Of the 13 lighthouses that once guided ships safely through the waters of the Hudson River, only seven remain. And only one wooden lighthouse stands: the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse, built in 1871. This Sunday, June 28 brings a rare opportunity to visit the restored structure on a double lighthouse tour that includes a visit to the Rondout Lighthouse, celebrating its 100th anniversary.
Passengers on the Spirit of the Hudson will depart from the Hudson River Maritime Museum at 11 a.m. Tickets cost $50 for the four-hour trip on the Hudson. A box lunch to be eaten on the boat is included. Each lighthouse will have docents throughout who can answer questions and point out highlights, and a formal presentation that covers basement to tower will be given.
The tour of the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse will be the first given there this season, one of just a few that will occur over the summer. The lighthouse opened for tours again in 2010 after an extensive period of renovations, but tours are not yet regularly held.
The quality of the restoration done at the lighthouse is perhaps best appreciated through viewing the before-and-after photographs. “It’s pretty astounding,” says Barbara Ralston, president of the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse Board of Directors. “When I speak about the lighthouse to groups and I show people the pictures, they just can’t believe that we took it from basically a pile of wood that was ready to slide into the Hudson River to the beautiful building that it is today. It’s stunning inside, and I’m not just saying that because I’m affiliated with it! It is the prettiest lighthouse on the river.”
The major projects to restore the lighthouse have been accomplished, says Ralston, but renovations are still going on. The island is without electricity, running water or a waste disposal system. “We’re plumbed and wired and ready to go; it’s just getting a power source back out here. The old cable was taken out with the ice years ago, and it’s a costly venture to get that reestablished. And the cable has to be buried, so finding something that can trench from the shore to out here is difficult.”
The return of electricity would help maintain the temperature in the building, cutting down on the stress that the lighthouse goes through each year being frozen in the winter and thawing in the spring – although, says Ralston, “Things are holding up beautifully. I think that’s a testament to the workmen who have come in.”
The story of the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse begins with the original lighthouse at the location, built in 1839. “Because of the way it was constructed, so close to the water and with such a low profile, it was deemed uninhabitable very quickly by the families that were stationed there,” Ralston says. High tide flooded the site and ice floes weakened the structure. So in 1871, it was replaced by the current lighthouse, built 100 feet southeast of its predecessor. The foundation was laid atop a circular granite pier over hundreds of 40-foot-long wooden piles driven into the riverbed that served to, as Ralston puts it, “keep the wood out of the water, so to speak.”
The lighthouse was tended by resident keepers until 1965, when it was converted to an automatic solar-powered system. But without the care of live-in keepers, the lighthouse deteriorated. Vandalism took a toll on it, as did the forces of nature.
“When the lighthouse was decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 1965, they pretty much boarded the place up and walked away from it,” says Ralston. And that would have been the end of this story had it not been for the intervention of Port Ewen native Arline Fitzpatrick, who moved back to the area as an adult in the late 1980s. Her uncle, Manny Resendes, had been lighthouse keeper at the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse from 1937 to 1944, and Fitzpatrick had fond memories of spending time during her youth there.
“She eventually spearheaded the first phase of restoration,” says Ralston. “She started the process that kept it from really falling apart. She had quite a crew that came out; they put on a new roof and new windows. She raised funding through grants – there was still a fair amount of money available then on a state and federal level – and there was also a resurgence in community activity at that time. People were taking an interest in lighthouses and all kinds of things along the riverfront.”
Barbara Ralston’s mother, Pat, was working as a docent at the time at the Rondout Lighthouse. “She was always a big history buff and looking for more information about all the lighthouses,” says Barbara. “Someone put her in touch with Arline, and they finally met in the spring of ’97. Arline asked my parents if they wanted to go out and take a look at Esopus Meadows Lighthouse, and gave them the key.”
Because of her health, Fitzpatrick hadn’t been out to the lighthouse in a while. “She didn’t realize that people she’d been relying on to take care of things had not,” says Barbara. “When my parents got out here and opened up the door into the kitchen, all the brush that was supposed to have been cut and removed from the base and around the island had been chucked into the house! My mother thought the floor was rotten, but it was actually brush thrown inside. The windows had been shot out [by duck hunters] and birds had nested; it was quite a sight.”
Much of the work that Fitzpatrick and her crew had done was destroyed. Once again, nature and vandalism had taken a toll. “The place was in bad shape,” Barbara says. “When my parents came back to shore, they didn’t have the heart to tell Arline how bad things were. But she didn’t want the key back that she’d given them. She told them, “It’s yours…take care of her.” My father [John Ralston] told my mother at first, ‘Don’t you dare think of doing this…’ But here we are now; he’s 85 and still going strong and working out here.” Pat Ralston is also still very much involved, says Barbara. “She’s our main tour guide; she does the newsletter…all of our group is very hands-on.”
Barbara picks up the story in 1997 with the transfer of that lighthouse key to her parents. “They got a lease to the lighthouse and started doing some heavy lifting, literally. The current Save Esopus Lighthouse Commission [SELC] was started then. The group is all-volunteer. My mother was the first director. Ed Weber, our treasurer, joined early on. I lived outside the area initially, and was not involved as much until I moved back in 2006.”
Barbara got involved with the restoration efforts in part because she thought that it was a worthy cause, but also because “My folks needed my help, and how could I say no?” And, she emphasizes, that while yes, there are a lot of Ralstons involved in the project, “Many, many hands have touched this house and brought it to life. I can’t stress that enough.”
The work done to restore the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse includes leveling the structure, which had an 18-inch drop at one corner, causing it to sag. The building was jacked up and big steel I-beams slid underneath. “It rests on hydraulic jacks that we tune every once in a while to keep the house level,” says Barbara. “When you tour the basement you can see the beams and the jacks there. It’s a whole process to tweak them. Thankfully, after the hurricanes we had only maybe a half-inch to straighten out.”
Additional restoration at the site includes recapping and repointing the stone pier on which the lighthouse sits, and the house has been scraped and painted “innumerable times,” says Ralston. “We’re in the process of starting another scrape-and-paint of the exterior this summer. The tower was restored, a copper floor was put in the tower, a new working light was put in the tower and we are officially a navigational aid again on the Hudson River. All of the rotten plaster was taken down and carted off, and the house has been completely replastered. We’ve refinished the floors and restored the staircase.”
While volunteer labor has accomplished a great deal of the work, some things call for a professional. The craftsmanship of Rondout Woodworking’s Jim Kricker and his crew is evident in the lighthouse, and Terry Baldwin redid the staircase. “People just ooh and aah over it,” says Ralston. “It’s a spectacular staircase, rising from the first floor to the third floor of the building.”
Raising funds to do the work is a lot more difficult now than it used to be before the economy took a dive, she adds. “It’s difficult to find funding for the kinds of projects we have left to do now. We do a lot of fundraising and get small grants, but bringing electricity out to the lighthouse is going to be a five-figure ticket, probably six-figure. And until we get a ‘yes’ from Central Hudson that they can do it, how can we plan for that?”
Barbara Ralston will have a booth outside the Hudson River Maritime Museum (HRMM) on Hudson River Day, Saturday, June 27, one day prior to the double lighthouse tour. She’ll be available to chat with visitors about the Esopus Meadow Lighthouse and will have caps and tee-shirts for sale to benefit the lighthouse.
Inside the museum, the featured exhibit for the season at HRRM is “Lighthouses of the Hudson.” A photo collage shows the “Before Restoration” and “Present Day” images of the Saugerties, Hudson/Athens, Rondout and Esopus Meadows lighthouses. Archival photographs of the keepers and their families, sometimes accompanied by the pet rooster or dog, will bring to life the activities that happened on the water. A reproduction of Woodstock artist Charles Rosen’s 1937 mural map of the Hudson River, currently displayed in the Beacon post office, serves as a picturesque backdrop and site map to the lighthouse display.
The Esopus Meadows Lighthouse Commission welcomes any volunteer help, from administrative tasks (perhaps a grantwriter who could work on a project) to assistance painting the exterior of the lighthouse this summer or cleaning up on shore. Various work parties are put together throughout the season, but a full-day commitment is necessary given the time it takes to get out to the island. Volunteers can contact SELC at (845) 848-3669, https://www.esopusmeadowslighthouse.org or better yet, says Ralston, through its active Facebook page.