On a recent early morning, Matt Arone unlocked the rusted door of the Sleepy Hollow Lighthouse, walked to the top of the 139-year-old structure and peered across the Hudson. “Here it is,” the present-day keeper of the lighthouse said, overlooking a stretch of sand right offshore from which Westchester’s highly anticipated, new waterfront development, Edge-on-Hudson, will rise. The lighthouse will be its brilliant center.
Arone, an Ardsley native whose generosity can be traced to the Old World of his ancestral Italy, is the superintendent of Parks and Recreation for the Village of Sleepy Hollow and the man who maintains the lighthouse. He was born after the structure ceased operating in the mid-1960s, yet he is likely as dedicated as Jacob Ackerman, Richard Moreland, and the other 10 men who kept the lighthouse in the last century. He doesn’t live in the conical structure, nor does he have two dozen chickens, as Ackerman did, and he has never jumped in the river to save people from drowning — a feat Ackerman became quite adept at, given that he reportedly rescued 19 people during his 21 years at the lighthouse.
After a short drive through nearby Kingsland Point Park, Arone relays his goals for the lighthouse. “We put some safety gates around it. We inspect it to make sure there’s no damage,” he says. “We want to keep kids from graffitiing it and people from vandalizing it. We also want to keep the interior clean and safe, so when visitors or guests come in, they can see what the lighthouse used to be like.”
“This property has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior,” reads a bronze plaque on the left brick wall of the lighthouse, honoring its vitality throughout the early 20th century as a guide for sailing ships. Perched a few steps over is a miniature replica of the lighthouse, which details each of its five floors. From the first-floor living room/kitchen, the visitor ascends to the bedrooms on the second and third floors, then to the workshop on the fourth floor, and finally the watchroom on the top floor. “They want to go to the top,” Arone says of the tourists’ proclivities. “They want to take a picture, see the bridge and the Manhattan skyline. Everybody asks when they first come: ‘Can we go to the top? Are we able to go all the way up to the top?’” Since the construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge (now the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge) in the early 1950s and the installation of the General Motors plant shortly thereafter, the Sleepy Hollow Lighthouse has, in fact, been open almost solely as a tourist site.
From the first-floor living room/kitchen, the visitor ascends to the bedrooms on the second and third floors, then to the workshop on the fourth floor, and finally the watchroom, on the fifth floor.
Arone and his team, therefore, strive to preserve the infrastructure of the lighthouse. “We’re very unique,” he says. “Each municipality in Westchester County has a superintendent of their Parks and Recreation Department, and we just happen to have a lighthouse in our park. There are no other lighthouses in any of the other parks here in Westchester County.
“It brings a lot of tourism in, which is great,” he continues. “A lot of people from all over the county, from New York City, will call us all week, asking, ‘Is the lighthouse going to be open? We’d like to come up.’ We do get a lot of people visiting. It’s great for our commerce, our restaurants, and our stores in town because so many people are traveling from outside of our village to visit the lighthouse.”
When the coronavirus struck in March 2020, however, tourism to the site lagged significantly. As Arone says, “It’s a very small space in there,” so around that time, he and his department closed the lighthouse for the year. “We couldn’t have people in there. It wasn’t safe,” he says. “You’re not allowed to have a lot of people in there in the first place, and it’s almost impossible to maintain social distancing.”
Enter 2021, which proved a more successful year. “It bounced back quite nicely,” Arone says. “As a matter of fact, we had doubled the amount of people coming to visit last fall, because so many people wanted to get back out. They hadn’t a chance to see the lighthouse, and so we had a great 2021, as far as tourism, and it was well worth it. We were even thinking about opening it up even more this year because that’s how many people want to come visit.”
Much of the lighthouse’s intrigue lies in its almost mythical history. Some of the tidbits laid out on a wooden table inside the lighthouse, for instance, include that the building “was a family station of the U.S. Coast Guard” and that keepers’ children “rowed in a boat to the Sleepy Hollow shore so that they could attend school.” Another such nugget states: “Today, the lighthouse has a replica fourth-order Fresnel lamp, which operates each night.” But most people just enjoy the view, Arone says.
The idyllic vista sweeps over many Westchester towns, including the burgeoning Edge-on-Hudson. As County Executive George Latimer announced last summer, a forthcoming $3,311,000 rehabilitation project of the lighthouse will convert what is now essentially a rugged sandbox offshore (the site of the former General Motors plant) into the new town. Arone believes that Edge-on-Hudson residences, where people already live and which will be completed over the next few years, with several restaurants and a hotel, will bolster the economy and that “having access to the waterfront and having access to a lighthouse in their backyard was really the main reason why the county decided for that push.”
Pointing toward the flowering town, the keeper says, “It’s going to be almost like a little village within a village.” And right there in the middle, on the part of the Hudson where Westchester truly turns majestic, the Sleepy Hollow Lighthouse will once again light the way.