Editor's Note: This account is from the December 1, 1878 St. Louis (Missouri) Globe-Democrat. The tone of the article reflects the time period in which it was written.
A PAIR OF HEROINES.
The Ladies Who Guard a Hudson River Lighthouse.
Deeds That Would Honor Grace Darling or Ida Lewis.
[From the New York Mercury.]
‘‘If the world knows little of its heroes, it knows less of its heroines.’’ So declared an old Hudson River pilot, who had for thirty years felt his tortuous way, night after night, along that serpentine stream in the pilot-house of one or another steamboat. And when he looked in that far-off-way, with his eyes turned inward, the writer knew he was thinking of something interesting, and the Mercury reporter said to him: "Come, out with it, Uncle John; tell me what you have reference to.’’ "I mean,’’ said he, with an emphatic knock given with his iron knuckles upon the table, ‘‘that while some chance incident, or the presence of a newspaper reporter at an opportune moment, gave the world the benefit of an adventure of Ida Lewis — which turned out to be merely the escapade of a masculine and hoydenish woman after all — the meritorious efforts of
TWO REAL HEROINES,
modest, retiring, made without any idea that the reporters were around — and indeed they were not, for a wonder — are never spoken of." "Who are the two heroines?’’ Well, they live in a lighthouse not over 120 miles from New York, on the Hudson River, keep it themselves, and I tell you they’re like the ten wise virgins in Scripture — their lamp is always trimmed and burning, and on a foggy night when the light is not visible you can hear one of them a mile off blowing a fog horn herself; for the Government has been too mercenary to give them one of the automatic new-fangled kind —and as for saving lives I know they’ve done it many a time. But if you want to know more about them, just you go down to the Government Lighthouse Bureau at Tompkinsville, on Staten Island, and they will tell you all about the heroines of Saugerties Light." The writer, with such promise of good things, could not resist the temptation to go to the Lighthouse Department, and when the object of his visit was made known to Maj. Burke, the chief clerk in the Inspector’s office, the latter said he had no doubt that the old pilot’s statements were true. ‘‘In fact,’’ said he, "there is no one connected with the lighthouses of the government whose general characteristics, daring, bravery and invincibility to fear, but withal natural modesty, would be so apt to include heroic action as
MISS KATE C. CROWLEY,
the mistress and keeper of Saugerties Lighthouse. While we have had no official report of her achievements, I have heard of them through other sources, and can say to you that she is capable of any daring deed involving danger or self-sacrifice; and it is the most natural thing in the world, as she is so modest that we should never receive official reports which could come only through her. As to the manner in which the lighthouse is kept, it is unexcelled by any other man or woman in the department. Accounts are always kept right, the light is always burning, and Miss Crowley is the very best kind of a keeper. Go and see her. She is a model watcher.’’ With such assurances the reporter could no nothing less than follow the advice, and he took the night boat for Catskill, which would reach Saugerties early in the morning. It was a bright, starlight night, and the writer sat in the pilot-house talking to the Steersman, who guided the steamer safely through the shadows of the frowning peak of the Highlands and answered questions or volunteered information between the rotations of the wheel. As we turned a bend in the river a light which looked like a star of the first magnitude twinkled and shown upon us far away in the distance. "That’s fifteen miles away," said the man at the wheel. ‘‘That’s Saugerties light. We'll lose it again a dozen times in the turns of the river. Do I know who keeps it? Well, no; not to speak to ’em, but know its two gals as has got grit enough, for I’ve seen ’em on the river many a time by daylight pulling away a great heavy row boat that no two river men would care to handle in one of them gales that comes sweepin’ down through the mountains like great flues in a big chimney. It ain’t like a tumultuous sea, hey? Well, that just shows how little you know about these North River storms. Why, when we get some of these hurricane blasts, they sweep down through these gaps from the north, and another current comes up from the south, and
GOD, HELP ANY VESSEL
that gets caught in the maelstrom when they meet. Well, it was on one of those occasions I was comin’ up the river on the old Columbus after she’d got out carryin’ passengers and took to the towin’ business. Let me see — that was about five years ago. We'd got a little north of Rondout, and I was all alone at the wheel; I heard a rumblin’ behind me, and I looked around, and when I saw a big cloud with thunder heads rushing up from the south I knew we were going to catch a ripper. This was nothing, however, to the heavy clouds that came sweeping down from he north, in an opposite direction; and then I saw that the two storms would meet. I hollered down the trumpet to the engineer to slower the engine, and made up my mind to keep headway and stay in the river, as it would be unsafe to try and make a landing or get fastened to a dock. In a few minutes the two storms struck us. The boat cavorted like a frisky horse, and in the foaming water plunged and reared, and shook in every timber, as if it had the ague. We were then pretty nearly abreast of Tivoli, and Saugerties’ Lighthouse was only about two miles ahead. A sloop loaded with blue-stone, which had just emerged from the mouth of Esopus Creek and was standing down the river, went over when the squall struck her as suddenly as if a great machine under the water had upset her; and soon I saw two men struggling in the water. Hardly a minute elapsed before
TWO FEMALE FORMS
were fluttering around the small boat by the lighthouse. In another minute it was launched and it bobbed up and down in the seething, foaming waters. The two girls, bareheaded, with a pair of oars apiece, began pulling towards the men in the water. The waves ran so high, the gale blew so madly, the thunder roared so incessantly and the lightning flashed in such blinding sheets, that it seemed impossible for the women ever to reach the men, to keep headway, or to keep from being swamped. But they never missed the opportunity of a rising billow to give them leverage, and they managed by steady pulling to get ahead until they reached the men in the water. The great danger was that the tossing boat would strike the sailors and end their career, but one of the gals leaned forward over the bow of the boat, braced her feet beneath the seat on which she had been sitting, stiffened herself out for a great effort, and as her sister kept the bow of the craft crosswise to the waves, caught one of the men beneath the arm as he struck out on top of a billow, lifted and threw him by main force into the middle of the boat, and then
PREPARED FOR THE OTHER MAN.
He had got hold of the sloop’s rudder, which had got unshipped and was floating on the water. He let go and swam toward the rowboat, and was hauled in also by the woman and his half-drowned comrade. I tell you,’’ said the pilot, ‘‘those gals are bricks, and no mistake. You couldn’t have got any river boatmen to do what they did.’’ It was just 4 o’ clock when the steamboat landed at the little insular dock which is called Saugerties, but which ought to be called Gideonstown, for there is only one house in it, and that is inhabited by a most estimable family by that name. The sight from the lighthouse, however, full a mile away, shone down upon it like the eye of a great ogre, illuminating the surrounding country, and enabling the writer to take observations. These, however, were more certain in the light of dawn which soon followed. From Mr. Gideon it was learned that the village of Saugerties was two miles away, and that there were many old residents in that place, where the parents of Miss Crowley formerly resided, and along the river front, who were familiar with the exploits of the young ladies. "Do I know them?’’ was his interrogative answer to the reporter’s question. "I should like to know who doesn’t know them hereabouts. They are always in their boat, and the people hereabouts have come to think that they
REALLY BELONG TO THE WATER
more than they do to the land, for the only time they are visible is when they are rowing to Saugerties or other places to get provisions for their household. They do that every day, rain or shine.’’ "Do they mind rain?’’ "Not at all, they make visits every day Saugerties or thereabouts. As for rowing, no boatman on the river can equal them. They feather their oars and make regular strokes independent of wind or tide." A trip to the village of Saugerties after much inquiry, led the reporter to a person who had been familiar with the lighthouse and its surroundings for many years. He is an old boatman and fisherman. He catches shad at the season of the year that they abound, and goes out duck shooting in the fall and early winter. He is acquainted with the history of all the inhabitants, and knows all about the occupants of the lighthouse since it was first built.
THE TALE OF A LIGHTHOUSE.
He said: ‘‘It is now twenty years since Mr. Crowley was appointed lighthouse keeper. The old light stood on a piece of masonry which was built midway in the river, upon a morass several feet above the surface of the water at high tide, but in a very unsubstantial way. When the early spring freshets brought down the ice, it was feared several times the lighthouse would be carried away, and the necessity of a new foundation and a new lighthouse soon became apparent. The old place, however, was newly supported, and about fifteen years ago he brought over his family from Saugerties to live in the building. His daughter Kate, a little girl then, from first seemed to be amphibious, and she would go out in a little skiff from the lighthouse alone, seeming to take such risks that every one prophesied that she would surely be drowned. Many a time her little craft upset, but
SHE SWAM LIKE A DUCK,
and always succeeded in reaching the lighthouse in safety. Her sister Ellen during these early years lived at her relatives in Saugerties, and did not join her sister until the new lighthouse was built. That was about nine years ago. Then Kate was fifteen years of age and Ellen about seventeen: In that year, Ellen was leaving Saugerties in a boat with her mother, and she saw a boy in swimming, but who had got beyond his depth, struggling for aid. She endeavored to reach him and her mother attempted to assist her, but, the latter being a woman weighing over 200 pounds, upset the boat, and the girl was thrown into the water in such a way that she came under the boat, which had capsized. Her mother was speedily rescued, but the daughter could not release herself from the peculiar position in which she was placed for several minutes and when rescued was found to have taken a considerable amount of water into her lungs. This seriously affected her health for some time afterwards. She has suffered more or less from that immersion, and malarial fever from that time to the present moment, and though she and her sister are said to take care of the lighthouse, and are always together in an emergency, the latter of late years has taken the responsibility of the place herself and runs the whole affair. Do I know of any case where these girls have saved life? Indeed I do. Three years ago last winter,
A YOUNG MAN AND A LADY
attempted to cross the ice to Tivoli. They had got about 100 yards from the lighthouse when the ice broke and they were precipitated into the water. Kate had rigged her boat with runners, so that, in her regular trips to main land, she was able in winter weather to make her way over the ice, or the latter gave way, through the water. She appears to be always on the lookout, and saw what had occurred, and in an incredible short space of time jumped upon the ice, pulling her boat after her, while her sister pushed it from the stern. They arrived at the scene of danger speedily and rescued the young man, but his companion bad disappeared. Kate saw a fragment of her dress floating on the water, and knew that she was under a cake of ice. It took but a moment for Kate to rush forward, throw herself into the opening and withdraw the woman from her perilous position. The latter was limp and senseless, and it took several minutes to restore her to consciousness. Meanwhile the ice was breaking up all around the boat, the young man was precipitated into the water, and it required the
UNITED EFFORTS OF THE TWO SISTERS
to recover him also and place him in the boat. During this time gorges of ice had broken up above, and had carried all of them far below, and it was by the utmost efforts of the sisters that they succeeded in reaching a point two miles below the lighthouse. It is only about two-years since a steamer ran into a sloop nearly abreast of the lighthouse, cutting the latter in two and throwing all on board into the water. The sisters immediately launched their boat and put off to the assistance of the men in the water. Two of the sailors could swim, and in a few moments succeeded in reaching the bar, but two others were struggling for life. One of them had gone down twice and was rescued as he rose the third time. A fourth one was hanging to a piece of the wreck, when he was
TAKEN INTO THE HEROINES’ BOAT.
"These circumstances,’’ declared our informant, "have come under my personal observation, but there are many other cases well substantiated, in which these girls have saved life, but the particulars of which I am not informed.’’
AT THE LIGHTHOUSE.
The writer, returning to the long dock, was conveyed to the lighthouse in a row-boat by Mr. Gideon. The place consists of a frame house and an adjoining lighthouse, erected upon a stone foundation built upon the flats. There are no grounds around the house, and consequently no opportunity for raising anything. Stone steps extend in the south side of the masonry to the water, and up these the writer ascended. Several raps at the front door failed to meet with any response, and the reporter walked around the narrow stonework to a side door. A single knock at this brought to the door a young lady, who was evidently surprised at the presence of the visitor. The latter asked for Miss Kate Crowley. The young lady replied that she was the person asked for, and invited the visitor into the front room, which was used as a parlor, and was plainly but neatly furnished. It hardly seemed possible that the modest appearing,
FAIR-HAIRED, BLUE-EYED YOUNG LADY
could be the heroine spoken of, but there seemed to be no question of doubt, and the reporter suggested that as he had ascertained she had been instrumental in saving life, he should pleased to get the particulars from her lips. She seemed exceedingly loth to say anything about herself, especially in the way of exploits, and when the reporter mentioned the instances spoken of above, she turned them off as of no account, or not worth elaboration. Considerable of her history was gleaned independent of her life-saving exertions. She said that when she was a little girl her father took the old lighthouse, and she had such a fondness for the water that she used to be on it all the time in a little skiff. She liked also to take charge of the light, see that the oil was in good condition, and attend to all lighthouse matters, so that her father by the time she was fifteen years of age had come to depend entirely upon for the care of the lighthouse. About nine years ago, when the new lighthouse was built - work which she had watched at every stage of its progress with a great deal of interest - her
FATHER SUDDENLY BECAME BLIND
from cataract of the eyes. Her mother was unable to take charge of the lighthouse, and since that time she been compelled to assume the whole management herself with some assistance from her sister, who has always been in poor health. They row daily to the neighboring village to get their provisions and receive $560 a year as their remuneration. They have to find everything except oil and necessaries for keeping the lamp in order. They have some very severe storms sometimes, and in the spring the ice comes down and threatens their little house; but she is never afraid, and thinks it a pleasure when any one is in danger to do what she and her sister can to relieve them. During the conversation her sister came into the room. Never were two sisters more unlike.
ELLEN IS A BRUNETTE,
tall, slim, with dark eyes and dark hair. When Kate is animated she is exceedingly pretty. She displays a row of milk-white teeth and shows dimpled checks, and looks at you with a pair of large eyes full in the face. She introduced her sister to the reporter, explaining his visit. The new-comer was quite as indisposed to seek notoriety as the other, and said: ‘‘We are simply two girls trying to do our duty here in this quiet place, taking care as we best can of our blind father aged mother. We are always on the lookout for vessels that may get out of their course and are sure to have our lamp in good order. We have not the opportunity of making ourselves heroines as we have learned another woman, Ida Lewis, has, but we do what we can in our feeble way.’’ The writer insinuated that their romantic spot would be apt to induce visitors to call upon, them, but they declared that theirs was a most solitary life. The inhabitants of Saugerties had come to regard the lighthouse as an old institution, possessing no interest whatever; there was nothing to attract visitors but their plain house, which was certainly unattractive, and the only time they saw any one was when they made their visits to the mainland for provisions. They had an idea, too, that the locality was unhealthy. Every summer for the past nine years they had
SUFFERED FROM MALARIAL FEVER,
arising from the surrounding lowlands, and only a few months ago they had buried a beloved brother. The only pleasure they had in life was to row in the river, keep the lighthouse in good trim, and do the best they could for any one in trouble on the river. They introduced the reporter to their aged parents, who understood only dimly and vaguely (after repeated efforts on the part of their children to make them comprehend what the object of his visit was), and at parting, the heroic sisters asked that they might not be given too much publicity. The writer promised that he would not say anything concerning them which they did not merit, and, as he was told still more of their humane efforts after he had left their island home, he feels that he has not violated his promise.
Thank you to HRMM volunteer Carl Mayer for sharing and transcribing this article and for the glimpse into nineteenth century life in the Hudson Valley.
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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 volunteers Carl and Joan 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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This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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