Digest>Archives> March 2005

Women of the Lights

The Calm, Quiet Courage of Keeper Nancy Rose

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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This drawing of Keeper Nancy Rose is from an 1896 ...

“Mrs. Nancy Rose… is the heroine of a combat in the historic lighthouse at Stony Point on the Hudson, in which she was pitted against a lunatic. Armed only with a poker, the woman, who… has attended the lighthouse half a century, bravely stood her ground and drove back her assailant... He climbed into the tower, and exclaiming that the light must be torn down, started to demolish things. Mrs. Rose seized a poker and belabored him. He stood the rain of blows a moment and then fled, locking the door as he went. The old lady sounded the fog bell and secured aid.”

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Stony Point Lighthouse on the Hudson River in New ...
Photo by: Jim Crowley

– From a newspaper clipping dated June 10, 1903.

This violent confrontation was an atypical moment of drama for Nancy Rose, an exclamation point that came when she was 79 years old and near the close of her 47-year vigil at the bucolic light station on the Hudson River. The fact that most of her career was relatively peaceful in no way diminishes Mrs. Rose’s long decades of selfless service. Only a few American lightkeepers have such a lengthy and laudable record of service at a single station.

The light at Stony Point was established in 1826, and Nancy Rose’s uncle, Robert Parkinson, arrived three years later as the second keeper. The small octagonal fieldstone tower was erected on the abandoned foundation of the old Stony Point Fort, site of a vital American victory in the Revolutionary War in July 1779. Nancy Rose’s great grandfather was wounded in that battle.

Alexander Rose, Nancy’s husband, became keeper at Stony Point in 1852. In 1856, Keeper Rose was helping to carry lumber for the construction of a new fog bell tower when he ruptured a blood vessel. He died just a few weeks later, and as was often the case in the 19th century, his widow became the new keeper. Along with her extensive lightkeeping duties, Nancy Rose was faced with the task of raising six children by herself. Only two of her six children, Melinda and Alexander, reached adulthood.

An August 1895 clipping tells us of another dramatic interlude when the automatic fog bell machinery apparently malfunctioned: “On one occasion, during a dense fog, she remained for 56 hours at her post in the cold tower of the lighthouse, ringing the fog bell at regular intervals of half a minute. Here she remained, half frozen and without food, until the fog had disappeared.”

Only one shipwreck of note occurred near the station during the Roses’ stay, when the steamer Poughkeepsie went aground during a March storm in 1901. Mrs. Rose provided shelter and hot coffee for some 40 or so passengers until they could catch a train to New York City.

But the general state of things at Stony Point was a kind of sameness that bordered on dullness. “Nothing ever happens up here,” Mrs. Rose was quoted in a 1903 article in the New York Tribune. “One year is exactly like another, and except for the weather, nothing changes.” Her daughter Melinda resoundingly echoed these sentiments, saying, “I can’t remember anything that has ever happened, except once our cow died, and several times it’s been bad years for the chickens.” Nancy’s son Alexander, when asked if he wanted to become keeper, replied, “I’d rather pick huckleberries over the mountain for a living.”

According to the book Women Who Kept the Lights by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford, Keeper Nancy Rose received nothing but glowing reports from lighthouse inspectors during her tenure, and the Tribune called the station “exquisitely clean.” But things got rather difficult for the keeper towards the end of her stay, after the establishment of a state park at Stony Point. In addition to her regular duties, including the maintenance of a second light that had been added on the bell tower in 1902, Mrs. Rose was expected to provide tours of the light station for tourists.

The stresses of age, added duties, and perhaps her scuffle with the mysterious intruder contributed to Mrs. Rose’s decision to retire in 1903. But she never had the chance to enjoy life away from the lighthouse as she died during the following year. Her 53-year-old daughter Melinda, long an unofficial assistant, took over for a while. When she resigned in 1905, Melinda Rose cited the low pay ($560 per year) and loneliness at the station in the winter.

Male keepers ran the Stony Point Light Station until 1925, when a light on a steel tower nearby supplanted the lighthouse. Efforts in the 1980s and ’90s by New York state agencies led to a complete restoration of the lighthouse, culminating in a relighting in 1995. Today the lighthouse is open to the public as part of the Stony Point Battlefield State Historic Site. For more on the lighthouse and battlefield, you can visit www2.lhric.org/spbattle/spbattle.htm on the web.

A fitting epitaph for Keeper Nancy Rose was penned in 1896 by an anonymous newspaper reporter, who wrote, “For nearly 40 years she has been found at her post of duty, with calm, quiet courage doing the task that has been set her – a lonely, thankless task, under dark or starry skies, in clear or stormy weather.”

This story appeared in the March 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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