|Great Beds, NJ|
Description: The area off the southern end of Staten Island, where the Raritan River and Arthur Kill join, has long been known for its great beds of oysters. To protect this resource, the state of New Jersey passed the following conservation law in 1719 that applied to all except Lenape Indians. “No gathering oysters from the [New jersey] half of the Great Beds should take place between May tenth and September first and none of its oysters should be taken by any vessel not owned within New Jersey.”
As noted in the above law, the shallow oyster beds were bisected by the New York – New Jersey state line. When the federal government finally responded to an 1868 petition by local shipowners and businessmen for the construction of a lighthouse on the beds, New York ceded a tract of underwater land in Raritan Bay described as follows:
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.
Congress appropriated $34,000 for constructing the lighthouse on June 20th 1878, but before the structure was completed a dispute broke out between New York and New Jersey. It seems that New York had generously ceded a piece of New Jersey to the federal government for the lighthouse site. After the boundary dispute was settled, work on the lighthouse proceeded. (Even today, the Great Beds Lighthouse is often incorrectly listed as a New York lighthouse.)
Lightship LV 15 was anchored at the site and used as barracks for the men employed in building the lighthouse. The lightship had served on Stratford Shoal, CT from 1838 to 1879, when it was deemed “not worth the cost of repair.”
A conical caisson, composed of three rows of ten-foot-tall cast-iron plates, was sunk into the shoal in eleven feet of water to provide a foundation for the lighthouse. The caisson tapers from a diameter of thirty feet at its base to twenty-six feet at its top.
David C. Johnson was the first keeper of the 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. Of the roughly $150 he was thought to be carrying, only $40 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 not 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. 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, August 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 J. 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 Shinecock and Monatuk 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.
Johnson quickly wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury complaining that he had been relieved without notice or an explanation. Lt. J.M. Roper was assigned to investigate the situation and found that Johnson had accused Anderson of being drunk while on duty and of using profanity in the presence of his family. Anderson countered with claims that Johnson misused government property. Roper was able to prove the use of profanity by Anderson, and concluded that Johnson was guilty of "inexcusable looseness in the care of public property." Neither of the two keepers was reinstated.
A Notice to Mariners publicized that a fog bell would be established at Great Beds Light Station on or about June 20, 1898. The 1,227-pound bell was struck a single blow by machinery every fifteen seconds during thick or foggy weather.
The Great Beds Lighthouse was one of the earlier cast-iron sparkplug towers, and was not as commodious as later ones. 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 Willian 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.
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 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.
The 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, the 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."
Oyster skiffs no longer ply the waters of Raritan Bay harvesting abundant crops of oysters, but the 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.
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 lighthouse was placed on the auction block on March 14, 2011 by the General Services Administration. 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.
Located off the southwestern end of Staten Island, NY and off South Amboy
NJ, at the mouth of the Raritan River. The lighthouse is privately owned. Tower closed.
The lighthouse is privately owned. Tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.