Found Staten Island Stories 4: A Light To Guide
This is the fourth in a series of posts highlighting some of the fascinating stories—Bergen Point Lighthouse, Keeper Carlsson, women keepers and children's dolls of Kill Van Kull—from the historical Staten Island newspapers now being digitized and uploaded to the web. Learn more about this project.
The Bergen Point light operated for about a century, from 1849 to around 1951. It stood in the middle of the Kill Van Kull between Staten Island and Bergen Point, New Jersey, just West of the Bayonne Bridge.
Richmond County Advance, May 29, 1909. Collections of Historic Richmond Town.
To teachers and scholars who stay away from school on account of the weather, the story of a girl who is always in her seat on time will be interesting. Annie Carlsson is (12?) and attends the Curtis High School. She lives in Bergen Point Lighthouse of which her father is the keeper. Every morning she rows over the Kill von Kull, except when it is too rough and then her father takes the oars.This is surely the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties. Two weeks ago in the teeth of a gale blowing N N W her father came after her with an oil-skin coat and an extra pair of oars. She donned the oil-skin and the two rowed away in the rain and wind to the Lighthouse.
Annie Carlsson is a bright, pretty girl and was born in Finland, coming to this country twelve years ago with her parents. Prior to entering Curtis High School she attended P.S. 22 Mariners’ Harbor where she was graduated at the Spring examinations.
The Bergen Point Lighthouse is located opposite Elm Park and is in plain view from the Terrace. The dwelling looks much like any other house, and ladies from the City who have never seen a lighthouse before invariably ask, “Why did that man build his house in the water?” The male escort who is showing her about always answers, “To keep his wife from talking over the back fence.” The joke dates from 1850 when the Lighthouse was built. No extra charge for it.
In 1859 the government rebuilt the house. It is equipped with a revolving white light of the fourth magnitude and may be seen at a distance of more than (12?) miles. Annie with her father and mother are at home to visitors who bring their boats with them in the pleasant weather.
The Advance article above raises an interesting border question. Though the lighthouse was located in the state of New Jersey, Annie Carlsson spent her school career in NYC public schools. Bergen Point Light's mail was also delivered to the Staten Island post office. It's not clear if Annie's Staten Island school attendance was a case of border interpretation, a second address on Staten Island or just a practicality of getting to school by rowboat.
According to the New Jersey Lighthouse Society the Bergen Point Lighthouse, located near what is now the Bayonne Bridge, was built "50 feet from the New Jersey/New York Border. In the 1891 map below it is called the "Kills Light."
1891 map showing the Kill Van Kull and three lights: Corner Stakelight, Kills Light (Bergen Point) and Robbins Reef.
A gathering of family and friends, probably at the Staten Island Lighthouse on Lighthouse Hill, circa 1912. Annie Carlsson appears to be in the front row, left end. John Carlsson is pictured in uniform in the back row, second from left. Collection of the National Lighthouse Museum.
A Keeper's Life, Excerpted from: Northeast Lights: Lighthouses and Lightships, Rhode Island to Cape May New Jersey by Robert G. Bachand.
John Carlson (Carlsson) was twenty-eight years old when he joined the Light House Establishment. His career began aboard the Sandy Hook Lightship, LV51, where he remained for six years. He was then transferred to the tender Larksupur, a twin-screw steamer that was used as a buoy tender that resupplied and inspected light stations in the Third District. His stay aboard the tender was brief, and he moved on to a three-year tour of duty at Latimer Reef Light, off Stonington, CT. On March 10, 1906, Carls[s]on was named keeper of the Bergen Point Light.
The Carls[s]on family was elated; though the lighthouse was surrounded by water, it was the first family quarters to which John had ever been assigned. The dwelling had a kitchen, a dining room, and a sitting room on the first floor and three bedrooms on the second floor…
In 1913, he spotted two boys whose skiff had capsized in the Kill Van K[u]ll. Reaching the site in the station’s boat, he managed to pull one of the boys from the water, but the other had already slipped below the surface...
In 1915 John Carlsson saved the Bergen light from a fire caused by a burning oil barge:
John and Anna Carlsson came from Finland in 1896 but they spoke Swedish at home. John was born in 1870 and probably served at Bergen Point until about 1916. He supported his family on an (initial) annual salary of $540. He then became the keeper at the New Dorp Lighthouse and remained there for about twenty years. He lived at several addresses nearby. The 1920 Census lists his address as Walden Place, Staten Island, in 1930 it was Altamont Avenue and, in 1940, St. Stephens Place. In 1920 Annie Carlsson's profession was listed as a stenographer at a drug store.
He supervised three lights on the Island including the Staten Island Light. John Carlsson died in 1953 and is buried in the New Dorp Moravian Cemetery, just down the hill from The New Dorp Light.
John R. Carlsson makes the final entry in his keeper's log. His wife Anna Carlsson lived until age 94 and in 1966 and was buried in Moravian Cemetery. She was an active member of New Dorp Moravian Church. Friends remembered her passing with her phrase from her lighthouse days: "The light is out." Collection of the National Lighthouse Museum.
Women were not limited to the roles of wives and daughters of the keepers on the Kill Van Kull. The two lights at each end of the Kill are noted for having a history of female keepers. In 1873 Hannah McDonald took the job of Bergen Point keeper following the death of her husband John and served six years until 1879 when her son John took over. Five years later Katherine Walker became the keeper of the Robbins Reef Light at the St. George end of the Kill, following the death of her own husband. She served there until 1919. Like the Carlssons, Kate Walker is also remembered for rowing her children to Staten Island for schooling, even though Robbins Reef also falls on the New Jersey side of the state line.
Bergen Point Light, 1874. Engraving from Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Collection of the Library of Congress.
Robbins Reef Light. Collection of the Bayonne Public Library.
Briefly, starting in February 1902, navigational safety at both ends of the Kill was maintained by women. 30 year old Robert Gray (or Ray) was appointed keeper of the light on February 4. On February 15 he rowed away from the lighthouse to pick up groceries, leaving his aunt, Mrs. Mary Kelly, and her three sons alone. Gray never returned. His body was later raised from the water near Livingston by boaters on their way to see the launch of the German Kaiser's yacht Meteor at Shooter's Island. Mrs. Kelly signaled for help by hoisting the light's American flag upside down but failed to attract the attention of any passing vessels . On the seventh day the light's food stores ran out. The family went another two days without eating. On the ninth day, a retired Bayonne policeman, Frederick Lumbreyer, saw Mary's distress signal and rowed out to rescue the family. Despite her ordeal, Mary Kelly had kept the light burning every night. She was soon appointed acting keeper of Bergen Point Light retroactive until February 15. She served opposite Katherine Walker at Robbins Reef Light, for about a month, (though some sources list her departure as late as August 1902).
A Carlsson family doll wearing a button, from John's Lighthouse Service Captain's uniform, around her neck. Collection of the National Lighthouse Museum.
Walker family dolls at Robbins Reef Lighthouse. Noble Maritime Collection, Walker Family Collection.
Mrs. Kelly was succeeded by August Kjelberg, who was newly married to Bertha Leutzen on Staten Island in April of 1902. Mr. Kjelberg was nearly drowned rowing a friend to shore in the ice floes of February 1905. His boat overturned at midnight. The two clung to the boat screaming for help for two hours, the ice cementing their arms to the upturned keel. They were heard by the passing Pennsylvania Railroad tug Media, broken loose from their hull, and warmed in the tug's engine room before being taken to shore. Kjelberg served until the appointment of John Carlsson in 1906.
A forest of masts line the busy shipping channel of the Kill Van Kull. Collection of The Bayonne Public Library.
Original caption: "Kill Van Kull, showing Shooters Island Lighthouse [aka Bergen Point], off the coast of Mariners' Harbor, Staten Island, June 15, 1925...P.L. Sperr" http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-acf2-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99#/?uuid=510d47dd-acf1-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Original caption: "Shooters Island in the Kill Van Kull, showing shipbuilding yards...View from the Bayonne Bridge.....May 19, 1935. P.L. Sperr"
Original caption: "An extensive view up Newark Bay from the Bayonne Bridge at Newark Avenue. Note the railroad viaduct and Bergen Point Light, on the right; on the left Shooters Island and Elizabeth, New Jersey...The Gulf Refining Co. plant in the foreground, is at the foot of Newark Avenue....May 19, 1935. P.L. Sperr"
Bergen Point Light with the viaduct of the Central Railroad of New Jersey in the background. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
Staten Island celebrates its lighthouse heritage with the development of the new National Lighthouse Museum at St. George and the 2011 acquisition of the Robbins Reef Light by the Noble Maritime Collection at Snug Harbor.
Staten Island is filled with these fascinating, but little known, places and stories: More to come.
The Richmond County Advance was digitized and uploaded to the web from the collections of Historic Richmond Town. Funding for the digitization of Staten Island newspapers was provided through The New York Public Library's Innovation Project, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Charles H. Revson Foundation.
Thanks to Kraig Anderson, The National Lighthouse Museum, Jeanette Torres-Hanley at The Bayonne Public Library, Historic Richmond Town, and The Noble Maritime Collection.