Lighthouse meditations

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Saugerties is such a modern town, between its bed races and retro fabulous car shows and novelty boutiques, that it can be easy to forget that it’s one of New York’s most historic, storied burgs. As spring begins to peel into summer and no one ever wants to be inside, it’d be wise to visit one of the grandest pieces of Saugertesian heritage – the Saugerties Lighthouse.

The Lighthouse, currently, makes its money as a bed and breakfast. It rents out two no-frills rooms at a time. Serious no frills. Like, there’s a coal stove in your room for heat and you can’t really control how hot it gets and even in the winter, according to current lighthouse keeper Patrick Landewe, “some people have to open the window to let the cold air in.” No frills.

It’s a beautiful building. Probably a mile out of Saugerties proper, down a nature trail that’s currently being re-built as part of an Eagle Scout project. It’s not some dramatic, monster tower on top of a great hill. It’s modest and small, carrying that organic, musty smell of history. In fact, the building is gorgeous now, but before its renovation at the hands of the Saugerties Lighthouse Conservancy beginning in 1985, it was a broken-down mess verging on Scooby-Doo level spookiness. After boats on the Hudson fell out as the dominant form of economic and personal transport, the lighthouse became of little use. Its operations were taken over by the United States Lighthouse Service, and were turned over to the Coast Guard in 1939 when the two agencies merged. According to former lighthouse caretaker Dick Duncan, the lighthouse was “decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 1954 and fell into neglect.” It wasn’t an easy fix for the restoration crew. The Lighthouse is constructed with two brick walls that have a space between them, which is great for insulation and not so great for a full restoration.

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The building is two stories and a basement tall, not counting the light tower. Standing in the tower of the lighthouse, you begin to understand the breadth and power of the Hudson, something you can’t get a handle on from driving over the bridge or fishing on its banks. The lighthouse extends a little into the river and you can see the valley lope down to the water in titanic, dark green waves. And then a weird thought occurs: this bed and breakfast, which was left to rot for decades, was once one of the most important landmarks and beacons in the entire valley.

It guided ships on a dangerous river. It saved lives.

And again, it’s a bed and breakfast now. It’s a scary thought. 150 years ago, the lighthouse was a complete necessity. If you told the lighthouse caretaker, 150 years ago, that in less than two centuries, the lighthouse would be converted into a cute B&B that rents out rooms for $225 a night in a posh, middle-class, more-than-slightly-artsy Saugerties that was once a mighty river town, he’d be a little confused because he wouldn’t know what the word “posh” meant. But once you explained it to him he’d laugh at you.

Remember, this section of the valley was once an economic powerhouse. It was the China of New York. Historian Dick Duncan says that Saugerties and its surrounding areas, in the mid-1800s, “may have produced the most water power in the entire world,” and that Saugerties itself was a “dramatic manufacturing center.” Saugerties, at that point in history, was completely removed from what it has become.

So in 150 years, what will happen to cell towers? To airports? The technological cornerstones of our existence? They’re so commonplace now, they’re almost invisible. We joke about them. It must have been the same back in the day with lighthouses and saw mills and steamboats. But now they’re relics, symbols of our great and half-forgotten past that we pay out the nose to maintain.

It’s a little stultifying to imagine that cell towers are going to be the lighthouses of the future. Will there be a Saugerties Cell Tower Conservancy? Let’s not go there. Focus on the past that we have now. The old churches, the Kiersted House, and the Saugerties Lighthouse – which shoots out into the Hudson and does its best to remind you that no great technological achievement is everlasting.

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