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Hudson-Athens Lighthouse placed on national list of endangered places

The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse
Lucas Willard
The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse

Surrounded by the Hudson River, the Hudson-Athens lighthouse has stood for 150 years. And now, a new recognition is boosting the effort to ensure it stands for 150 more.

As the lighthouse watches from across a swollen springtime Hudson River, Athens Mayor Amy Serrago jokingly refers to the structure as the small village’s 1,587th resident.

“The lighthouse has stood off our shores for most of our village’s nearly 220-year history as a beacon and as a symbol of that history and the ingenuity that went into its construction in 1874,” said Serrago.

The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse, just off the southern tip of the Middle Ground Flats island, is a stately two-story brick structure with an attached tower that still guides boats today.

But it’s in danger.

“Threat. We’re threatened, that's quite a word to have to, that's my job to describe for you,” said Calhoun.

Van Calhoun, who is head of the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society's restoration committee, points across the river as a tugboat pushes a huge stone barge past the lighthouse.

“It's not the wakes that they put up, it's what it takes to drive those big stone barges which go deep, 40 feet, 30 feet deep into the river. It's the turbulence of those props that go by that are causing our damage. That's a small ship,” said Calhoun.

This barge is nothing compared to the 700-foot ocean-faring ships that head up the Hudson, says Calhoun. The ship traffic, he says, is washing the mud away from the pilings that hold the lighthouse in place.

The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society has been working for years to raise money to save the structure. The effort has gained the attention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Pam Bowman, the organization’s senior director of public lands policy, traveled to Athens for the event.

“I'm joining you here today to announce that the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse has been named to the National Trust's 2024 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places,” said Bowman.

The National Trust has published the list each year since 1988. With an estimated $7 to $10 million needed to restore the lighthouse, the list shines a national light on the structure.

“We hope that the listing of this lighthouse as an endangered place will spotlight and uplift this group's great work as they face increasing structural and funding challenges, support and investment in their fundraising efforts could help protect this iconic beacon on one of America's greatest rivers,” said Bowman.

The view from the Athens riverfront is great, but it’s better to see the lighthouse up close…

After a short boat ride, and a short climb up the metal stairs to the lighthouse, Hudson Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society President Kristen Gamble stands at the back door that overlooks the muddy estuary.

“Now like most places these days you walk into, we're gonna walk into the kitchen first instead of the front door, OK?” said Gamble.

The inside of the lighthouse looks…like a house, at least a house from the 1930’s – when a family lived here full-time. Gamble points out the antique kitchen cabinet.

“This is an old-fashioned Hoosier cabinet, if you know those. And the flour would be here…”

Inside the rooms there are photos, a display case of historic pieces, and an intricate prism that would have sat atop the building’s tower. Local second-graders are some the annual visitors to see the interior of the lighthouse. But the building is showing more than its age – there are cracks in the walls and ceiling.

The group has received two half-million-dollar state Parks, Preservation and Heritage Grants and continues to raise funds. Holding up an engineering report, Gamble explains the extensive restoration project the Preservation Society is looking to complete.

“We did a boring of the bottom of the river last fall and we discovered that, actually, the bedrock is 80 feet deep. So, we will have to go down pretty far in order to encircle what the plan is…to encircle. First, repair, push the mud back over the pilings and then you’d have to have the rocks, which are the what they call riprap, to hold the mud in place,” said Gamble.

To get the best view, you have to climb the tower.

“OK, so now let's go all the way up,” said Gamble.

The top deck offers a 360 view of the river, with the Catskills to the west and the Berkshires to the east. Gamble describes it as an “emotional rush.”

“You know, just being up here and saying this beautiful river and the mountains and the sky, it's so fabulous. It's inspiring. What can I say?” said Gamble.

If you’d like to see the lighthouse yourself, the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society offers Saturday tours beginning this month.

For WAMC News, I’m Lucas Willard.


Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.