Heroines of the Hudson: The untold story of 19th-century women lighthouse keepers

Ida Lewis, the most famous female lighthouse keeper of them all

Ida Lewis, the most famous female lighthouse keeper of them all

March is Women’s History Month, and March 8 is International Women’s Day. This is a fitting occasion to call attention to the achievements of women lighthouse keepers, especially those overlooked by history.

Women keepers in the 19th century were remarkable for many reasons. Foremost, they were the first female federal government employees to serve in a non-clerical capacity. At a time when they had few opportunities outside the domestic sphere, the position of lighthouse keeper was open to women, and many served with distinction. Of course, the job was still within the home and an extension of traditional domestic duties. Even so, the lighthouse front door opened onto the maritime realm, and it was here, in the midst of the wilds of wind and waves, that several women made a name for themselves.


The most famous person to serve in the Lighthouse Service was Ida Lewis, keeper of Lime Rock in Newport harbor during the second half of the 19th century. Her numerous rescues of shipwreck survivors earned her the title “The Bravest Woman in America.” She was also the first woman to be awarded a Congressional medal for lifesaving. She was considered the best swimmer in Newport and was a skilled rower at a time when few women handled boats. Ida was often compared to Grace Darling, daughter of an English lighthouse keeper who aided her father in a daring rescue.

Saugerties had its own 19th-century heroines: Kate Crowley and her sister, Ellen. Their feats were lauded in a widely syndicated article published in newspapers across the country and around the world. “The Ida Lewis and Grace Darling of Saugerties” the headline read. Despite the flattering comparison, they never attained the same notoriety and have been all but forgotten outside of Saugerties.

Kate was 12 years old when her father Daniel was appointed lighthouse keeper in 1865. From the get-go, she took an interest in the tasks of the job, accompanying her father and assisting with the care of the light. Such was her sense of daring that she often ventured out alone on the water in a little skiff. Taking risks, she flipped her boat many times, but she “swam like a duck” and always made it to safety.

In 1869, Kate was 15, going on 16, and her sister Ellen was 17 years old when the family moved into the newly built lighthouse, which replaced the original that succumbed to damage from ice floes. Around that same time, Kate’s father was struck blind by cataracts and became dependent upon Kate for care of the lighthouse, with her sister Ellen providing some assistance. The two teenage girls looked after the lighthouse as well as their invalid mother and father. In 1873, at age 20, Kate was officially appointed keeper and joined the ranks of the U.S. government.

The salaries were never lavish, but women keepers enjoyed equity in wages compared to men. Keeper salaries were a matter of public record. Salaries varied between locations depending on the hardships and workload of a particular station, but the pay for a particular assignment was the same regardless of whether it was held by a man or a woman. Kate Crowley earned the same as or more than her male counterparts at other Hudson River lighthouses. She earned an annual stipend of $560 ($13,500 in today’s dollars), which was as much as her father who preceded her, and more than her brother James who followed her as keeper. This was not quite as much as Ida Lewis, who, at $750 per year, was the highest paid keeper in the nation for a time, earning extra as reward for her numerous rescues.

Like the famous Ida Lewis, Kate Crowley and her sister were skilled at the oars and could handle a boat quite well. For Kate and Ellen, it was part of daily life to row ashore for provisions. One Saugerties resident was quoted, “As for rowing, no boatmen on the river can equal them. They feather their oars and make regular strokes, independent of the wind or tide.” Again, this was a remarkable accomplishment in the 19th century at a time when few women worked with boats.

A river pilot called the Crowley sisters “two gals as has-got-grit-enough.” He saw them rescue a pair of sailors from a sloop capsized in a sudden squall. Despite wind and waves, despite thunder and lightning, the sisters rowed from the lighthouse toward the shipwreck. By steady rowing, they managed to make headway until they reached the men floundering in the water and hauled them into the rowboat. Anyone who has witnessed the waves swell when wind and tide are opposed knows that it is no small feat to row under these conditions. “Those gals are bricks,” said the river pilot. “And make no mistake. You couldn’t have got any river boatmen to do what those girls did.”

The daring deeds of Ida Lewis sparked a debate in Harper’s Weekly about whether it was properly feminine for women to row boats. This was a time when Victorian notions of femininity still held sway, emphasizing frailty and limiting the physical activities of women. The Crowley sisters did not seem to be bothered by the prevailing stereotype and showed that, given the chance, women could display amazing physical prowess, something we take for granted today. They flexed their “girl power” a century before the phrase was made popular. Yet, they were humble about their accomplishments. Of their rescues, Ellen was quoted as saying, “We have not the opportunity of making ourselves heroines as we have learned another woman, Ida Lewis, has, but we do what we can in our feeble way.”

More information on women lighthouse keepers is available at the Coast Guard website.

Patrick Landewe is the Saugerties Lighthouse Keeper.