It was the late 1870s, and a sloop hauling Kingston bluestone on the Hudson River got caught in a sudden squall near Saugerties. Despite valiant efforts to keep the sloop afloat, the pounding waves got the better of the heavily laden boat, and it overturned. Things looked bleak for the two sailors who were thrown overboard, until the Saugerties lighthouse keeper and the keeper’s assistant rowed out to them and skillfully yanked the men from death’s door.
Imagine the rescued sailors’ surprise when, likely warmed by blankets and hot coffee in the snug brick lighthouse, they discovered the keeper and keeper’s assistant were 25-year-old Kate Crowley and her 26-year-old sister, Ellen.
Unusual as it may seem, the Crowley sisters were not the first female lighthouse keepers on the Hudson River, nor were they the last.
Nine lighthouses along the river’s route were home to female keepers at one time or another. They assumed the responsibilities after the infirmity or death of the male keeper — for example, Kate and Ellen took over after their father, Daniel Crowley, was blinded by cataracts. Given that lighthouse keepers were appointed via (an often political) presidential decree back then, appointing a female keeper was a big deal.
The first known female keeper on the Hudson was Christina Whitbeck, who served from 1841–1885 at the Stuyvesant Lighthouse on the east side of the river near Kinderhook. Whitbeck took over the duties after the death of her husband, lighthouse keeper Volker Whitbeck.
Saugerties Lighthouse even had a female keeper before the Crowleys’ tenure, according to current Keeper Patrick Landewe. Dorcas Schoonmaker’s husband, Abraham, was keeper from 1845 until he died in November 1846. Dorcas handled his tasks while he lay ill; she did such a good job that, upon Abraham’s death, river boatmen successfully petitioned for Dorcas to be named keeper — a position she held for the next three years.
In 1856, newly appointed Rondout Lighthouse keeper George Murdock brought his pregnant wife, Catherine, and their two children to begin a new life at the wooden lighthouse on the Rondout Creek. A year later, George drowned in the creek. According to the Hudson Maritime Museum, the widowed Catherine — with her newborn son James in her arms — visited the U.S. Lighthouse Board in Washington, D.C.
“Her argument was, what better way for someone to learn lighthouse keeping than to be raised in a lighthouse?” relates Sarah Wassberg Johnson, director of education for the Hudson River Maritime Museum. The board apparently agreed: Catherine was named keeper, a post she held for 50 years before retiring in 1907 — when her son James took over.
Built in 1869 to replace a wooden lighthouse, the handsome brick Saugerties Lighthouse (pictured above) still stands as a beacon at the confluence of the Hudson River and the Esopus Creek. In honor of its 150th anniversary, the Arm of the Sea Theatre used the lighthouse’s history to create its August 2019 Esopus Creek Puppet Suite, Keep That Lamp Trimmed & Burnin’.