Massive undertaking seeks to save beloved lighthouse

By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media

The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse sits in the middle of the river between the two communities.

ATHENS — For more than a century, the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse has been a beacon for passing ships, and a focal point of local history.

Now, the lighthouse, which sits in the Hudson River midway between Athens and the city of Hudson in Columbia County, is in need of a little TLC.

A lot of TLC, as it turns out.

HALPS Vice President Bob Green lowers the stairs for entry to the lighthouse.

The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society is undertaking a multi-million-dollar restoration project to save the structure that first went into operation in 1874 guiding vessels through the shipping channel.

“The lighthouse is an icon — can you imagine looking at the Hudson River and the lighthouse isn’t there?” Carol Gans, president of the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society, or HALPS, said. 

The restoration project is in two phases. Phase 1 involves restoring the lighthouse itself, and Phase 2 is a massive long-term project to reinforce the foundation beneath the building, which sits on pilings that are driven deep into the riverbed.

The project will be a multi-year process, said Kristin Gamble, who is spearheading the lighthouse’s capital campaign.

“Phase 1 includes a lot of the necessary repairs to the infrastructure of the lighthouse itself, such as replacing the roof, the doors, windows, gutters and downspouts, the cistern and a new stairway to the lighthouse from the water, and various things like that,” Gamble said. “The lighthouse has moisture seepage in it. Living in the middle of the Hudson River is a tough time in the winter and it takes a toll on the structure, so we are starting with that. However, Phase 2 will be a bigger project, which is basically all the underwater work that needs to be done.”

Construction on the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse began in early 1873 and was completed Nov. 14, 1874, according to the organization’s website. It was a manned lighthouse guiding passing ships around the Middle Ground Flats in the middle of the river until the 1950s, when it was automated and no longer needed to be manned. 

The newly installed solar panels are visible, providing power to the lighthouse after an electrical cable was damaged by an underwater boulder.

The last lightkeeper family to operate and live at the lighthouse was the Brunner family of Athens.

Over the years — dating back to the 1800s — the scouring of the underwater pilings by churning water and river sediment unsettled by passing ships has taken its toll on the lighthouse’s underwater foundation.

“The lighthouse is not on land or on rock, although it looks like it is,” Gamble said. “The lighthouse is on pilings and they take a toll. We did a repair of some of the pilings in 2008, but there is much more that has happened to the underwater environment since then. There is a shipping channel that goes right by the lighthouse on the Hudson side of the river and it’s deep and there are some very big ships that go through. All that activity has done a lot of scouring on the underwater part of the lighthouse, so we need to make a decision on how to fix that.”

HALPS recently received a $500,000 grant from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to cover much of the Phase 1 restoration, and the group is in the process of raising the $180,000 matching funds in order to receive the grant, Gamble said. 

Visitors to the lighthouse learn about its history while sitting on the deck overlooking the majestic Hudson River.

It is unclear how much Phase 2 will cost, but at this point that is a long-term goal expected to cost several million dollars, which would likely come from government grants and charitable groups that support lighthouse and historic preservation, but any donations are welcomed.

“Our objective and wishes would be to do what we are calling the 100-year fix, in other words to do a bang-up job on this underwater restoration,” Gamble said. “It is a lot of money — we don’t yet know how much because we don’t have an exact budget yet. We are working on that at this point, but it is multi-millions.”

The organization conducted a LIDAR study to evaluate the condition of the structure’s foundation. LIDAR — Light Detection and Ranging — is a remote sensing method that uses light to measure elevation underwater, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The LIDAR study provided a 3D model of what is in the river beneath the lighthouse.

“The lighthouse sits on 200 wooden pilings and when it was built, those pilings were driven into the river mud and the foundation was built on them,” said Van Calhoun, chairman of the Lighthouse Renovation Committee. “Over the years, the water has progressively undermined the lighthouse and scoured beneath the lighthouse, especially the shipping channel. It’s so bad it has pulled monster stones bigger than Volkswagons away — some of the pilings are exposed, and if they are exposed to water, that is when they get exposed to oxygen and they deteriorate. We have to cover those back up and then contain them somehow.”

A decision has not yet been made on how to protect the pilings from water and oxygen damage, but the committee is considering its options.

Damaged rain gutters are just one of the many areas of the lighthouse in need of repair. HALPS is carrying out a capital campaign to raise money for the two-phase project.

“We will probably do it with a curtain wall, which is steel pilings around the lighthouse,” Calhoun said. “That is a massive undertaking because barges and cranes have to come in and pull the stones away that are there, we have to drive these pilings in and then put the river mud back in so it comes up to the bottom of the foundation and put the big stones back in. That is multi-millions, probably about $4 million worth of work.”

Phase 2 is a long-term goal. The group is currently working on raising the $180,000 for the matching state grant to get Phase 1 — restoration of the lighthouse itself — started. Calhoun said Phase 1 work could begin by the end of this year and be completed by 2024.

While erosion of the pilings is ongoing, the lighthouse is not at immediate risk of sinking, but the damage will only grow if nothing is done, Calhoun said.

“It’s not going to collapse today or tomorrow. If we did nothing, over the long term the river will continue to scour, some of the piers on the corners of the blocks will become compromised, the blocks will sag and there would be cracking in the building itself when that happens,” Calhoun said. “On the building itself, if we didn’t take care of the brickwork, the windows, the gutters, the roof and keep the water out, that is the first thing that would destroy the building, so we’ve got to take care of its current cracked condition and get it sound so when this new foundation comes up underneath, it is going to have a sound building.” 

“Fifteen years from now, if we did nothing, it could be in really rough shape,” he added.

The project seeks to do more than preserve the lighthouse, Gamble said. 

“We want to restore the lighthouse, but the real objective is to eventually have more public access to the lighthouse,” Gamble said. “Right now, it is somewhat limited and we really want to make the lighthouse have a future impact on communities on either side of the river. While everybody loves the lighthouse, they mostly just look at it and not too many people get out there. We want to make it much more accommodating to the public and also for educational purposes for the schools.”

Arlene Levinson, of HALPS, points to water damage on the ceiling of the lighthouse.

The lighthouse will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2024, and HALPS’s goal is to complete Phase 1 of the project by that time, Gamble said.

“The lighthouse gives you a flavor of the Hudson Valley that you don’t get anywhere else. It’s really quite inspiring,” Gamble said. “It is well worth saving because it is an icon of our part of the Hudson Valley.”