Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2012

Murphy’s Law Aboard the Lighthouse Esopus

By Timothy Harrison


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This photo was taken onboard the U.S. Coast Guard ...

It was a typical cold winter in January of 1961 when “The Maid of the Meadow,” as the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse in Esopus, New York is affectionately known, decided to give the modern-era Coast Guard keepers a lesson to experience what life was sometimes like for the old time lighthouse keepers in the days of the United States Lighthouse Service, especially in the days before modern conveniences.

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Seaman John Ciak reenacts his walk across the ice ...

By 1961 the days of a lighthouse family living at the Esopus Meadows had long since disappeared into the annals of history. Now it was three Coast Guardsmen who were assigned to the lighthouse that sits in the Hudson River, often giving itself the appearance that it was some kind of square floating lightship that might have got permanently stuck on a pile of rocks.

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Seaman John Ciak talks on the radio at the Espous ...

Even with electricity and a television antenna, both of which the early lighthouse keepers didn’t have, the 1960s crew felt like they were somewhat roughing it at the lighthouse. But, they were soon going to experience what roughing it was really like.

The three-man Coast Guard crew that was assigned to the station at that time was Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class David Bennett, Third Class Engineman Godfrey Green, and Seaman John Ciak. Even though they were all, in one sense of the word, lighthouse “keepers,” there was only one Officer in Charge (OIC), who was Bennett; the title of keeper was no longer used.

The chain of events that embodied Murphy’s Law of “what can go wrong will go wrong” all started when only one man, Godfrey Green, was on duty at the lighthouse. On that arctic January day in 1961, OIC Bennett was off duty and was at the hospital visiting his wife who had just given birth to their son and Seaman Ciak had left the lighthouse to walk across the ice frozen river to go into town and pick up the mail.

While Green was alone at the lighthouse, the ice in the river shifted, as it often does on the Hudson. In fact, the shifting ice and ice-flows have always been a menace to the lighthouse. But this time the ice mass that gripped the river between the light and the shore shifted so dramatically that it gave a thunderous roar as giant chucks of it sliced the electric power cable going to the lighthouse and plunged the structure into darkness. Green wasn’t too worried; he had a back up generator to use, that is, if he could get it to work.

Green picked up the phone to contact headquarters and report the power outage, but the phone was out of order. What he didn’t know was that the shifting ice that had cut the power cable had also broken the phone line at the shoreline terminal. There were no cell phones in those days, but the lighthouse did have another source of communication. So Green’s next task was to crank up the radio, and he was able to make contact with the Coast Guard Icebreaker Firebush and requested that they notify the Coast Guard’s Third District Headquarters in New York City and inform them of his predicament. Just as he was ending his communication with the icebreaker, another unexpected event happened - the radio communication system caught fire. Now Green was literally cut off from the outside world, something that was totally unacceptable by Coast Guard standards. However, to the lighthouse keepers of old, this would have been commonplace.

The wind had now picked up and was starting to make those haunting howling sounds as it found its way into every crack and crevice of the old lighthouse that sat totally exposed to the elements. The temperature in the house was dropping, but Green expected Seaman Ciak back at any time and hopefully the two of them would be able to get the generator going. But, Seaman Ciak did not return to the lighthouse when expected. And it was getting colder, much colder, as the mercury on the thermometer slowly worked its way down as the temperature continued dropping.

However, back on the mainland when it was time for Ciak to return, he had taken one look at what the high tide had done to the ice and he wasn’t willing to risk the walk across the ice from the shore on the mainland to the lighthouse until the tide went down, when it would be much safer. By the time Ciak was able to make it back to the lighthouse, Green told him to turn around and go back to the mainland and call the OIC and report what had happened and then come back to the lighthouse. It was an awfully frosty day to make that trek for a second time.

In the meantime, from the lighthouse, Green had spotted the icebreaker down river. If he had a signal flag, he could have hoisted a distress flag, but the Coast Guard did away with them at lighthouses when phones lines and radios were installed. Apparently the bosses in the Coast Guard never imagined in their wildest dreams of planning for every possible scenario where a phone and a radio would simultaneously break down. So, Coast Guardsman Green did the only other thing he could think of. He started to holler as loud as he could while jumping up and down and waving his arms.

The crew of the Firebush spotted Green frantically waving his arms and the vessel slowly made its way through the ice to the lighthouse. Upon their arrival, an electrician and a radioman disembarked the vessel to see if they could get the radio and the generator working. Ciak returned to the lighthouse shortly thereafter and reported that he had been able to contact OIC Bennett and inform him of the situation. Finally, with the radio fixed and the generator in operation, the icebreaker departed the lighthouse to go on about its business.

By the time OIC Bennett was able to start to make his return walk across the ice to the lighthouse, darkness had taken over and there was no moonlight to help guide him across the ice in the pitch blackness of the night’s eerie darkness. As Bennett walked across the crust-covered surface, the cold ice and snow made a crunching sound with each step breaking the otherwise silence of the night. But something was afoot; Bennett could sense it. He felt someone or something was out on the ice with him in the darkness.

Suddenly he realized that his senses were correct in sending his mind a warning signal. A pack of wild dogs that had been terrorizing the area were slowing and methodically working their way quietly around and toward him. He knew he was now in danger. He knew that the wild pack of creatures, hungry for food, had recently attacked and killed two goats. Was he being planned for their next meal? As his heart began to pound faster, he knew he was now close to the lighthouse and with even with the smallest amount of luck, as he picked up his pace, he’d be able to reach the lighthouse safely. He was lucky, this time, but he knew that each future trip by him or the other keepers back and forth across the ice would place all of them in danger from the wild dogs, even more than that of the shifting ice.

There was no hot meal waiting for Bennett when he arrived at the lighthouse. The electrician from the Firebush was only able to hook up a hot plate for making coffee. The generator only had enough power to run the light in the tower, the fog signal, the radio, and a couple of lamps in the house. Any hot meals or hot bath would now have to be on the mainland and then only in their rotating walks to the mainland across the ice. But with the wild dogs, that walk could be dangerous.

Even though the men were in the Coast Guard, a military branch of the government, lighthouse stations here in New York, unlike those in remote areas, such as light stations in Alaska, did not have any type of arsenal. So upon his safe return to the lighthouse, Bennett radioed headquarters and obtained permission for the men to bring their personal weapons from home for protection.

But soon, once the ice totally broke up, making those walks impossible, the trips across the ice-covered river would stop. Then the men would be in isolation, trapped at the lighthouse with no way to get on and off for a much longer period of time. And it might be days or even weeks before a second generator could be brought out to the lighthouse to hook up the stove and hot water heater. But, as was common with the Coast Guard in those days, the men made the best of it with what little they had, and they would have memories and stories they could share for years to come.

These men were among the last to serve at the lighthouse. A few years later the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse was automated and the station was boarded up. In hopes of preventing vandalism, the boarded up windows were painted to give the appearance that the lighthouse was still occupied by keepers. One of the boarded-up windows even had a cat painted on it to give the place a lived-in look.

But time, the elements, and the obvious needless vandalism took its toll on the historic structure. At different times over the years, several barges struck the granite pier and the ongoing problems with ice and spring floods caused severe damaged to the pier and the foundation, causing one side of the lighthouse to list.

The Esopus Meadows Lighthouse may well have been lost forever if it had not been for initial efforts to save the lighthouse by Arline Fitzpatrick, whose uncle, Manny Resendes, had been the lighthouse keeper there from 1937 to 1944.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2012 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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