In the spirit of the Seven Sentinels film, today we are revisiting a time in which all lighthouse keepers in the country were direct political appointments by the President of the United States. This form of political patronage was legally in place until the 1890s, and in the early days of lighthouses, meant that keepers were replaced at every election.
Although numerous Hudson River Lighthouse keepers were removed - for one reason or another - under this system, one of the most egregious examples was the removal of lighthouse keeper Dorcas Schoonmaker of the Saugerties Lighthouse. Dorcas became keeper after the death of her husband Abram Schoonmaker, who had replaced former keeper (and member of the opposite political party) Joseph Burhans in the last. In 1849, Dorcas, a widow with young children, was removed from her position and Joseph Burhans was put back in place. There were few options for widowed women to make a living for their families in the 1840s and '50s, especially if they did not own a home from which to operate a boarding house or similar business. We have found at least two newspaper articles eviscerating President Zachary Taylor for his decision to replace Dorcas (even though it is likely he had no hand in the decision-making at all, leaving it to local party bosses). But perhaps justice was ultimately served - Taylor became the shortest-serving president in U.S. history, dying suddenly just 16 months after taking office.
You can read transcriptions of the newspapers below, both of which quote the Saugerties Telegraph:
"Taylor Continues Proscribing Women." Monmouth Democrat, Freehold, NY, August 9, 1849.
The conduct of the heartless Administration is daily developing more and more of its enormous propensities for proscription. The removal of prominent office holders, of indomitable Democracy and enemies of every phase of whiggery, is a prerogative in the exercise of which we shall not complain. But when women, widows with families of children, are hunted and deposed, to gratify a vindicative [sic] political revenge, we think such outrages should call upon the head of Taylor the indignation of every honest man in the community. We have noticed previously, the removal of women from petty post-offices, the income barely being sufficient for their support.
The latest instance which has come to our knowledge, is as disgraceful as those which have preceeded [sic] it. It is the removal of Mrs. Dorcas Schoonmaker, a poor and highly respectable lady, from the office of keeper of the Saugerties light-house, in the Hudson River - The Telegraph, published in that village, thus alludes to the case.
Under President Tyler's Administration, in 1844, Abram E. Schoonmaker was appointed keeper of the light-house at this place [Saugerties]. He had been a boatman for years, and was at that time unable to perform hard labor. His appointment gave universal satisfaction to both parties. The salary supported him and his family. He was very attentive to his duties, and continued to hold office to the time of his death, in 1846. During the last year of his life, while he was confined to his room, and the greater part of the time to his bed, the duties were performed by his wife, and with such marked regularity and attention as to receive the universal commendation of the boatmen on the river. So interested were the masters of vessels on the Hudson on behalf of this lady, then as now a widow, with a family of children dependent on her for support, that a petition for her appointment to the office was at once drawn up, numerously signed, and forwarded to the proper department, and she was accordingly appointed. She has held the office from that time until this week, when she was removed to make room for Joseph H. Burhans, who was considered, it seems, entitled to receive it from the present administration - being a blue-light Federalist of the Hartford Convention school.
It further states a remonstrance had been forwarded to the proper authorities, protesting against her removal, signed by every steamboat captain and every sloop captain navigating the Hudson, to whom it was presented, Whigs as well as Democrats, being a large majority of the officers of boats on the river; all of whom bore testimony that never since the first establishment of the light-house, has the light been kept with that care at all times of night as during the time when Mrs. Schoonmaker had charge of it. But all to no purpose.
The voters of Ulster county will give Taylor such a demonstration at the next election, as will teach him a lesson which the Whigs of this State will be compelled to commit to memory.
On the same day, all the way down in Tennessee, Mrs. Dorcas Schoonmaker also made the news, in largely the same language:
"The Second Washington," The Daily Union (Nashville, Tennessee), August 9, 1849.
General Taylor has removed Mrs. DORCAS SCHOONMAKER, a poor and highly respected lady, from the office of keeper of the Saugerties light-house, in the Hudson River. The Telegraph, published at that place, thus alludes to this case:
Under President Tyler's Administration, in 1844, Abram E. Schoonmaker was appointed keeper of the light-house at this place [Saugerties]. He had been a boatman for years, and was at that time unable to perform hard labor. His appointment gave universal satisfaction to both parties. The salary supported him and his family. He was very attentive to his duties, and continued to hold office to the time of his death, in 1846. During the last year of his life, while he was confined to his room, and the greater part of the time to his bed, the duties were performed by his wife, and with such marked regularity and attention as to receive the universal commendation of the boatmen on the river. So interested were the masters of vessels on the Hudson on behalf of this lady, then as now a widow, with a family of children dependent on her for support, that a petition for her appointment to the office was at once drawn up, numerously signed, and forwarded to the proper department, and she was accordingly appointed. She has held the office from that time until this week, when she was removed to make room for Jos. H. Burhans, who was considered, it seems, entitled to receive it from the present administration - being a blue-light Federalist of the Hartford Convention school.
The Cincinnati Enquirer says that a remonstrance has been sent to Washington against her removal, signed by every steamboat Captain and sloop Captain navigating the Hudson, to whom it was presented - whigs as well as democrats - being a large majority of all the officers of boats on that river; all of whom bear testimony that never since the first establishment of the light-house, has the light been kept with that care at all times of night as during the time when Mrs. SCHOONMAKER had charge of it.
Is not that small business for the "Second Washington?"
With references to the Cincinnati Enquirer, it seems as though the plight of Mrs. Schoonmaker may have gone "viral" in 1849, with her story published in multiple newspapers throughout the country.
Sadly, Dorcas, who had lost several children in addition to her husband, moved in with one of her adult daughters and died just a few years later, in 1851, at the age of 49. She is buried with Abram in Mountain View Cemetery in Saugerties, NY.
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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 volunteer Carl Mayer. 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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Twenty years ago, four friends with an abiding love of the Hudson River and its history stepped away from their families and their work to travel up the river in a homemade strip-planked canoe to experience the river on its most intimate terms. The team set off from Liberty State Park in New Jersey and completed the adventure nine days later just below Albany where one of the paddlers lived. They began with no itinerary and no pre-arranged lodging or shore support. There were no cell phones. The journey deepened their appreciation for the river and its many moods, the people who live and work beside the river and the importance of friendship in sustaining our lives.
Today is the last day of Muddy Paddle's Excellent Adventure on the Hudson. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy the last post! Follow the adventure here.
Monday - Last Day
Dawn was cold and foggy. I rose early to sketch the Bear alongside the gnarled poison ivy tree with the tangled and eroded roots. We cooked up oatmeal and hot chocolate. The fog began to thin and the tide was still going out when we felt a breath of air from the south. We were excited by the prospect that we could sail home. We packed hastily and slid the Bear over fifty feet of soft, low-tide mud until she was afloat. I rigged our mast and yard.
We aimed for the middle of the channel to catch the best air. The wind increased briskly as we cleared the northern tip of the island and we set our course for Four Mile Point. A big cruiser approached us carelessly and we had to turn to meet her wake. Dan was drenched in the bow and we had to bail. Hereafter, we attempted to signal power boats to slow down by pumping our paddles up and down. Most boaters were courteous and throttled back. The tide still hadn’t turned. The opposing south wind set up a heavy chop of short, steep waves. Steering with a paddle required vigorous draw strokes on each side to keep the canoe from veering off course. Joe set our aerodynamic mouse-eaten sail to its most efficient shape and the miles rolled by very quickly.
There is an old stone house perched on a west shore outcropping called Four Mile Point where a lighthouse once stood. We sailed by this quickly. On the east side we passed the railroad bridges over the Stockport Creek. A house was built here in 1664 but the occupants were massacred by Indians and burned inside with the house. This stretch of the river has a very wild and untamed feeling, enhanced on our passage by the rising wind and choppy surface.
The tide turned as we approached Coxsackie. With the assist of our sail, it felt as though we were surfing the crest of one of several tidal bores advancing northward. To our west, the opera house and the public dock came into view. Squinting, we could see the bones of the old steam packet Storm King, abandoned here during the Depression. To the east, the ornate brick chimney of the 1885 Scott Ice House broke the tree line at Nutten Hook. We had hoped to camp there, but our difficulties on the first day had changed up our anticipated destinations.
We approached Coxsackie Island and needed to decide which channel to follow. The shorter west channel is narrow and shoal but looked to be passable for small boats. However as we approached it at low tide, the water became very shallow, so we took the long way around. We passed Rattlesnake Island and the foundation of the demolished Coxsackie Light, now bearing a steel cage tower instead of the historic brick house and lantern. There were strong eddies swirling around the limestone platform.
Stuyvesant Landing appeared to our east as we approached Houghtaling Island and yet another lighthouse foundation. The Island divides the river into a broad navigable channel to the west and a narrowing backwater to the east. Houghtaling Island has been radically changed from a series of small low lying marshy islands to a single, elongated island with higher terrain and deciduous trees by the addition of massive amounts of dredge spoil. We sailed up the west side of the island past the hamlet of New Baltimore with its old houses along the shore on terraces and a white steeple at the top. Sloop captain Joseph Sherman’s early nineteenth century riverside house with its distinctive verandah had recently been restored. Many power boat enthusiasts were out for the day from the marina just north of town. It was a perfect blue sky afternoon and we were able to completely relax as the wind rushed us northward.
Steve opened up our food chests and built sandwiches and passed out apples as we rolled up the river to Coeymans. Just north of the hamlet were the remains of the Powell and Minnock brick yard and the active Blue Circle Cement marine terminal. Just beyond we found the ruins of a Victorian power house with a tall chimney marking the site of a long gone ice warehouse. The wind began slacking off as we passed beneath the parallel railroad and Thruway bridges at Selkirk. Here, a barge and tug overtook us. The wind came back to life and we surged past Castleton-on-Hudson and began looking for the mouth of the creek that leads directly to Steve’s house. The creek’s mouth flows through a narrow, unmarked gap in a long concrete breakwater. We spotted the gap just in time and made the perfect entrance, striking our sail at the last moment and retaining some of our momentum into the still basin inside the breakwater.
We paddled upstream and dropped Steve off at his house at 3:00. Steve walked to his truck and we returned to the river to take the canoe to the boat ramp at Henry Hudson Park. We arrived at the park simultaneously with Steve, unpacked the Bear and carried the canoe up to the truck, inverting and hoisting her up onto the steel rack. We returned the canoe to her barn and then went to our homes for long overdue showers.
Muddy Paddle and his friends had hoped to paddle together again, but their nine-day trip up the river proved to be their last. The attacks of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath made journeys of this kind seem indulgent. The four adventurers were needed at work and at home.
Many things along the Hudson River, including some of those described in Muddy’s account, have changed over the last 20 years. The Manhattan skyline has been transformed with the loss of the Twin Towers and the construction of new towers including the Freedom Tower with its tall mast punctuating ground zero. The 1931 fireboat John J. Harvey, first encountered by the paddlers as a rusty hulk, was restored and operational in time to assist in the 9/11/2001 rescue. The John J. Harvey was recalled to service by the New York City Fire Department and reactivated as Marine Company 2. Read more about her at https://www.1931fireboat.org/
Regrettably, the 1905 steam ferry Binghamton, on the Jersey shore, succumbed to neglect and sank. In recent years, her remains were scrapped out and small pieces of her were donated to the Hudson River Maritime Museum. Steve Trueman’s historic tugboats in Kingston are now gone; three of them were scrapped, one was returned to commercial service and a fifth is on the ropes near Albany. Housing along the river expanded significantly with large condo complexes rising above the sites of factories, docks and rail yards. A number of iconic Hudson River sites were stabilized and or restored including the ruins of Fort Montgomery, the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse and the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, now the popular Walkway-Over-the-Hudson. Public access to Bannerman’s Arsenal has been developed, although a large portion of the castle keep’s walls have fallen. The old “erector set” Tappan Zee Bridge has been replaced by two massive cable-stay spans that dwarf everything in their vicinity.
But many of the most important things remain unchanged. The rhythm of the tides, the rugged and monumental Palisades, the long stretches of wild shoreline, the distant views of the Catskills, fog on early autumn mornings, the earthy smell of the river above Kingston, the echoes of train horns in the Highlands and the willingness of those who live and work along the river to lend a hand to travelers. The river will always reward those who take the time to paddle, row or sail her waters.
Muddy Paddle’s love of the Hudson River goes back to childhood when he brought dead fish home, boarded foreign freighters to learn how they operated and wandered along the river shore in search of the river’s history. He has traveled the river often, aboard tugboats, sailing vessels large and small and canoes. The account of this trip was kept in a small illustrated journal kept dry within a sealed plastic bag. The illustrations accompanying this account were prepared by the author.
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This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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