendly keepers, never to return. In their stead, are automatic beacons — Flashing White, No. 23 and Flashing Red, No. 32. Progress is great, but the lighthouses were better, it seems to me.
Captain William Odell Benson was a life-long resident of Sleightsburgh, N.Y., where he was born on March 17, 1911, the son of the late Albert and Ida Olson Benson. He served as captain of Callanan Company tugs including Peter Callanan, and Callanan No. 1 and was an early member of the Hudson River Maritime Museum. He retained, and shared, lifelong memories of incidents and anecdotes along the Hudson River.
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