May 14, 2024

Keeping the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Above Water

For 150 years, the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse has helped ships big and small safely navigate the waters of New York’s mighty Hudson River. In that time, the 46-foot-high red brick structure, built in the Second Empire architectural style and featuring a mansard roof and limestone trimming, has become a cherished landmark, deeply woven into the fabric of its two namesake communities, the city of Hudson and the village of Athens.

“The lighthouse really connects our cross river communities as a sense of our identity,” said Kate Treacy, director of operations at the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society (HALPS), the nonprofit organization that owns and manages the lighthouse. “It’s a very special place, and very specific to our part of the Hudson Valley.”

Without swift action, however, the historic lighthouse could be permanently lost.

View of the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse with the reflection of the setting sun on the water.

photo by: David Oliver

View of the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse, which was listed on the National Trust's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2024.

The precarious situation of the lighthouse, combined with its significance to the surrounding community, landed the lighthouse on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2024 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. It joins Michigan’s historic lighthouses—exemplified by DeTour Reef Light (1998)—and the Gay Head Lighthouse in Aquinnah, Massachusetts (2013) among lighthouses that have appeared on the list.

“It is celebrated by people in the communities around it,” said Jennifer Sandy, senior director of preservation programs at the National Trust, of the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse’s inclusion on the list. “We like to shine a spotlight on places like that that really resonate with communities and help them define themselves.”

A Century and a Half of History

The Hudson River was once home to a total of 14 lighthouses. The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse is one of seven that are still standing. It is also the northernmost of the remaining Hudson River lighthouses and one of just two located in the middle of the river.

The lighthouse became necessary after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1925 turned the Hudson River, a tidal river, into a bustling shipping route, with vessels making their way to and from the Great Lakes. Some of these ships ran aground on a sandbar opposite the city of Hudson known as the Middle Ground Flats that was submerged at high tide. The sandbar became a depository for soils dredged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from the river’s shipping channel, which turned it into an island.

In 1872, the U.S. Congress approved the construction of the lighthouse. Work began the following year and was completed by the fall of 1874.

Aerial view of the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse as a barge passes.

photo by: David Oliver

Aerial view of the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse showing the scale of the lighthouse compared to the ships that are now frequenting the Hudson River.

“It’s part of the growth of the country,” said Gamble, who has lived near the city of Hudson for the past 50 years. “When the Erie Canal opened, the commercial use of the river expanded enormously and this is what enabled things to come from the West to the big city. It’s a very important part of the development of the United States.”

The lighthouse’s foundation was created by driving 200 wooden pilings 50 feet into the riverbed and securing them with packed earth and boulders. However, traffic from modern shipping vessels, which are much larger and more powerful than those common in the 19th century, has caused the mud and boulders to shift, leaving the pilings exposed to oxygen. Combined with damage from ice flows and currents, the force of the water displaced by ships has accelerated the deterioration of the pilings. The proposed solution involves installing an underwater barrier made of sheet piles around the lighthouse.

In the meantime, HALPS is addressing damage that the precarious state of the foundation pilings has caused in the main building, which includes cracks that allow water to seep in. HALPS has received two $500,000 grants (that required a match) from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation’s Environmental Protection Fund. The first is grant being used to replace the roof and prevent further water intrusion by gaps around windows and wall cracks.

The second NYS OPRHP grant is earmarked for designing the sheet pile barrier and obtaining the necessary permits to install it. HALPS hopes that the installation of the sheet pile barrier will also support outside decks that will allow the lighthouse to become a multipurpose gathering space. “This will enable us to be more of a community place where people want to meet,” said Gamble. “The future is a very important part of this.”

Two kayakers alongside the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse.

photo by: David Oliver

The view of two kayakers next to the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse provides another perspective of the size of the lighthouse.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse was manned until its light became automated in 1950. In the late 1960s, the U.S. Coast Guard began leasing the lighthouses scattered throughout the Hudson River to non-profit organizations and other public groups. HALPS, formerly known as the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Committee, assumed the lease for the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse in 1984, eventually taking ownership in 2000. Today, the lighthouse continues to serve as a navigational aid, its beacon managed by the Coast Guard.

The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979, is a state-chartered museum that houses artifacts and works of art donated by the family of Emil J. Brunner, the lighthouse's last civilian keeper. The lighthouse’s original fog bell is displayed on the exterior.

Hudson-Athens Lighthouse, Hudson River, New York

photo by: Jonathan Palmer

A closer look at the design and the construction of the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse.

Accessible only by boat, the lighthouse is currently open to public tours on select Saturdays during the summer months, as well as to school groups. But HALPS has much more ambitious plans for the beloved structure that motivate efforts to save it.

“Whether that is the Columbia Greene Community College using it as a meeting space for their history department,” said Treacy, “or a youth organization using it for environmental or ecological programming that they want to do from the middle of the Hudson River, the goal for the organization is really to create a space that can be activated as a museum and a community gathering space.”

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Nathalie Alonso is a freelance journalist and children's author based in New York City. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Outside, Refinery29 and TIME for Kids. She holds a B.A. in American studies from Columbia University.

Announcing the 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

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