Lighthouse keeping is a family affair

Lighthouse family, circa 1932

Lighthouse family, circa 1932

“That’s a lighthouse?” is a phrase we often hear from visitors as they round the last bend in the trail. They are expecting to see a tall, cylindrical tower, not a red brick house. The Saugerties Lighthouse was built as a family station. It’s not the stereotypical “stag” light with a solitary keeper in a remote offshore location. The two-story structure — a tower with attached living quarters — offered ample space for keeper, spouse and children. The comfortable house, the airy rooms, the proximity to town; in many ways, it was a choice assignment cherished by the entire family. We know little more than the names of the lighthouse keepers and even less of their family members. What we do know is gleaned from personal anecdotes and news clippings.

Situated in the middle of the Hudson, the Lighthouse is nevertheless near enough to the village for a child to get to school, even though it meant rowing a boat or a walking atop the rocks of the jetty. Recently, neighbor and longtime waterfront resident Joan Zuckerman shared a story from her mother about Illah Hawk, daughter of keeper Conrad Hawk. Attending Saugerties schools during the 1920s and ’30s, Illah occasionally showed up to the classroom with her clothes soaking wet because she slipped into the creek. In winter, she could walk across the ice or skate. Illah was known to be a champion ice-skater. Her father, too, won ice-skating competitions on the Hudson River; a pair of his skates are on display in the museum room at the Lighthouse. Illah eventually went on to teachers college and became a physical education instructor. Illah’s brother, Earle, graduated from the Naval Academy, entered the submarine service, and eventually married Connie Lynch’s daughter. Nowadays, Illah’s grandson, Spike, comes for visits to the Lighthouse, bringing along old photographs. One picture shows Illah as a young woman holding her pet Scottish terrier on the island adjacent to the Lighthouse. What was then their backyard, complete with grass and a small garden, is now the wooden deck picnic area.

June Thomas, who lived in the Lighthouse as a young girl in the 1940s, now lives in Southern California and returns to Saugerties from time to time with her grandchildren to show them where she grew up. June remembers her fascination with the changing tides. She loved throwing sticks into the water to watch where the swirling currents and eddies would carry them. She lived here until reaching the first grade. Her father rowed her to the village for the first week or two of classes before transferring to a lighthouse accessed by road, so it wouldn’t be so much trouble getting to school every day.


Lighthouse-keeping was often a family affair. Commonly, if a keeper passed away or grew too feeble to carry out keeper duties, a spouse or son or daughter would take over the position. As a result, a couple of surnames are recurring on the keeper rolls. Probably the most widely heralded keeper at the Saugerties station was Kate Crowley, who took over the duties from her father. She was not yet a teenager when in 1869 the Lighthouse was newly built and her father brought the family from town to live there. Kate was fearless on the water, venturing out alone in a little skiff. She took such risks that she frequently capsized her boat, but “she swam like a duck” and always safely returned to the Lighthouse. From the get-go, she took an interest in the charge of the light. By the time she reached the age of 15, her father was entirely dependent upon her for light-keeping duties after losing his sight to cataracts.

Not only was Kate said to have “kept a good light,” but she also performed several daring rescues. Once, a couple fell through the ice trying to cross to Tivoli on the frozen river. Always on the lookout, Kate spotted them and quickly dragged her boat across the ice as her sister Ellen pushed from the stern. She’d rigged her boat with runners for trips to town in the winter, which aided in the rescue as the ice broke around them. The young man was quickly fished out of the water, but his companion was nowhere to be seen. Kate glimpsed a bit of her dress and realized that she was trapped under an ice floe. Kate immediately dived into the water and dragged the woman from danger.

On another occasion, a sloop hauling bluestone capsized in a squall within sight of the Lighthouse, and two crewmen were thrown into the churning waves. The Crowley sisters launched their rowboat and rowed to the rescue in the midst of the storm. When asked about their heroic exploits, Kate humbly stated, “We are simply two girls trying to do our duty here in this quiet place, taking care as best we can of our blind father and aged mother.”

By all accounts, life at the Lighthouse was full of physical activity— rowing, fishing, swimming, skating. Favorite indoor pastimes included playing cards, knitting and listening to records on the hand-crank phonograph. Except for updating the vinyl record to streaming music over the Internet, most of these activities are still carried on at the Lighthouse by residents and visitors. The Saugerties Lighthouse Conservancy has sought to preserve the landmark as an example of “living history” for continued use and enjoyment much as it was for Lighthouse Service families, not a sterile “museum piece” just for looks.

In line with tradition, the Lighthouse is once again a family station. My wife, Anna, and I have started a family of our own. On Father’s Day, we welcomed into the world our son, Sagan. His arrival was not without mishap. While in the midst of contractions, Anna waded through high tide on her way to the hospital. Fortunately, our friend Kate Shuter, a labor and delivery nurse, dropped by at just the right moment to lend a hand. I was in the middle of a carpentry project when I received word that she was in labor, and immediately put down my circular saw to be at my wife’s side. After the excitement of the birth, we are back at the Lighthouse enjoying the quiet and calm. With windows open to the summer breezes, Sagan’s sleep is soothed by the sound of lapping waves. We’ve already bought him a tiny lifejacket to ready him for his life on the water.