A light in the dark

The original 6th-order “beehive” fresnel lens  for the Saugerties Lighthouse (photo by Jim Woodward)

The original 6th-order “beehive” fresnel lens
for the Saugerties Lighthouse (photo by Jim Woodward)

In this month of long nights, we celebrate light. Candlesticks are ceremoniously lit, and strings of light bulbs are draped along gutters and trees. Lest we forget, we are reminded that, once upon a time, light was precious and not easy to come by. Nowadays, when strings of light-emitting diodes can be purchased by the yard and a suburban house lit up like Times Square, when porch lights and street lamps switch on automatically at dusk, when faces bask in the glow of liquid crystal displays of smartphones and tablets, it is hard to imagine how toilsome it used to be a century ago just to burn a reading lamp in the evening. How much care and attention was required to trim a wick for a few dim lumens. How much more so for the Lighthouse beacon!

To think, that it used to be someone’s nightly duty to climb the steps of the Lighthouse tower, to kindle the light punctually at sunset, and keep it burning bright and clear until sunrise. In order to maintain the greatest degree of light during the night, the wicks had to be trimmed every four hours; care had to be taken so they were exactly even on the top. On a stormy night, the light needed to be constantly looked after.


Numerous difficulties accompanied tending a flame. The often substandard lamp oil congealed in the winter. Fumes and smoke clouded the window panes, which required daily washing. The government-issue polish was too abrasive for the silver-plating on the reflectors. The chimneys were too short to properly ventilate the lamps.

To provide adequate illumination, multiple lamps were used in the tower, each requiring the attention of the keeper. The original lighting apparatus at the Saugerties station consisted of five whale oil lamps set upon a table. Keepers were instructed to make sure the lamps, reflectors, and lanterns were kept clean and in working order. In 1841, in a letter from the superintendent of lighthouses, Saugerties keeper Joseph Burhans was “admonished to attend better to his duty, by keeping the apparatus clean.”

Of course, this method of lighting using combustible fuel was not without hazards. In late November 1848, one of the lamps exploded and the Lighthouse caught fire. By the time the fire was discovered in the pre-dawn hours, it was impossible to extinguish. A sloop captain and crew assisted the keeper, Mrs. Schoonmaker, and her family, in saving the furniture and other property in the station. The building could not be saved, but the Lighthouse was rebuilt on the old site, and a second-hand lighting apparatus was installed in the tower. Four mineral oil lamps replaced the earlier whale oil lamps. The rising price and increasing scarcity of whale oil motivated the Lighthouse Board to look for cheaper alternatives, such as lard oil and kerosene.

Keepers kept a strict accounting of their daily expenditures of oil, wicks, and chimneys according to requirements of the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment. In an official ledger, the keeper recorded the time of lighting and time of extinguishing the light, calculated the quantity of oil consumed and new wick expended, and remarked on the weather conditions.

Before the advent of electricity, the greatest improvement in lighthouse illumination was the installation of Fresnel lenses in the mid-19th century. An intricate arrangement of prisms and concentric lenses refracted and magnified the lamplight into a bright, narrow beam. The light was not only more powerful but also more economical in fuel consumption. One lamp could serve as the light source instead of multiple lamps. The savings in lamp oil quickly paid for the expense of the lenses. Even so, the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment was a late adopter of this new technology, decades behind its European counterparts.

Eventually, a new illuminating apparatus was provided to the Saugerties station circa 1855, which included a French-made “beehive” lens and Argand oil lamp. The lens remained in use until the station was abandoned. Mysteriously, the lens went missing during the decades the lighthouse was vacant and was presumed lost. Miraculously, we finally learned its whereabouts in 2012. A lighthouse buff did some sleuthing and found the lens at Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia serving as a decoration in a base commander’s house. Now, the lens is temporarily on display in Washington, D.C. and has been promised to us this spring. We expect to move forward with arrangements for the return of the lens in the coming months. This historic artifact is now destined for our museum, not the light tower.

Nowadays, like most modern aids to navigation, the Saugerties beacon is automated. The power source is a solar panel, and the light is switched on by a photo-sensor at twilight. As a result, the job of lighthouse keeper no longer entails such detailed attention to maintenance of the light as in the past. No late night-watches to trim the lamp wicks. No polishing the lens or measuring pints and gills of lamp oil.

Lighthouses were once outposts on the frontier of the night, safe havens perched on the edge of danger and the unknown. The keepers were frontier heroes, working under less-than-ideal conditions, tending a flame on behalf of others. Now, that frontier has been thoroughly conquered. Now, darkness is endangered. Due to light pollution in urban areas, two-thirds of the U.S. population have lost the ability to see the Milky Way at night.

Fortunately, on this stretch of the Hudson River, the stars still shine brightly on a clear winter night. Interestingly enough, guests of the Lighthouse bed-and-breakfast enjoy their stay not so much for the novelty of the light in the tower but more for the darkness and silence that envelops it. For our local tourism economy, the most precious resources we have to offer the over-stimulated city-dweller are quiet and an unobstructed view of the starry sky… a silent night.

Patrick Landewe’s column appears monthly.