GREAT BEDS LIGHTHOUSE

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.”

Click to view enlarged imageNamed the 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. Inside the lantern room, a sparkling fourth-order Fresnel was installed, and on November 15th 1880, it cast its first beams 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 the first keeper of the Great Beds Lighthouse. Just over a decade later, a keeper with a similar 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.

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.

The lighthouse was originally painted a dark brown or black, but a coat of white paint was later applied to the tower to help it stand out from the surrounding tree covered hills. Keepers left the tower for good in 1945, when the Fresnel lens was replaced with an automated beacon.

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.

References

  1. Guarding New Jersey’s Shore: Lighthouses and Life-Saving Stations, David Veasey, 2000.
  2. Lighthouses of New York, Jim Crowley, 2000.

Operational Characteristics
Position 40° 29' 11.9" N
074° 15' 10.9 W
US Coast Guard Light List Number 36430
Light Characteristics Flashing Red 6s
Focal Plane 61 feet
Light Visual Range 6 Nautical Miles
Color White
Sound Signal None
Sound Characteristics N/A
Great Beds
           
Last Modified 9/19/2013