Going with the flow

Photo by Dion Ogust

There are nearby places where the elements converge: earth, water, air and fire — or light, if you will. They are Hudson River lighthouses, established in the 1800s to guide ships and schooners safely to port in our riverfront towns, warning of shoreline curves and shallow depths, saving sailors from sinking crafts or running aground. The 1950s innovation of automated beacons extinguished the need for their keepers — the hardy men and women who performed domestic duties and heroic rescues around their remote residences — and the lighthouses cracked, decayed, rotted through. These symbols of salvation were now what needed saving.

Some communities rose to the challenge, fiercely fighting to protect the history and functionality of the lighthouses for future generations to understand and enjoy. They are keepers of the faith.

Midway between shores at Ulster Park, the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse gleams bright white on a sunny day. It is the sole surviving wooden lighthouse on the Hudson, the legacy of a bright, tenacious woman named Arline Fitzpatrick and a core group of dedicated volunteers known as the Save Esopus Lighthouse Commission (SELC).

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As a young girl, Fitzpatrick spent summers with her beloved aunt Elsie “Ellie” Resendes, who worked alongside keeper husband Manny. When Fitzpatrick returned to the area in the early 1980s as a sexagenarian, “she was so upset to see the lighthouse in such ruinous condition,” said friend and Esopus Lighthouse Commission historian Pat Ralston. The U.S. Coast Guard had closed the lighthouse on August 25, 1965, boarding the windows and leaving it to its fate.

Brambles and fish bones covered the deck. The tower had cracked. Water pushed through, completely rotting floor sections and walls. The building was filled with branches, and had been victimized by vandals.

Fitzpatrick made it her mission to save the lighthouse. In 1979, the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. SELC formed in 1990, under her leadership, and leased the lighthouse from the Coast Guard so restoration could begin. The all-volunteer group secured funds and donations for a new roof, replaced picture windows and repaired the tower.

“It’s a very emotional thing with this lighthouse. We feel very protective of her. Arline Fitzpatrick said, ‘Take care of my baby,’ so we’ve done that. But she gave us a lighthouse to save. She repaired the roof; she put the windows back. She’s the one who saved the lighthouse. We just continued what she started,” said Ralston, who joined SELC in 1997.

In 2000, the house was girdled by turnbuckles and stabilized with massive I-beams. An Italian master plasterer rehabilitated the inner walls that volunteers and transition teams painted. The work continues: just last week, master craftsmen from Stanford Enterprises of Stanfordville, New York installed a custom banister on the restored main staircase.

Ralston, husband John, and daughter and current SELC director Barbara Ralston visit frequently by boat and barge to continue the work.

“We’ve had some rough days out here but the river has many faces. It has happy faces, it has angry faces, and it has calm faces. We love them all. Every day on the river is a treat. People say, ‘It’s boring.’ ‘How could you stand to go up and down for fourteen years?’ We love it. You come out here and it’s peaceful and just fabulous,” said Ralston.

One of SELC’s greatest achievements came on May 31, 2003, when, after nearly four decades of absence, a new light was installed in the tower. Maintained by the Coast Guard, it is an official, functional navigational aid. A second milestone was reached in 2010, as the first season of guided lighthouse tours performed by volunteer docents set sail from Kingston’s docks on the Rondout.

“It was extremely successful,” said Barbara Ralston. “We were so pleased with the response that we had from the public, and everybody who came out here said, ‘Wow, can we move in?’ That was always the response.”

Future plans include turning the lighthouse into a weekend bed-and-breakfast. A keeper will once again live on the premises, maintaining two rental rooms upstairs. The view from their windows is the same gentle waves, green shore and blue sky that greeted all of the lighthouse’s inhabitants.

“I want visitors to take a walk through history, to see what it was like to live back then,” said Pat Ralston. “Life may have seemed tough, but it was an easier life. Today, things are so rush-rush-rush. You come to the lighthouse, it’s tranquil, it’s peaceful. You listen to the lapping of the waves. The birds fly over. You don’t have a phone ringing in your ear.”

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