The Keeper’s Log: The Widow Lighthouse Keeper

A rendering of the lighthouse, 1835.

National Women’s History Month is an opportunity to recognize those previously overlooked. A fitting example is the story of the first female lighthouse keeper at the Saugerties station. Little was known about her until recently. The official lighthouse keeper register omits her first name, listing her simply as “Mrs. Schoonmaker.”

She was born Dorcas Whitney in 1802 in Connecticut. After her family moved to Saugerties she met and married Abraham E. Schoonmaker. In 1830, at age 28, she gave birth to Mary Eliza. She had another daughter Patience, who died in 1836 at the age of 3. In 1837, she gave birth to a son, James Whitney.

Her husband Abraham was a boatman for years, until he was unable to perform hard labor. In 1845, at the age of 48, he was appointed keeper of the Saugerties Lighthouse, and the federal salary supported him and his family. He was attentive to his duties and held the office to the time of his death. During the last year of his life, illness confined him to his room and more often to his bed, so the keeper duties were performed by his wife Dorcas. The light was comprised of five whale oil lamps with reflectors, and she attended them with such faithfulness as to receive the universal praise of the boatmen on the river. All the while, she was not only nursing her invalid husband but also grieving the untimely loss of her son James, who died in January 1846, before his ninth birthday. Her husband died in November of that same year.

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At his death, she found herself penniless and in debt. She was a widow with a household dependent on her for support, but the medical expenses of her husband’s lengthy illness had exhausted all their means. The masters of vessels on the Hudson were so interested on her behalf that a petition for her appointment as keeper was immediately circulated, generously signed, and forwarded to the proper department, and she was accordingly appointed. Her appointment as keeper offered hope for her dire situation, and she demonstrated her tenacity. By denying herself and family many comforts, she managed to pay off the medical debt. But no sooner had she accomplished this than she met with another grave misfortune.

In the early morning hours of Monday, November 27th, 1848, a lamp exploded. The fire was first discovered at about five o’clock by the captain of a sloop lying aground in the creek, who was watching the tide. He hastened towards the lighthouse in a small boat, but before he reached it, the fire had also been discovered by Mrs. Schoonmaker. The fire had already made such progress that it was found impossible to extinguish it, so the captain and crew of the sloop immediately assisted Mrs. Schoonmaker and her family in saving as much of the furniture and other property as possible. The family escaped with their lives, but the lighthouse was destroyed. The explosion of one of the lamps was quite unexpected and apparently without any fault or negligence on the part of Mrs. Schoonmaker.

She then procured a dwelling in the village, but she did not forsake her duty as keeper. From her own salary she employed a man to keep up a light by means of a large lamp on a post on the site of the former lighthouse. Towards the close of navigation for the season, he sometimes had to make his way there on cakes of ice at the hazard of his life. So again in early spring as the river thawed. Yet, during the whole time, not a night passed without the light being kept up. This continued until the new lighthouse was finished. However, once a new dwelling had been built, another person was selected to attend it and receive the perks of office, while the poor widow was turned out to starve without any means to provide for her family. On July 14, 1849, Mrs. Schoonmaker was removed to make room for Joseph Harris Burhans.

At the time, lighthouse keeper appointments were still subject to political patronage and dispensed to rank-and-file party supporters by the reigning administration. Mr. Burhans was previously appointed keeper in 1842 under the administration of President John Tyler but lost his assignment in 1845 to Mr. Schoonmaker soon after the Democrat James Polk became president. In 1849, when the Whigs regained the presidency, those with appointing power displaced Democrats to make room for their own party members. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a notable example that year, losing his custom house position to the political “guillotine.” Party affiliation trumped all other qualifications.

When eager applicants started vying to replace the widow Schoonmaker for their own appointment, her sympathizers prepared a petition protesting her removal, which was reportedly signed by a majority of steamboat pilots and sloop captains navigating the Hudson — Whigs and Democrats alike — bearing testimony to the exceptional care with which she kept the light at all times. But to no avail. Women lacked suffrage, so she had no vote, and she was also poor. It was therefore politically expedient to replace her. The re-appointment of Mr. Burhans was an obvious partisan reprisal. To be fair, Mr. Burhans was a family man with five young mouths to feed and was probably equally deserving of the job. Nevertheless, the removal of a widow was particularly egregious, and her plight caught the attention of newspapers as far away as North Carolina, Mississippi, and Indiana, which cited her case as yet another example of the ruthless “political proscription” of the administration.

After she was removed from office, she lived with her adult daughter Mary, who was married to John J. Underhill, a boatman. Dorcas died on September 10, 1851 at the age of 49 and was buried with her husband Abraham in Mountain View Cemetery in Saugerties. During her life, she faced hardships and setbacks, including crippling medical debt and lack of job security. Nevertheless, she persisted.

Patrick Landewe is the current Saugerties Lighthouse Keeper. 

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