March 31, 2012 in Keepers Log, Questions for the Keeper

First aid to navigation on the Hudson?

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A volunteer onboard the sloop Clearwater recently posed the question: when was the first aid-to-navigation established on the Hudson River?

To address this question, I relied on Jim Crowley’s Lighthouses of New York. As it turns out, the answer is not clear-cut. Affixing a specific year is difficult since the first aids-to-navigation predated the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609. Native Americans lit signal fires as a guide. They also bent shoreline trees to mark treacherous areas of the river. Similarly, during the colonial era, local residents were enlisted to keep signal fires to aid the sloops, but this was inconsistent. In 1789, the US Lighthouse Establishment tried to organize the first navigational aid system by hiring locals as lamplighters to hang lanterns along the shore near dangerous spots. This, too, proved insufficient due to lanterns doused by foul weather or neglectful lamplighters.

Interestingly, in 1805, the Journal of the U.S. House of Representatives documents a petition from merchants and sloop-owners requesting “that piers may be erected and buoys fixed at such places in the river Hudson or on the shores thereof … to prevent the difficulty and danger experienced by the petitioners and others concerned in the navigation of the said river.”

Not until after the Erie Canal opened in 1825 did the Hudson River receive its first lighthouse. Built in 1826, Stony Point was the first lighthouse established on the Hudson, a more elaborate incarnation of the shoreline signal fires lit by Native Americans centuries earlier.

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