A nearby community’s need to save a treasured asset brought an incumbent congressman and first-time candidate from neighboring districts together to come up with ways to work together and save it. The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse was approved by Congress in 1872 and was put into operation in 1874. It served a dire need to steer ships away from the navigational hazard known as the Middle Ground Flats. Now 148 years later, preserving the lighthouse serves a dual purpose. It fuels the local economic engine by bringing in a steady stream of fascinated tourists. It also remains vitally important for infrastructure because the Hudson River is still a major aquatic highway for the delivery of goods along the East Coast.
The U.S. Coast Guard deeded the lighthouse to a local group decades ago, but it still maintains a beacon to guide the many vessels through the narrow channel.
Preserving it is just a matter of putting the local people in touch with the right resources. That’s where Congressman Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, who represents the 20th Congressional District, and Josh Riley, who lives in Ithaca and is running for the 19th Congressional District, come Into play. The new 19th covers the communities of Denning,Hardenburgh, Shandaken, Olive, Woodstock, Saugerties, Town of Kingston, Hurley, Town of Ulster, Part of Wawarsing and the counties of Columbia, Greene, Delaware,Sullivan, and parts of Otsego,Chenango, Broome,Cortland, Tioga and Tompkins.
Tonko is running against Elizabeth Joy and Riley’s opponent is Marc Molinaro in the general election.
Tonko has a team that helps with grants and meets every two weeks.
While Tonko’s district is mainly the Capital Region, including parts of Albany, Montgomery, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Schenectady counties, Riley is counting on Tonko’s expertise in a cooperative effort should the both of them get elected in November.
“I’d love to talk with you about setting that up in our office. It’s something across this whole district. There’s so much innovation and entrepreneurship and ingenuity across the district,” said Riley on the crisp Autumn morning of October 8 as a small boat operated by the Catskill Mountain Ferry Company shuttled one of many groups from Athens Waterfront Park to take a tour of the lighthouse. “And everybody just needs a little help with finding the resources and the paperwork,” Riley said in a conversation with Tonko on the bow of the ferry.
“I think one concept that’s particular to this area, the lighthouse and the communities on either side relates to climate change and sea-level rise,” said Josh Lipsman, Athens Village trustee and Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society board member.“Many of these communities are close to the shore and are already being inundated during storms.“And this will get worse, more frequent and more severe.”
“A lot of the scientists have calculated that about 9000 acres will be lost in the Hudson River channel in the next half-century,” Tonko said.“You still have those (climate) deniers and delayers, as I call them. And I don’t know how many more acts of Mother Nature have to impact them, but the damage, the recovery…Areas I represent that were flooded are still coming back from the 2006, 2011 storms.”
Riley sees at least some hope.“I’ve been sort of encouraged by the number of Republicans and independents who I talked with on the campaign trail who have actually identified the environment and climate change as one of their top issues.”
Lipsman spoke to Riley and Tonko about the importance of the lighthouse not only as a navigational aid, but as something of historical significance people from New York City have discovered as they explored Upstate during the COVID-19 years.
“I think during the pandemic, a lot of folks downstate discovered how beautiful upstate New York is,” Riley said in agreement.
But the influx of people brings a new problem… Shortage of affordable housing, Lipsman noted.“I’m sure this is true throughout both of your districts. Housing is a huge issue,” he said.
Both Tonko and Riley agreed.“It’s something that’s got to be tackled and I think the infrastructure bill has a lot of housing potential,” Tonko said.
Getting help to preserve history
The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse has stood the test of time, but climate change and bigger storms have caused stronger currents and scour and erosion of the wood pilings that were driven deep into the river bed.
Help can come from the infrastructure bill signed last year.“It incorporates all sorts of infrastructure that will make certain that we’re better equipped to handle Mother Nature as we’re in a period of adjusting and responding to climate change,” Tonko said from atop the lighthouse during a brief conversation.
He is also working on a bill that addresses the New York-New Jersey basin.
“It’s a bipartisan effort that we’ve put together to make certain that there’s better stewardship of the Hudson and the biggest tributary, the Mohawk, to New York Harbor,” Tonko said. “We could harden up some of that infrastructure for lighthouses.”
The Heritage Corridor Act is the third piece of legislation that comes into play.
It addresses one corridor from Waterford out to the Great Lakes and another along the Hudson River.
“It deals with heritage tourism with lighthouses and with the infrastructure of lighthouses and with focus on the Hudson River. It’s a good trifecta of activity which Josh and I will be working on,” Tonko said.
“With Congressman Tonko’s leadership on infrastructure investments and fighting the threats of climate change, we see a site like this, the environmental importance to it,” Riley said.“The Hudson River is an environmental treasure and we’ve go to continue to do the important work on the investments we need to preserve our heritage and those traditions. In addition to the cultural and environmental significance, it’s also a huge economic opportunity for us to put people to work with good jobs, preserving a lot of these sites. And so I’m really excited about the opportunity to work with the Congressman on this project.”
Bob Green, vice president of Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society, or HALPS, said LIDAR depth measurements have confirmed the scour.
“Why is the scouring happening? You could say that it’s natural, because certainly there is going to be some natural thing that just happens to bodies of waters. You might say that it has to do with the growth of draft shipping,” Green said.”When the lighthouse was built, when they engineered the pilings 150 years ago, were they counting on these ships?” he said, referring to a large oil tanker that passed close to the lighthouse.“I personally think the growth of deep-draft shipping has got to be part of it, but not everybody agrees…Climate, sea-level rise, certainly with increased rainfall and intensity, you’re going to have stronger currents.”