November 12, 2012 in Keepers Log, News, Questions for the Keeper

Freshets & Ice Gorges

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Recent storm surges raised the question of when the Lighthouse last saw flood levels anywhere near these heights.

In addition to storm surges, floods in the Hudson are often due to freshets. A freshet is the sudden increase in river levels caused by melting snow and ice, usually occurring during March or April. Flooding from freshets could be worsened by an ice gorge, a mass of ice blocking the river. Once a common occurrence on the tidal Hudson, flooding from ice gorges has been less frequent since 1930s. Coast Guard ice breaking operations on the Hudson, which started in 1936, decreased ice damming. The construction of reservoir systems in the Adirondacks reduced the magnitude of spring freshets. Previously, in early spring, ice sheets covering the Hudson (as well as the Mohawk and other major tributaries) began to thaw, crack, and move downstream as ice floes. The incoming tides on the lower Hudson impeded the ice floes, which piled on top of one another, clogging the river at choke points and forming enormous ice dams. The spring meltwater pouring out of the Adirondacks backed up behind the ice dam, flooding waterfront communities, especially Albany, Troy, and Watervliet. Then, when the ice dam broke, another destructive flood event occurred as the sudden release of ice floes and huge volumes of water swept downriver.

In the winter of 1902, a large ice gorge formed near Stuyvesant (about 25 miles north of Saugerties), damming the water until it rose about 3 feet above the parlor floor level at the Stuyvesant (Upper Kinderhook) Lighthouse. On March 4th, the ice gorge gave way and “knocked the Kinderhook Lighthouse into a cocked hat” and partially wrecked the Coxsackie Lighthouse. Both were solid masonry structures similar to the Saugerties Lighthouse. A report of the Lighthouse Board described the damage:

At Stuyvesant: the ice gorge struck with enough force that it…

carried away the old stone light house [built in 1835] situated to the north of the present one; also an outhouse, the bridge, the pier railing, the site fence, and all the trees. The westerly dwelling wall was broken through; the northerly wall was cracked, and the parlor was filled with ice which broke through the floor into the cellar. The brickwork of the tower and the front door were crushed.

At Coxsackie:

The northerly wall of the dwelling was broken through; the westerly wall cracked, and the first floor hall and room filled with ice. The pier railing was carried away, and one half of the capstones of the pier were dislodged and fell overboard. One outhouse was carried away; the boathouse and another outhouse were crushed and moved from their foundations. The site was banked with ice in large cakes from 6 to 10 feet high.

The damaged dwellings at Stuyvesant and Coxsackie were repaired and the accessory buildings were replaced. Both stations continued to operate until deactivated due to changes in the navigation channel–Stuyvesant in 1933 and Coxsackie in 1940.

No damage was reported at the Saugerties Lighthouse for this event. However, later that spring, the Lighthouse Board delivered material for construction of a footbridge from the stone pier to the adjacent island. This could be an indication that the ice gorge was enough to sweep away the previous footbridge. The water level would need to be near or above the level of the stone pier to carry away the bridge.

As the northernmost island light station on the Hudson, the Stuyvesant Lighthouse was especially vulnerable to ice gorges. The station was first established in 1829, and within three years that original lighthouse was destroyed by a deadly ice gorge. The following is the account of the destruction of the Lighthouse on Tuesday, March 13th, 1832:

On the Hudson, near Stuyvesant Landing, the water having risen above twelve feet [above low water], the ice moved for about two hours, and apparently in one solid mass several miles in extent. During this interval, a most distressing scene was witnessed at the site of the upper light house, situated a mile and a half above the landing. This was a stone building, 20 by 34, and two stories high, with a mole surrounding it four feet in height. The water had risen to the top of the mole before the ice began to move, which rendered the situation of the inmates truly alarming. Soon the immense field of ice above was seen to swing from its moorings, and coming down with irresistible force struck the light house, which in a moment was made a heap of ruins. There were at the time, ten individuals in the building, four of whom were buried under the crumbling walls. Mr Witbeck, the keeper of the light house, his wife, the daughter of Mrs Van Hoesen, and three other individuals, escaped from the falling edifice, barely in time to save their lives. Those who perished were two daughters of Mr. Witbeck, aged 15 and 13 years, and a son of Mrs. Van Hoesen, aged 14, and her infant child. All must inevitably have found a premature death but for the intrepid exertions of Mr C.M. Beecher, to whose efforts the rescue of the survivers is mainly attributed. Mr. B. put of in a small boat from the shore to relieve Mr. Witbeck and his family from their perilous situation, but owing to some delay in arranging the furniture, &c. they were not prepared to leave the building until it began to fall–and then too late for some of the unfortunate inmates.

Two years later, in 1834, funds were appropriated by Congress for a lighthouse “in place of the one carried away by ice” at Stuyvesant. That same year, money was also designated for the construction of the first lighthouse at Saugerties. Eventually, these stone lighthouses from the mid-1830s were replaced by masonry structures in the late 1860s. At Saugerties, the old stone lighthouse was sold off as surplus and dismantled. At Stuyvesant, it remained alongside its replacement as a depot for portable beacons during wintertime, until swept away by the ice gorge of 1902.

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