Women lighthouse keepers proved their mettle Sarah Wassberg Johnson of the Hudson River Maritime Museum puts spotlight on overlooked beacons of local history
Susan Wassberg Johnson, director of education at the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston (Photo provided)
Lighthouse keeping is a tough physical job, but women have been doing it well for nearly a century, says Sarah Wassberg Johnson, Director of Education at the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston, at the recent January program of the Town of Lloyd Historical Preservation Society in Highland. She described lighthouse keeper duties and told stories of several women who held the job in her presentation, “Keepers of the Light: Women Lighthouse Keepers of the Hudson River.” The first Hudson River lighthouse was built at Stony Point in 1826, and the first woman lighthouse keeper, Christina Whitbeck, assumed the job at the Stuyvesant Lighthouse just 16 years later, succeeding her husband in 1841. As lighthouse keeper, she had to: Light and maintain the lantern, including regularly cleaning the lenses and prisms inside the lamp as well as the interior and exterior of the tower glass. Fill the oil reservoirs by hauling giant cans of kerosene and oil up stairs. Trim and maintain the wicks. Manually wind the light-turning mechanism. Before electricity, these were giant clockwork-type mechanisms with weights that had to be wound up to the top of the tower, from which they would slowly drop. When they reached the bottom of their drop, they had to be wound up again. On the Hudson, this was about every four hours. Ring the fog bell. Keep meticulous records of everything from cleaning supplies to rescues. Rescue distressed mariners. Christina Whitbeck certainly knew the challenges of the job before she took it on, since her husband, Volker Whitbeck, had held it from 1830, and they had survived the destruction of their first lighthouse by an ice dam in 1832. That tragedy took the lives of two of their daughters and two grandsons. Wassberg Johnson read from a moving letter to the editor of the Kinderhook Sentinel. As the ice threatened the lighthouse family that day, the letter said, two men took a small boat to the lighthouse to warn the family, who set about moving their belonging to the top of the stone tower before leaving. Too late. The ice dam collapsed the tower and only six of the family of 10 survived. The letter described Volker Whitbeck as “a man of sorrow and afflicted with grief,” and related how he called out, “Oh my children, my children, where are they?” It took several years to rebuild the lighthouse, potentially leaving the family destitute. But local people successfully petitioned the authorities to keep Whitbeck on the payroll. Volker held the job until 1841, followed by Christina until 1853, and their daughter Ann until 1866. Rose family at Stony PointThe Whitbecks set a pattern of family dynasties along the Hudson. Next came the Rose family at Stony Point. Alexander Rose was keeper from 1853 to 1857; his wife Nancy held the job from 1857 to 1904. When she retired at the age of 80, after the second longest term of any female Hudson River lighthouse keeper, she passed the job on to her daughter Melinda, who kept it only until 1905 because, she reported, the salary was not enough to live on. Whether it was less than her parents made, or she had more expensive tastes, is unknown. During Nancy’s term as keeper, a steamboat ran aground in the fog, and the steamboat company blamed Nancy, claiming she had not rung the fog bell. Local people came to her defense, insisting she had rung it, and that she was the best lighthouse keeper they ever had. Consensus opinion seemed to be that the company was greedy and irrational, Wassberg Johnson said, and indeed Nancy was awarded a service medal in 1903. Murdocks at RondoutNext up in Wassberg Johnson’s list of dynasties: the Murdocks at Rondout. George Murdock became Rondout lighthouse keeper in 1856, but in 1857 he died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. He rowed to shore for supplies and never came back. He drowned, apparently on the way home since his body was found floating next to the rowboat full of groceries. His wife, Catherine, mother of three children including an infant son, took her baby, James, in her arms to Washington to pitch for getting the lighthouse keeper job. According to Wassberg Johnson, Catherine pleaded, “What better way for little James to learn how to become a lighthouse keeper!” She got the job, held it until 1907, the longest term of any woman, and indeed was succeeded by James, who had been her assistant since 1880. He was keeper until 1923. The mouth of the Rondout Creek was always a tricky spot for navigators, and the lighthouse was rebuilt three times during the Murdock dynasty. It was a little like the story of the three little pigs, said Wassberg Johnson, with each building stronger than its predecessor, progressing from wood to stone to brick (in 1915). Sitting and sewing in the stone building one day, Catherine heard a tremendous crash, and looking up saw the boom of a schooner half way into the room. It had been crowded off course by the tow line of a tugboat and struck the lighthouse. After a flash flood in 1878, friends had tried to get Catherine to leave but she refused, even though a broken dam at Eddyville resulted in floodwater and ice that carried away buildings from up the creek, including an entire stable, which crashed upon the breakwater near the lighthouse. The horse inside survived, but the chickens did not. Crowleys of SaugertiesNext to the Murdocks, Wassberg Johnson said, her favorite dynasty was the Crowleys of Saugerties. Dennis Crowley became lighthouse keeper in 1865, but became blind that same year. His son and grandson each held the job, but between their two tenures, so did Dennis’s daughter Kate (1873-1885), assisted by her sister Ellen. The sisters were made famous by stories of their derring-do. In the midst of a storm, a story goes, two female forms could be seen “fluttering around a small boat” by the lighthouse. The women launched their own boat to rescue two men who had fallen into the water. One of the women hooked her feet under the seat of their boat and picked up and threw one man into the boat with them. The other man swam over and was hauled in. Wassberg Johnson had tales of other women lighthouse keepers, woman who wrote books and stories about lighthouses, women who fought to save lighthouses threatened by plans to tear them down, and even two little girls who lived in a lighthouse and walked to school over the ice every winter. Once, one of them fell through, climbed out, went home to warm up and was shortly sent right back out again to go to school. As told by Wassberg Johnson, living in a lighthouse was tougher and less romantic than one might imagine.