Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-11-26.
The Hudson City Light, sometimes called the Hudson-Athens Light, was built to mark the Middle Ground Flats, a former sand bar in the middle of the Hudson River. Today, the "flats" looks more like an island due to natural silting and the deposits from dredging.
Henry Hudson, an English navigator, while working for the Dutch East India Company was searching for the Northwest Passage to Cathay (present day China) when he unknowingly stumbled upon Lower New York Bay, later known as Manhattan.
Hudson mapped the area in 1609, where he came across the Wiechquaesgeck tribal group of the Lenape (Delaware) Indian Confederacy. After finishing up his work, he continued up the river that would later bear his name to present day Albany. As the river grew shallower, he realized he had not found the passage he was looking for.
Hudson's work for the Dutch East India Company laid the foundation for Dutch colonization of the region. Early settlements occurred as early as 1624 when Dutch settlers established a fur trading post on Governors Island and 1626 when colonists acquired the island of Manhattan.
Over the years, other settlements took place along the Hudson River, including the town of Claverack, which took place in 1662 when Dutch settlers purchased land from native Mahicans. By 1785, after splitting from the town of Claverack, the city of Hudson was chartered.
During the Revolutionary War, the British targeted many whaleships with nearly fatal consequences to the industry. Of Nantucket's fleet of 150 ships, fewer than 30 were left after the war. Shaken by the consequences, many whalers relocated their operations to Hudson, NY, more than 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.
Most of the settlers were New England whalers hailing from such places as Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, and Providence. Once there, they continued their livelihood. Not many would expect to find a whaling town along a river, over 100 miles from the ocean, but that's exactly what Hudson, New York was.
By 1785, after splitting from the town of Claverack, the city of Hudson was chartered. As many of the city's inhabitants were whalers, they continued their livelihood. Not many would expect to find a whaling town along a river, over 100 miles from the ocean, but that's exactly what Hudson, New York was.
Just across the Hudson River from the city of Hudson was the town of Athens. Athens was primarily a shipbuilding town, but contained many other businesses including the Clark Pottery, the Every & Eichhorn Ice House, and the Howlands Coal Yard.
To bridge the two cities, as early as 1778, several ferries ran from Hudson to Athens. In 1935, the New York State Bridge Authority opened the newly erected Rip Van Winkle Bridge, which shuttered most of the ferry services.
Like most whaling towns in the late 1700s, Hudson grew rapidly. By 1790, Hudson was the 24th largest city in the United States and as late as 1820, it was the fourth largest in New York. Around this same time, the City of New York was becoming an economic powerhouse and with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, a vital link between New York and the largely agricultural Midwest was established.
The Erie Canal ran between Buffalo and Albany, both in New York State. To get goods to New York City and the Atlantic Ocean, they would travel down the Erie Canal to Albany, and then be floated down the Hudson River to New York City. This greatly increased traffic on the Hudson River.
This voyage of several hundred miles, coupled with heavy traffic could sometimes be perilous, which led to navigational aids being established along the Hudson River. One of the navigational aids encountered was the Middle Ground Flats between Hudson and Athens, in New York.
The nearly two mile-long mud flats were completely submerged at high tide, giving mariners the illusion of open water. This lead to many unintentional groundings, prompting a call for a lighthouse to be erected. The first mention of a "light-house on the Hudson river, [sic] at a point about one mile south of the village of Athens" appeared in government documents in 1838.
It was around this time that an effort was made to improve navigation on the Hudson River leading to the construction of several other lighthouses along its lengths. Two such lighthouses were the Rondout Creek Lighthouse, built in 1838 and the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse, built in 1839, both located near Kingston, New York. For unknown reasons, although the Hudson City Lighthouse was recommended in 1838, it was never built.
After continued petitioning, Congress finally relented and on June 10, 1872, an appropriation of $35,000 was made for the Hudson City Lighthouse. Before the end of the year, a survey was made of the southeast end of the Middle Ground Flats.
Hudson City Light showing "ice-breaker" (Courtesy Coast Guard)
During the following year, a contractor was selected for the foundation and pier and plans for the dwelling and tower were being prepared. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had the following entry:
207. Hudson City, New York - The pile foundation and pier are under contract. The plans for the dwelling and tower are being prepared, and the work will be put under contract in good season.
On May 11, 1874, the state of New York had ceded jurisdiction of a parcel, 100 feet in diameter, for the construction of the lighthouse. After that, things moved along. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
210. Hudson City, Hudson River, New York - The pile foundation and granite pier for this light house [sic] have been completed, and the contractor for the dwelling-house and tower has carried his work forward to the completion of the first story and assembling of the material for the remainder of the work. The lantern has been made under contract, and delivered at the station.
After having to rebuild many lighthouses along the Hudson River due to ice damage, including the Esopus Meadows and the Rondout Creek Lighthouses, the Lighthouse Board decided to make some design changes with the Hudson City Light.
To ensure the stability of the pier, the pilings were driven fifty feet into the riverbed and the topped by a limestone pier. To ensure the pier would deflect any ice floes that may come down the river, the north end of the pier was "V-shaped," much like the bow of a ship.
Built atop the granite pier, the keeper's dwelling was constructed of red brick and stone in the Second Empire architectural style, featuring a mansard roof. When completed, the dwelling contained a kitchen, pantry, dining room, and sitting room on the first floor and three bedrooms on the second floor.
The tower rose from the front of the dwelling to a height of forty-six feet above sea level. Inside the lantern was a sixth-order Fresnel lens showing a fixed white light. Henry D. Best was appointed the station's keeper on September 19, 1874, and he first exhibited the light on November 1.
It would appear that the station was well built by the lack of entries in the Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board over the years. After 1875, the first such entry occurred in 1894 when it was noted that a fog signal was installed at the station. At that time, a fog bell, operated by a Gamewell automatic striking mechanism was installed.
Henry Best kept the light until his death in 1893. He was succeeded by his son, Frank Best. During Frank's tenure, he was credited with several rescues. On July 8, 1905, he pulled a young man named Sherman Rockefeller from the water and in 1912, he rescued eleven women from the steamer Isabella after it collided with a tug.
Frank Best died on August 10, 1918 and at that time, his widow, Nellie, took over the station's duties. It was during this time that the daughter of Frank and Nellie, Mrs. Harvey D. Munn, saved the lives of a man and his son whose boat was taking on water a short distance from the lighthouse.
Nellie Best only served at the station for two months before handing over the position to William J. Murray on October 5, 1918. Emil J. Brunner would be the last civilian keeper and would serve until November 10, 1949 when the station was automated. He retired at that time.
The lighting system was updated in 1926 when the sixth order Fresnel lens was replaced with a larger fifth-order lens. In 1938, several modern conveniences for the keeper came to the lighthouse. The most important one was indoor plumbing, which included a full bathroom. Prior to that, and outhouse hung over the river. Also in 1938, a central heating system run by a coal furnace was installed.
Once automated, except for its lighting equipment, the structure stood empty. In 1967, New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller established the Hudson River Valley Commission to explore possible uses for Hudson River lighthouses.
One of the recommendations put for by the committee recommended that the Coast Guard turn over the deeds or lease the structures to a public or not-for-profit group. The groups could then restore and operate the facilities for public benefit.
Although this idea was put forth in 1967, nothing happened until 1982 when local citizens from Columbia and Greene counties came together to form the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society (HALPS). Their purpose was to maintain, preserve and restore the lighthouse, which was registered as a National Historic Place.
The group signed a 20-year lease with the Coast Guard on February 14, 1984. On July 3, 2000, the Coast Guard officially transferred the deed to the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society. After many years of hard work, the group had officially owned the lighthouse.
HALPS set out to restore the interior of the lighthouse to the mid-1930s, a time when Emil J. Brunner, the last civilian keeper, and his family lived at the lighthouse. The Brunner family graciously donated several period pieces, which are on display in the lighthouse.
The historic lighthouse still has its original fog signal in place. The bell, which weighs 1,211-pounds, is still mounted on the outside of the tower. Inside the dwelling, the automatic striking mechanism and clockwork are still intact.
Today, the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society runs tours allowing the public to visit the lighthouse, which typically occur during the summer months. Check the HALPS website for more information.
Directions:The lighthouse sits out in the Hudson River between the Towns of Hudson and Athens. Best views are from the water. Distant views might be possible from S. Washington Street just south of the Town of Athens.
Access:The lighthouse is owned by the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society. The dwelling and tower are open during tours.View more Hudson City Light (Hudson-Athens) Lighthouse pictures