Captain Joshua Card here at Portsmouth Harbor Light Station, New Hampshire. Today I’d like to tell you about another contemporary of mine, Keeper Jacob Ackerman over at the Tarrytown Light on the Hudson River in New York.
Tarrytown is about 25 miles north of midtown Manhattan. In 1881, George Brown, inspector the Third Lighthouse District, wrote a letter to the Lighthouse Board expressing the urgent need for a light at Tarrytown to warn ships away from dangerous shoals. General James Chatham Duane, engineer for the Third Lighthouse District, designed a caisson-type cast-iron lighthouse to be erected about a quarter-mile from Kingsland Point. The lighthouse superstructure was swiftly completed, including an interior lining of brick. The light went into service on October 1, 1883, with a fourth-order Fresnel lens showing a fixed white light 56 feet above mean high water.
The first keeper, Jacob Ackerman, remained at the station for 21 years. Ackerman and his wife, Henrietta, had no children, so they kept chickens in a spare bedroom. Ackerman was a local man who had spent more than 20 years sailing on the Hudson as the captain of vessels plying between New York City and Albany. After serving as Provost Marshall in Tarrytown during the Civil War, Ackerman worked for 21 years as the superintendent of the Croton Aqueduct. He was 57 when he became a lighthouse keeper.
Ackerman experienced a memorable storm at the lighthouse in April 1893. “The highest tide for many years and with a Violent Gale,” he wrote in the station’s log. “The cellar of the station overflowed, and for two hours we kept carrying out water before we gained much on it.” The gale swept the station’s boat right off its davits and set it adrift.
Less than a week after the April storm, Ackerman heard a cry for help coming from the river. He saw that four fishermen were clinging deperately to their boat, which had capsized. Ackerman rowed to the men and quickly got them to safety, recording in the log that he received “many thanks for the . . . timely assistance in the rescue.”
The Ackermans spent their 50th wedding anniversary in December 1898 imprisoned inside the lighthouse by ice floes. They had planned a party at the lighthouse, but the ice prevented their friends from visiting.
When he retired at the age of 78 on October 1, 1904, a newspaper story reported that Ackerman’s duties had “become too heavy for him.” The article stated that Ackerman had been responsible for saving 19 persons from drowning.
The writer described the keeper’s love of animals:
The Captain was very fond of pets, and he had a family consisting of three cats, a dog, and two dozen chickens. The Captain has managed to keep his chickens with him winter and summer. Sometimes they fell overboard, but he managed to rescue them. In the winter time while it was terribly cold at the lighthouse he had them cared for, and he said they were good layers. One of his cats is thirteen years old, and has spent her lifetime in the lighthouse.
Ackerman died in 1915 at the age of 89 at the home of his daughter in Tarrytown. His obituary called him “one of the best known river men on the Hudson.”
Jeremy D’Entremont is the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles on lighthouses and maritime history. He is the president and historian for the American Lighthouse Foundation and founder of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses, and he has lectured and narrated cruises throughout the Northeast and in other regions. He is also the producer and host of the U.S. Lighthouse Society podcast, “Light Hearted.”