Recently, one of our volunteer tour guides, Laurie Rankin, suggested we dredge up some stories about local shipwrecks to illustrate the hazards of river travel and the importance of lighthouses as aids to navigation.
Naturally, we turned to the local experts on the topic, Jim Kennard and Dick Duncan. In 2010, Mr. Kennard, a shipwreck explorer, teamed up with his brother-in-law Mr. Duncan, Saugerties resident and “turn-of-the-century” lighthouse keeper (1998-99), to survey this stretch of the river. Using side-scan sonar, they located nearly a dozen shipwrecks from north of the Lighthouse to the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge. Mr. Kennard estimates that, like the majority of wrecks on the Hudson River, most were probably dumped or left there. “A few did sink,” he said in an email, “such as the one off of Astor Point with bluestone on board.” They also found another small wreck just off the Lighthouse. Their images of Saugerties shipwrecks can be viewed at shipwreckworld.com/articles/imaging-depths-hudson-river.
As Mr. Kennard pointed out, many wrecks resting on the river bottom were not the results of accidents but deliberately scuttled remains of sloops, steamboats or barges. In bygone years, when a vessel was taken out of service or no longer seaworthy, it was abandoned in shallows near shore or filled with stone to make a breakwater or sunk in the river’s depths. For instance, aground in the cove south of the Lighthouse rest the remnants of an old wooden barge left to rot. These trashed boats are now archeological treasures, artifacts of maritime history protected by state and federal laws, making it criminal to disturb them.
The Saugerties Lighthouse was stationed on the flats to warn vessels away from the dangerous shallows. Even with this precaution, ships still had mishaps due to storms, engine malfunctions, or human error. Sailing vessels capsized, barges sank, and steamers caught fire, many laden with cargo. Serious accidents were recorded in local newspapers if lives were lost or the ship was large enough to get attention.
Hitting closest to home, a steamboat struck the Lighthouse during the tenure of keeper Katie Crowley. In the early hours of Sunday morning, Nov. 9, 1879, the steamer Ansonia of the Saugerties Line ran against the Lighthouse dock on its return trip from New York, smashing the paddle wheel. A tug from Kingston hauled the steamer off the flats, and it was taken to New York City for repairs.
In 1892, when James Crowley was keeper, steamers M. Martin and Tremper arrived at Saugerties at the same time, each vying to get to the dock first, resulting in a collision near the Lighthouse. The pilot of the Tremper, anticipating the crash, rang all four bells to the engine room to go into reverse, but too late to avoid striking the Martin and tearing into its hull below the waterline. Leaking badly, the Martin was run aground in the shallows north of the Lighthouse to avoid sinking. Fortunately, no one was injured, and all passengers were safely transferred to the Tremper. After a few temporary repairs, the Martin traveled north to Athens for permanent repairs. The M. Martin continued operating until 1917 when steamboat business slackened. Sold for scrap, her hull was taken to Eaves Point for use as a wharf. The wooden skeleton of the vessel remains there near Bristol Beach about two and half miles north of the Lighthouse.
On the evening of Nov. 22, 1903, the steamer Saugerties caught fire and burned to the waterline at its dock on Esopus Creek. The fire started in the oil room and spread rapidly. By the time the village fire department arrived the vessel was enveloped in flames. One deckhand lost his life while trying to retrieve his clothes from the forecastle against orders to go ashore. Burned beyond repair, the ship was stripped of its fittings, and the charred hull was towed into the cove north of the lighthouse and scuttled. The wooden remains are submerged except during rare “blowout tides,” extreme ebbs caused by strong offshore winds which drain inshore shallows (the opposite of a storm-surge). I’ve only seen the wreck of the Saugerties twice in my tenure at the Lighthouse. Once, taking advantage of the unusual opportunity, I kayaked with a friend across the north cove to get a closer look. The afternoon low tide was especially low due to strong west winds. The lower than normal water level exposed the outline of the wreck. The framing timbers barely broke the surface of the water. Hull planking was faintly visible under the water.
Despite advances in navigation, accidents are still inevitable. At the end of 2005, a scrap-metal barge carrying a load of crushed cars sank in the channel at Malden. A tug was pulling two barges when the first one started to sink. The tug had to cut loose from the sinking barge to save itself and then cut loose the second barge before it got pulled down with the first. A prolonged salvage and recovery effort ensued, which lasted through the winter with water temperatures hovering just above freezing. A large crane was required to haul up the scrap metal, and a larger crane was called upon to raise up the barge. After three months, the sunken barge was lifted from the murky river bottom and towed away.
Last year, a hopper barge hauling dirt ran aground on the rocks on the southern end of Magdalen Island across from Glasco. As waterfront resident Dock Shuter quipped, “The island failed to yield.” The bow of the barge was upended at an angle on the rocks, and the stern was partially submerged, spilling some of the load. The hull had a big gash in it. Beyond repair, the barge was emptied of its contents and busted apart for scrap.
The specters of past shipwrecks loom to mind with the sight of the tanker Afrodite headed downriver hauling crude oil. In the past few years, we’ve been seeing a lot more of these crude oil shipments passing by the Lighthouse. Of course, we place a lot of trust in river pilots to do their jobs and avoid mishap. Retired river pilot Frank Wall described his job as a form of environmentalist in the sense that we rely on pilots to protect the river from catastrophes such as oil spills. I suppose that makes the Lighthouse a form of environmental protection as well, saving our shores from shipwrecks. At least, we hope.
Patrick Landewe is the Saugerties Lighthouse keeper. His column appears monthly.