To the Lighthouse: An Interview with Emily Brunner
by Betsy Miller
On Saturday, July 9th, a Hudson Cruise Boat departs from the Henry Hudson Riverfront Park in Hudson on the hour every hour between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. for the season’s first regularly scheduled tours of the Hudson Athens Lighthouse. The tour takes about one hour and features a talk by Emily Brunner, an 86-year-old retired nurse now living in Athens, who spent seven years living at the lighthouse with her family, starting at age 5, when they moved there in 1930 from another lighthouse in Huntington Long Island.
“The Long Island light was situated between the estates of the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys,” said Emily Brunner, third from left in the photo, in a telephone interview this week. “I think that’s why it had indoor plumbing. But there wasn’t much else. It was designed for a single man—one bedroom, a small living area and a kitchen.” When her family moved up to Hudson, they were in the lap of luxury—sort of. At least, the space was designed for a family—four bedrooms, a good sized kitchen and a family room. “But we had an outhouse that hung out over the river,” she recalls. “We’d never seen anything like it.”
Nor did they know how to use it properly. When her younger brother made his first quick pre-bedtime visit during a stiff northerly breeze, he ran back indoors teary-eyed in urine-soaked p.j.s. “My Dad told him he needed to learn never to pee into the wind,” she laughs. Brunner says her Father would hang “items for learning” on the inside of the outhouse door each month. “That’s how I learned Morse code and semaphore signaling.”
The family lived without electricity and running water. They had a cistern for drinking water and Brunner’s mother hauled up 14 gallons of river water each day to use for laundry and bathing. “She’d strain the water, then boil it on the coal-fired stove before we could use it.” Her mother also baked all the family bread, pies and cakes, prepared meals, did laundry on a scrub board, and shared the watch with her husband. “We had a wind up mechanism that worked on weights so that the fog bell would ring every 15 seconds,” says Brunner. “And we could set the flash the same way.” Each lighthouse on the river had a different series of flashes so that boats on the river would know where they were. The kerosene burning lamp was magnified with a Fresnel lens and, according to Brunner, was visible 20 miles north and 20 miles south.
As the eldest of four children, it fell to Brunner to row her siblings to and from school in Athens each day. She says she could drop her hand over the side of the boat and know which way the tide was running. During the winter, they’d walk across the ice, and she could listen to the creaks and know what the water was doing underneath the frozen surface. ‘In those days, the ice would get to be 30” thick on that side of the river,” she explains. “On the Hudson side, they’d keep the channel open because it was deeper—30 to 40 feet as opposed to the shallow 18 feet on the Athens side.”
Life at the lighthouse was filled with adventures. “People have the misconception that it was boring,” she says. “We always had plenty to keep us busy. We’d listen to Amos ‘n’ Andy on our Atwater Kent radio, play all sorts of board games, polish the brass or paint the railings. And most of us kids spent a lot of time drawing, too.”
But their number one favorite game was watching for dead bodies floating down the river. “We’d take our binoculars out and spend hours watching things float by,” Brunner says. During the seven years she lived there, she sighted three bodies. “My Dad would take the boat out, put a line around the body, then haul it back to Hudson, where the police would take over.” All in a day’s work at the lighthouse.
Hudson Athens Lighthouse Tours
Starting Saturday, July 9th,
hourly 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
The tour takes about one hour and features a talk by Emily Brunner.
There is a picnic table for those who wish to linger.