In this age of sophisticated technology, the relative ease of maintaining modern unmanned aids to navigation makes it hard to imagine the type of dedication required more than a century ago to be a single keeper tending a small river light. Even back then, there were no fellow keepers to alternate responsibility for daily chores like at larger lighthouse stations, and when these local inhabitants took on a commitment to be a lamplighter, it was usually for a very low wage over many years.
Such was the case with the Welch family which lived at Van Wie’s Point on the Hudson River a couple of miles below Albany, New York. The Welches undertook their lamplighting duties with great diligence for more than 70 years through three generations of the family before the light was finally automated in the 1930s. Their service was given as an example of faithful keepers by George Putnam, Commissioner of the Bureau of Lighthouses, in his book Beacons of the Sea in 1913. But the Welch family members weren’t the first keepers at Van Wie’s Point.
The point was named after the Van Wie family who had settled there in 1679. One of their descendants, Henry Van Wie, was the first keeper of record in 1854 when the river light was first established. However, there could have been a light there as early as 1846, as a local newspaper advertisement was seeking a contractor to “light and keep in repair for the term of one year from the 1st of February next certain lamps on the Hudson River situated at Van Wie’s Point,” and other places nearby.
The Hudson River was very treacherous at that particular point- shallow, curved, narrow, and full of rocks. Vessels were not able to navigate through it to get to Albany, and there were several reports through the decades of the 19th century of steamers and tugs being wrecked on the rocks or run aground there.
Additionally, the narrowed channel created somewhat of a bottleneck, and ice dams of ten feet or more would regularly form from the freshets causing severe flooding in Albany all the way up the river to Troy. There were many attempts to build dykes and to remove rocks in order to help regulate the flow, but there was still severe flooding all the way until the mid-1940s when the river could finally be widened and deepened successfully with modern dredging equipment.
But back in the 1800s, there really was not a whole lot that could be done. In 1835, the Hudson River Steamboat Company leased some land from the Van Wie family and created a landing dock for river traffic where stagecoaches met passengers to bring them up to Albany. With that amount of increased river traffic coming and going from Van Wie’s Point during the steamboat era, a light there was deemed a necessity.
In 1836, the Welch family came from Saratoga County, New York to settle at Van Wie’s Point. William Welch, born in 1817, married Henry Van Wie’s younger sister Catherine a couple of years after moving there, and they settled down in the Van Wie family home from that time onward.
In 1855, both Henry Van Wie and William Welch are listed as being farmers in the New York state census. Starting on the 1860 federal census, Henry’s occupation is listed as a lamplighter, while William’s is a different occupation. This continued for the next 15 years until finally in 1875, William has his occupation listed as a lamplighter. This is interesting because the lighthouse district appointment books have William officially taking over the position of keeper in 1858.
In fact, there was another keeper, Dr. Herman Wendall, who had the official position from 1854 to 1858. Perhaps Henry and William were too absorbed in their farming and needed some additional help at that point. It is very likely that both William and Henry worked at multiple jobs during those early years regardless of who was tending the light or having the official title. Lamplighting would not have paid enough at $14 per month to support any family and William and Catherine were raising several children during that time, so with Henry living in the house with them, there was probably a communal family pot.
By 1875, Henry had passed away, so William took on the duty alone for the next 35 years. Some time after Catherine died in 1882, William moved in with his son Warren and his family who had had a house built behind the original family home. He still officially kept the light through the ensuing decades. It is extremely rare to find any 80 or 90 year-old with an occupation listed in a census. Yet, William Welch was a “lighthouse keeper” until within a few months of his death on September 7, 1910 at age 93.
His obituary stated that he had never missed a night in the entire 52 years he kept Van Wie’s Point Light nor was sick until the last two weeks before his death. Every day, with the exception of when the river was icebound in the winter, he would row the two-foot brass lantern out and climb the scaffolding to hang it on the post at dusk. Every morning, he would row out to collect it and bring it home to polish and refill it for the next night. When he was 90, he received an official commendation from the Lighthouse Board for his excellent care of the light. He even did the white-washing of the stone foundation base every year up until age 91.
The obituary also stated that he was the oldest employee of the United States Lighthouse Service as well as the Department of Commerce and Labor at the time of his death. It is doubtful that anyone ever broke William’s record.
As Lighthouse Commissioner Putnam stated in his 1913 book after lauding William’s record service, “At present there is no provision in this country for the retirement of light-keepers on account of age, long service, or disability resulting from their work.” It wasn’t until several years after that the mandatory retirement for keepers of age 70 was instituted.
The day following William Welch’s death, his son Warren, then age 66, was officially appointed as keeper of Van Wie’s Light. Warren had had a long career on the river and served as a chief engineer on various steamers, notably the Hendrick Hudson II, but had retired by the time he took over the Welch lamplighting duties in 1910. He continued the family tradition until his own death in 1930 when his son Frank, then age 55, who had worked as a river boat pilot, took over the light for a brief time until it was automated sometime in the 1930s.
Today, there is a skeletal tower, sitting on top of a rock pile base at the end of a dyke off Van Wie’s Point as well as a smaller beacon in the river not too far distant. Chances are that anyone who passes that spot would not even know or probably think of a 93-year-old keeper and his family who diligently watched over that stretch of the Hudson River and lit their lamp every night almost 100 years ago.
Stanzas from this poem, written by early 20th century poet William D. Goold in tribute to William Welch, serve not only as a memoriam to him, but to all lamplighters and keepers who diligently kept their lights burning without acclaim.
The Keeper of the Light
Some other hand must trim
And place upon its beacon tower the light
Which for fifty full years, till stars grew dim,
Gleamed brightly through the night.
Some other feet must climb
Henceforth the light-tower’s rough and steep assent;
His have grown weary; it is evening time
And life’s long day is spent.
The ships that drifted by
Whispered of the fairyland beside the sea,
But with his kindled light before his eye
He cried, “Nay, not for me!”
Often the languorous moon
Smiled in derision on the faithful light
That like a candle in the glare
Shone through the moonlit night.
But not the tempter ships,
Nor soft note whispered by the sea’s fair maid
Nor taunt of moon that stung like scorpion whips,
Him from his duty swayed.
He heeded none of them.
No other hand than his, till death’s call came,
Caressed his lantern til it shone, a gem
Which gave the sacred flame.
Take ye this work to heart-
This was a hero more than some who died
On field of battle; his a nobler part
Though not world glorified.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2018 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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