On June 20, 1878, the federal government finally responded to a petition by local shipowners and businessmen for the construction of a lighthouse on the beds by appropriating $34,000 for its construction. The site selected by the Lighthouse Board was “about one-third of a mile off the south end of Staten Island, in 5 feet depth at low water.” After plans for the lighthouse were prepared, cession of jurisdiction was obtained from the State of New Jersey, and the iron tower was received at the lighthouse depot on Staten Island, the decision was made to place the lighthouse “about a quarter of a mile to the south and eastward of the site over which jurisdiction had been ceded.” When the governor of New Jersey was asked to cede this second parcel, it was discovered that according to an agreement entered into between New York and New Jersey and consented to by Congress on June 28, 1834 the two selected sites belonged to New York, and thus New Jersey had no right to grant them to the United States. All work on the lighthouse was suspended pending the passage of an act by the legislature of New York granting title to the newly selected site.
The site is on the edge, or southeastern extremity of the shoal known as the Great Beds, which makes out from the New Jersey shore at the intersection of the Raritan river and Perth Amboy channels, and is embraced within a circle seven hundred feet in diameter, the center point of which is distant three-fourths of a mile in a course south twenty-two west from the southwest gable of the dwelling-house of B.C. Butler, at Ward’s point, on the southerly shore of Staten Island, and contains 8.83 of an acre in area, as shown on a map and description which have been filed in the office of the secretary of state of this state, acquired for the purpose of erecting a light-house thereon.
With the land rights resolved, Lightship LV 15, which had served on Stratford Shoal, Connecticut from 1838 to 1877, and was later deemed “not worth the cost of repair,” was anchored at the site and used as barracks for the men employed in building the lighthouse.
A conical caisson, composed of three rows of ten-foot-tall cast-iron plates and which tapers from a diameter of thirty feet at its base to twenty-six feet at its top, was sunk into the shoal in eleven feet of water to provide a foundation for the lighthouse.
Named Great Beds Lighthouse after the oyster beds on which it stands, the tower is composed of five iron sections and has a height of forty-two feet. A sparkling fourth-order Fresnel was installed inside the decagonal lantern room, and on November 15, 1880, it cast its first beams of red light out over Raritan Bay with a focal plane of fifty-seven feet. The boarding lightship was sold at auction soon thereafter (on December 16, 1880) for $1,010.
David C. Johnson was hired as the first keeper of Great Beds Lighthouse and served for just under two years before resigning. His replacement, George Brennan, had an even shorter tenure. A New York Times article dated May 1, 1883, tells of the keeper’s fate.
Brennen rarely visited the shore except to obtain provisions or draw his pay. One day last week he visited Perth Amboy Custom-house and received his pay, after which, accompanied by some friends, he paid a visit to South Amboy. In the evening he started in a row-boat for the light-house, but it was noticed that the light did not burn that night. The next morning Brennen’s boat, upturned, was washed up on the beach. The police believe that Brennen was followed to his lonely abode on Great Beds and was murdered and thrown into the Bay, or that while trying to reach the light-house in an intoxicated state his boat capsized and he was drowned. Brennen always bore the reputation of being of sober habits, and strictly attended to his work.Keeper Brennan’s body was found three weeks after he disappeared, and only $40 of the roughly $150 he was thought to be carrying was found on the body. A veteran of the Civil War, Brennan was forty-four years old when he perished and had never married. Several people had tried to dissuade Keeper Brennan from trying to reach the lighthouse in the stormy weather, but he scoffed at the idea that he wouldn’t be able to manage his boat and insisted that the light had to be lit that night. One woman was so concerned for the keeper that she sat at her window and watched as his boat danced across the waters and, after a severe struggle, finally neared the lighthouse. Just as he was about ready to land, the boat shot away, and it and the keeper were never again seen by the woman. Brennan likely fell overboard while reaching for the davits at the lighthouse and was swept out to sea.
When those at the customs house noted that there was no light at the lighthouse, a tug was sent out to investigate. The door of the lighthouse was found locked, and when the keeper didn’t respond to the firing of pistols, he was presumed lost.
John E. Johnson of Tottenville, Staten Island was the next keeper of the lighthouse, and he had an even shorter tenure than Brennan. An article in the New York Times dated August 28, 1883, noted that Keeper Johnson had mysteriously disappeared. “Johnson was last seen on Saturday night, Aug. 18, when he was on duty at the lighthouse. His boat was found moored at the lighthouse. His coat was in the boat. The keys were found inside of the lighthouse on a table. Some think that Johnson drowned himself by jumping into the bay while others think he disappeared for a reason. He has a wife and four children. A former keeper of the same lighthouse disappeared last winter and his body was afterward found in the Sound.”
Just over a decade later, a keeper with the same last name, David C. Johnson, was placed in charge of the lighthouse. This Keeper Johnson, a native of Philadelphia, was a veteran of the Civil War and had served at Shinnecock and Montauk Lighthouses before becoming head keeper at Great Beds. On April 8, 1898, Keeper Johnson and his assistant John Anderson were informed that they were being dismissed from the Lighthouse Service.
In 1887, commissioners appointed by New York and New Jersey to determine the boundary line between the two states in Raritan Bay decided that the border passed through Great Beds Lighthouse. The Lighthouse Board listed the lighthouse as Great Beds, Raritan Bay, New Jersey in 1879, then Great Beds, Raritan Bay, New York in 1880, and finally Great Beds, New York and New Jersey in 1898. Subsequently, the Lighthouse Service listed Great Beds Lighthouse as being in New Jersey, and most sources do today, though the matter can still be debated.
A Notice to Mariners publicized that a fog bell would be established at Great Beds Light Station on or about June 20, 1898 and that the 1,227-pound bell would be struck a single blow by machinery every fifteen seconds during thick or foggy weather.
Great Beds Lighthouse was one of the early cast-iron sparkplug towers and was not as commodious as later ones, but at least the lighthouse was located less than a mile from shore, so its residents could readily escape the cramped quarters.
Keeper John Osterdahl was standing watch early on the morning of January 25, 1906, when a sudden jolt shook the tower. Osterdahl raced out onto the gallery surrounding the lighthouse to see a group of barges, pulled by a Pennsylvania Railroad tug, moving eastward away from the lighthouse. Statements regarding the incident were taken from Keeper Osterdahl, his assistant William Aichele, and crewmen aboard the tug, and the lighthouse tender Nettle visited Great Beds to assess the damage to the tower. The incident was finally settled with the towing company paying $20 to repair the lighthouse’s damaged landing ladder. Between 1901 and 1914, there were ten documented collisions in which a barge or vessel struck the tower.
A newspaper story in June 1916, noted that forty-year-old Keeper Ellsworth J. Smith was not discouraged after learning that he could not marry his intended bride whom he had found through three months of advertising. Helen Barry of New Haven, Connecticut saw Smith’s advertisement in a matrimonial agency paper, but when she came to Perth Amboy to tie the knot, the city clerk refused to grant a wedding license because Helen was just sixteen. The couple must have soon succeeded in obtaining a license, as another newspaper story five months later noted that Smith’s young bride from New Haven had been living at the lighthouse for a few weeks.
At 7:30 p.m. on October 4, 1918, an explosion occurred at the T.A. Gillespie ammunition plant in Morgan, New Jersey. The resulting fire triggered a chain of explosions that continued for three days, destroying more than 300 buildings and forcing the evacuation of roughly 62,000 civilians. The explosions violently shook Great Beds Lighthouse, breaking three panes of glass in the lantern room. Numerous shells flew over the lighthouse and landed in the water nearby, but the lighthouse, though shrouded in smoke and covered with cinders, received no significant damage. During the first night of the explosions, Keeper George W. Denton, Jr. remained in the lantern room all night and had to relight the light six times after it was extinguished by vibrations caused by the explosions.
Great Beds Lighthouse was originally painted red. This daymark was used until circa 1890, when the tower was painted brown, but just a few years later a coat of white paint was applied to the tower to help it stand out from the surrounding tree-covered hills.
Keepers left the tower for good in 1945, three years after the Fresnel lens had been replaced with an electric beacon. A small circular platform was mounted atop the lantern room in 1945 to support an automated light. Though the current beacon is now housed inside the lantern room, the metal ladder used to access the top of the lantern is still in place today. An outhouse, storage shed, and boat davits that once graced the gallery around the base of the tower have all been removed.
In 2008, Great Beds Lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. South Amboy Mayor John O’Leary made the following comments on the recognition: “We’re obviously delighted that it’s finally being recognized. It’s a landmark here and has been for quite some time. It’s part of the city logo. It’s something we recognize, and it’s become a focal point.”
A Notice of Availability, dated July 2, 2010, announced that Great Beds Lighthouse was excess to the needs of the United States Coast Guard and would be “made available at no cost to eligible entities defined as Federal agencies, state and local agencies, non-profit corporations, educational agencies, or community development organizations for educational, park, recreational, cultural or historic preservation purposes.” Qualifying organizations were given sixty days to submit a letter of interest.
After no party to assume responsibility for the tower was found, the General Services Administration placed the lighthouse on the auction block on March 14, 2011. An opening bid of $10,000 was placed on June 14, following an inspection trip to the lighthouse on June 9. The auction saw seventeen bids being submitted by five different individuals and concluded on June 28 with a winning bid of $90,000 by “homeben@,” who bid a total of nine times.
Oyster skiffs no longer ply the waters of Raritan Bay harvesting abundant crops of oysters, but Great Beds Lighthouse continues to watch over the area, sending forth a flashing red light every six seconds. Now, the bay is full of sailboats, fishing vessels, and recreational boats, whose captains, if they are wise, heed the beacon’s warning to steer clear of the shallow waters that surround the light.