When giving tours at the Tarrytown Lighthouse, I still have people come up to me and say, “Do you know that I have lived in Sleepy Hollow my whole life, but this is the first time that I have ever been in the lighthouse?” Several other Sleepy Hollow natives have said, “Did you know that I knew the lighthouse keeper’s daughter, Marie Le Clerc? Once she rowed me out to the lighthouse, and I spent the weekend there.” The Tarrytown Lighthouse is such an interesting piece of our local history, so I would like to tell you a little about it, and about the last family that lived there.
For many years, steamboat and sloop captains on the Hudson River expressed their concerns about the shoals, near the horseshoe-shaped Tarrytown Bay, through which the Pocantico River ran.
As a result, in 1847, the United States Congress authorized that a lighthouse be built. However, it took 36 years to decide on both the site and the cost of the planned lighthouse. Some wanted it built just west of Tarrytown, some wanted it built closer to Beekman Avenue. However, it was finally decided that it would be built one quarter mile off shore from Kingsland Point. Though technically in North Tarrytown (Sleepy Hollow), it was called the Tarrytown Lighthouse on every existing river chart, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Tarrytown Lighthouse.
It was built in caisson style with a cement cylinder foundation that had 50 per cent of the weight of the lighthouse being placed so deep in the Hudson that it has survived wind, storm, ice, and tornado for 125 years. Complete sections were shipped from G.W.&F. Smith and Sons in Boston and were assembled upon the foundation by barge and scaffolding, one pre-fabricated landing at a time. It has three decks and is 56 feet tall. Bricks that were made in Haverstraw lined the walls of three landings in the lighthouse and helped keep it warm in the winter and cool in the summer. For almost 60 years the lighthouse keepers collected rain water off of the roof on the first deck. It then drained into a cistern in the basement of the lighthouse and was used for drinking water, cooking, and bathing. The Tarrytown Lighthouse was crowned with a Fresnel lens that was six feet high and two feet in diameter and contained 72 pieces of ground and polished glass with a bull’s-eye in 12 sections. It was imported from France. The lens was first illuminated by kerosene and later electricity. At first it cast a fixed white light, then was changed to a fixed red light in 1894, and in 1902 it was changed to a flashing red light warning ships to steam or sail clear of the shallow water where it stood. It went into operation on October 1, 1883. Jacob Ackerman was the first lighthouse keeper who worked there alone for 19 years. Nine other lighthouse keepers have lived in the Tarrytown Lighthouse, including Laureat Le Clerc, who lived there with his wife and three children from 1943 until 1954. However, I would like to tell you about the last family that lived in the lighthouse.
Richard Moreland was twenty years old and in the U.S. Coast Guard when he began working in the Tarrytown Lighthouse on June 2, 1955. He lived there with his wife Agnes, whom he had met at a dance in Queens when he was at boot camp. During Mr. Moreland’s tour at the lighthouse, two daughters were born; Mary Lou and Diane.
One of his first jobs of the day was to raise the American flag and then bring it into the lighthouse at night. Mrs. Moreland, now Mrs. Vesey, told me that this was an important duty to her because she had emigrated from Ireland just three years before living in the lighthouse, and this reminded her of her new citizenship. She stated that of course they were rather isolated and did not have many visitors. She also said in an interview with me that either she or her husband would go into North Tarrytown every two weeks to buy groceries and almost every other day to buy milk for the girls. She further said that when they first moved in it was a bit difficult arranging square furniture in the round rooms. The first floor was always the kitchen with a new propane stove; the original had been a cast iron coal-burning stove. Whereas former lighthouse keepers had no electricity and used kerosene lamps, Mrs. Moreland used the second landing as their living room and had a TV there. They also had running water for the sink and shower although water was still stored in the basement cistern. They did not have to collect rain water because the Coast Guard brought enough to supply them for several months. The third landing was used as their bedroom and had a simple toilet. Former lighthouse keepers had to use an outhouse that emptied right into the river. The fourth landing was used as a workshop area because Mr. Moreland was required to perform all maintenance inside and outside of the lighthouse.
Richard Moreland kept a journal every day recording the weather conditions and anything important that had to be done during the day. At the end of the day he recorded anything of importance that had occurred. The journals had to be sent to the Coast Guard at the end of each month. Of course, Mr. Moreland’s most important job was to keep the light and bell working every night. On the fifth landing he had to crank a clocklike mechanism for about three minutes, to keep the light revolving for ten hours. There is a column that runs through the middle of the lighthouse which many visitors today think is a support column, but actually it had cables and a fifty pound weight running through it to revolve the light. The cables ran from just below the lens, through the column, and down as far as the kitchen. The light was rated at 7000 candle power and could be seen over thirteen miles as it warned captains away from the shoals. Mr. Moreland had another electric mechanism that struck the thousand pound bell every twenty seconds. Mr. Moreland reported that once during a power failure he had to place a kerosene lantern in the lens and strike the bell manually for two hours. He said that at first he was in the driving rain while striking the bell with a hammer. He then realized that if he tied a line to the striker, he could ring the bell from inside.
Mrs. Moreland (Vesey) told me that although a bit isolated she rather enjoyed the experience that she began as a 19 year old and truly understood what an important job it was. She said that she had lived near a lighthouse in Ireland and it had fascinated her; so she truly valued the opportunity to live in the Tarrytown Lighthouse. She delighted in the sunsets and tranquility because they rarely had visitors. She told me there wasn’t anything that she did not enjoy at the lighthouse except sometimes having her husband row the one quarter mile to shore or walking across the frozen river in winter to buy milk.
Mr. Moreland enjoyed fishing off of the deck and swimming in the river. He confided to Edward R. Morrow in a 1956 interview that he would tie a line around his waist so that he would not be caught in the river’s current if he became tired. Mr. Moreland related that the Coast Guard took responsibility for all lighthouses from the old U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1939. He added that it was a great place to save rent money, and that he had certainly had no intrusions from traveling salesmen. Moreland declared that being a lighthouse keeper was the best job in the Coast Guard.
The Morelands were only stationed at the lighthouse until February of 1958 when the lighthouse became less important. With the completion of the Tappan Zee Bridge, navigational lights were installed on top of it, and a red number 8 buoy marked the channel. A full-time lighthouse keeper was no longer necessary. The lighthouse was officially decommissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1961. Mrs Vesey (Moreland) informed me that she has very fond memories of the Tarrytown Lighthouse that still linger today.
Richard Miller is the Tarrytown Village Historian.