Many years ago, if ever there was a need for a lighthouse, it was in the village of Port Ewen, New York, at the edge of the Esopus Meadows mud flats in the Hudson River 80 miles north of New York City. For years these soggy meadows served as cow pastures for George Terpening’s farm. Slowly, over the years the river began to rise and flood the area to a depth of 12 to 18 inches depending on the tides. This gave the impression to boat captains that there was navigable water ahead. Many vessels began running aground, some of them so large they couldn’t even be pulled free on an incoming tide. Tugs were brought in at great expense to help the crippled ships.
In 1838 the United States Government purchased Mr. Terpening’s meadow for the sum of $1.00 and construction of a stone Esopus Meadows Lighthouse began. It wasn’t long before the United States Lighthouse Service realized the new lighthouse didn’t solve a problem; it had its own! Due to the large shallow area of the flats, ice formed quickly, broke up with the tides, piled up and then slammed repeatedly against the lighthouse. Each winter the house became weaker and more frightening to live in. The constant battering resulted in the next to last keeper to leave (with family in tow) and resign from lighthouse service. It took a brave keeper to be the last man standing at the light.
There still was a great need for a lighthouse on the spot, so money was appropriated to begin building a new light just south of the ravaged house. The design chosen for the two and a half story house came from a graduate engineer named Albert R. Dow. Esopus is just one of many variations of his design still standing today. Jonathan Cole, the keeper from the last light, moved his family into the new light in 1871.
The lighthouse was built on a new foundation of two hundred and fifty piles, each 40 feet long that were driven into the river bottom. They were cut off three feet below the mean low water mark, capped with 12 inch square timbers and topped with a deck of three-inch pine. Granite blocks were stacked 16 feet high producing a pier with a diameter 49 feet at the base and 46 feet at the top. On top of this pier was built a wooden keeper’s dwelling with a mansard roof and clapboard exterior. The light tower extended above the living quarters with an octagonal deck housing the light. Situated 53 feet above the mean water line, the lantern room contained an optic fifth-order Fresnel lens provided a 270 degree arc of light that was visible for 12 nautical miles.
Over the years Esopus had many keepers, some outstanding and some who couldn’t take the solitude and harsh winters. The second house, while stronger and better built, was not without incidents of its own. The 1903 keepers’ log tells of a tow and tug striking the NE corner of the house, causing considerable damage and sending the keeper’s wife fleeing the building. She reported the house shook violently and things were sent smashing to the floor. Six years later an ice barge bound for the West Indies broke away and hit the house in the same location causing extensive damage to the foundation, deck and railing.
It was around 1947 at the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse that families ceased to live there and only Coast Guard men tended the light. There was a slight relaxing of the rules in the 1950s when the lighthouse had a keeper whose wife spent the summer at the lighthouse and winters on shore. This soon ended and four Coasties tended the light from 1954 to 1965 when in August of that year the station was abandoned and a single self-tending pole light was placed outside on the deck.
Esopus Meadows fell on hard times after the Coast Guard left the lighthouse.
Year after year the house began to sag badly on the northeast corner, prior site of those direct hits from vessels running aground. The lighthouse became the eyesore of the Hudson River. No one cared any more until 1986 Arline Fitzpatrick came along. As a child Arline spent many summers in the house with her aunt and uncle who was a keeper. She had fond memories of the light and became upset when she rowed out to the old house and saw how unkempt and broken it had become. She had been away for many years, returning to the area in her early 60s. Not knowing anyone in the area didn’t discourage her from finding people to start a restoration group. Arline developed a strong group of volunteers who in turn brought others and replaced the terne roof, repaired the windows and hauled tons of trash away with only a rowboat and a canoe. This went on until the mid-1990s until one by one the people dropped out and no one came any more. Arline began to tire but never lost faith that someone would come along and take up where she left off.
Arline and I became friends around 1995. In 1997 she asked if I would like to row out and take a look at the lighthouse. I had grown up in Port Ewen, home of the lighthouse, and it was a fixture in my imagination. I grew up looking at it, going by it by boat but had never been inside. I jumped at the chance!
We took a dinghy out, anchored and crawled up the rip rap to the deck. It was littered with the bones of small animals dropped by feasting birds, broken glass and a bumper crop of brambles. This was really much worse than I had imagined. We opened the kitchen door to find a room full of cut brush left behind by people hired to clear the deck who instead had opted to stuff it in the house. It gave the illusion of growing up through the floor. Why go to all of the effort of hauling it to shore?
The inside of the house needed a staggering amount of work. In spite of ancient garbage and other trash, it had the sweet smell much like the aroma of a sawmill. I was transfixed as I passed from room to room how the view from each window was like a portrait. Broken glass crunched under our feet as we climbed the stairs to the second floor avoiding layers of caked bird droppings coating railing and stair treads and on our way to the tower. Climbing out of the tower enclosure to the outside deck was spellbinding. The view was beyond my greatest dreams as I viewed the setting sun. The air was warm and fresh and smelled so good. I was so happy. I turned to my husband John and said, “We must help Arline, we must save this house!” When we closed the door to the house I made a vow to myself and to the house that I would be back.
Arline stood waiting when we got back to shore. As I handed back the key she said, “No, you keep it and please take care of my baby.” It was sad and scary day.
My husband said “Don’t you dare get involved!”
So where did we begin?
We put an article in the paper and the project began in earnest again. The Save Esopus Lighthouse Commission was born in 1997. People came and people went, leaving only the strong of heart that had the willingness to climb over the many stumbling blocks of historical restoration and put their own lives on hold in the process. We promised to save this house and we have stood by our commitment. History has proven working on such a project requires a strong individual.
Extensive structural work was performed to pull the mortis and tenon wood framing back together. The house was jacked up and huge steel I-beams were inserted under the foundation by a crane mounted on a floating barge to correct stresses and level the building. Screw jacks were installed to adjust for any changes in the building. New wooden support beams were scarfed in to replace those rotted by years of exposure to leaks.
Rotten plaster was replaced throughout the house with blue plaster board and then an historic plasterer spent several weeks plastering the entire house. Missing woodwork was recreated, missing balusters remade and the magnificent staircase was restored. All along the way volunteers carried the weight of the restoration. When we turned to the master tradesmen, they were always tickled to be working on such an unusual project and they help us out. We couldn’t have done it without them and without everyone else who had helped.
And all along the way there was scraping and painting; sanding and refinishing; scraping and painting. They have become our mantras.
We have a generator but also a solar panel and inverter system. The house is wired for basic needs once again like lights and the fridge. We have beautiful windows and shutters and doors that all function and lock. Walls are smooth and floors are sanded and refinished. The house is furnished.
We even built our own 16 foot wooden work barge that has safely transported crew and materials to and from the lighthouse for 12 years!
In May of 2003 the light in the tower was relit by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse was once again a navigational aid.
In 2010 we opened the house to regular tours every other summer weekend.
Nicknamed the “Maid of the Meadows,” the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse stands at the edge of George Terpening’s flooded cow pasture. The pasture still lurks just under the surface of the water behind the lighthouse and now it is pleasure craft that run aground.
Arline has since passed away but we kept the promise made nearly sixteen years ago.
WE DID IT! WE SAVED THE ESOPUS MEADOWS LIGHTHOUSE!
We took care of her baby.
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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.