Found Staten Island Stories 4: A Light to Guide, Part 2
This is a continuation of the fourth in a series of posts highlighting some of the fascinating stories 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.
Hans Beuthe succeeded John Carlsson, as keeper of the Bergen Point Light, most likely around 1917, though some sources list his official appointment as late as 1921. His previous assignment was the Hog Island Shoal Light in Rhode Island. He served at Bergen Point until 1941. He and his wife Marie raised thir son Theodore "Teddy" Beuthe at Bergen Point.
... Hans Beuthe and his wife, Marie, suffer no loneliness at home in the Kills having lived there since 1921. [? 1917] Their domain is a perfect circle about 60 feet in diameter with a 54 foot light tower made of concrete and a six room frame house, two and a half stories high. Around the outer edge of the circle is the lighthouse promenade, a four foot walk.
Their mail is delivered to Staten Island and they have to row to shore for their groceries and supplies. They like this life because it is quiet. Mr. Beuthe tells about a time when the bay was frozen and he could walk to shore. There is neither gas nor electricity in the house and their radio is operated with a storage battery. They use kerosene lamps and drink rain water caught in casks and pumped into the kitchen. Some years ago a furnace and steam heat were installed. The same powerful lamp with the same two powerful lenses, made in Paris, France, and installed in 1858 still furnish the light, although in recent years an innovation has been the substitution of an oil vapor system for kerosene lighting. The result is a 5,000 candlepower glow, brighter than an electric globe, which alternates between five seconds of light and five seconds of darkness. Beside the light is a huge bell which tolls a mournful tune every 15 seconds in foggy weather — a tune that doesn't disturb the sleep of the Beuthes.
[Nor does it disturb the sleep of the only other resident of the lighthouse - their pet German police dog "P. D." standing for police department, a frisky, friendly animal which greets passing vessels with joyous barks.
Mr. Beuthe went to sea when a boy of 14 and in 189 came to this country from his native Germany. During his years on the sea he visited every important port in the world on picturesque old square-riggers like those that greeted old Bergen Point Light 80 years ago. From these adventures, he moved to the more prosaic life aboard pilot boats in New York harbor, then to lightships...
Hans Beuthe was born in Frankfurt, Germany and emigrated to Stapleton, Staten Island. He was living at 89 Targee Street, Staten Island in 1910.
An Interview with Hans Beuthe (excerpts from the Bayonne Times, staff writer, date unknown, circa 1938, collection of the Bayonne Public Library)
Take Mr. Beuthe. He hasn't been to a movie in two years and hasn't even the most remote desire ever to see one again as long as he lives...At the moment, when Mr. Beuthe isn't pondering over the numerous volumes that hold his collection of 30,000 stamps, he is deeply engrossed in "Gone with the Wind."
"It's an interesting book," says Mr. [Beuthe]. "But I don't give a hoot who plays Scarlet O'Hara in the movies. I don't give a hoot if the book never gets into the movies at all."
As for Mrs. Beuthe - well, she was detained somewhere at the moment but as for all observations and the world about them her husband says: "We both have exactly the same ideas."
In the old days there were winters when you could walk from Bergen Point out to the light over frozen ice or at low tide negotiate the distance on huge rocks that were part of a gigantic rock ledge well known to geologists running from the Palisades down through Hudson County and Bayonne out across Staten Island and down into the Atlantic Highlands.
"I'll never forget that tough winter of 1917." Mr. Beuthe recalls "It was frozen solid so I walked over to Bayonne to buy some groceries and when I got back the river had broken up and there I was stranded on the shore without any way to get back. I was three days trying to reach the light. My wife took care of things while I was away."
Although the Beuthes have their mail sent to a post office at Mariners Harbor Staten Island their voting address is Bergen Point Light, 1st District, 1st Ward, Bayonne N. J. It has been years since they got around to voting but Mr. Bleuth is anxious to cast a ballot in November...He doesn't know anything about local politics though - and doesn't care about them.
If you have ever conjured a picture of a Lighthouse Keeper in your mind you probably created an image of Hans Beuthe. The wind and the rain and the salt of the sea have made their mark upon his bronze face. His thin gray hair droops over his forehead and his garb is traditional - blue dungarees, sweater, leather jacket and blue knitted cap. He was born in Germany 63 years ago but you mistake him for a Norwegian. He is 6 feet 2 inches tall and stands as erect as the granite tower upon which stands the 6000 candlepower light itself.
It seemed to Mr. Beuthe's interviewer that in all this wide world there ought to be a few more places that are for the peace and quiet this complacent man of the sea desires. "Sure there may be other quiet places" Mr. Beuthe explained. "but you'll not find any as convenient as this. I have even been on lonelier lights - but none so convenient." What Hans Beuthe means by that is he has his own private world all right but any time he takes a notion to go out and participate in the world outside his door he can do it with no effort at all.
"There's no place I know of in the world I'd rather be than right here." he adds. "People think it's lonely. Well it is. That's why I like it. Some people even say it's uninteresting. They're wrong. I wouldn't swap this with any man ashore. It's peaceful, it's quiet and there's never anybody to bother you. You just do your job."
When the lighthouse keeper speaks of convenience he is merely thinking of some remote possibility, because in all his 21 years on the light he has never taken off the two days a month to which he is entitled and he has never taken his two weeks annual vacation with pay.
"I hardly ever listen to the radio" Mr. Beuthe commented "except sometimes to get the news." The only means of reaching shore furnished by the government is a row boat but Mr. Beuthe did have his own power boat. It was wrecked, however, in the recent hurricane while hanging on davits over the lighthouse wall. If the Lighthouse Keeper is irritated by the misfortune to his boat it doesn't nearly compare to the discomfort he suffers from the blasting that is now being done through the Kill Van Kull by the U.S. Board of Army Engineers...
It seems that with the blasting right at his doorstep walls in the dwelling have been cracked and everything is so much out of line that its doors won't close. Through all the blasting, however, the light itself remained true...
In April 1941 the Coast Guard announced that the light would be demolished in order to widen the channel. Then, once America entered World War II, they took direct control of the light, relieving the civilian keeper of his duties. Hans Beuthe died a few months later, on Staten Island, in June 1942. He was 67. Marie Beuthe also died on the Island in 1949 or 1950.
There weren't any further official appointments to the keeper's job after the Beuthes' departure. In December 1942, two Coast Guard keepers were accused of ferrying unsuspecting girls in their launch from Staten Island to the light and abusing them. The prosecutor declared that one of the new keepers "threatened to throw a girl down the winding stairs from the lighthouse beacon if she did not submit to him." The pair were immediately replaced, suspended from the Coast Guard and jailed for trial, never returning to the light.
Budgetary constraints delayed the demolition of the light. It continued operating for some time with rotating Coast Guard staffing. In 1947 two new young Coast Guardsmen, Seamen First Class Joseph Davi of Brooklyn and Richard Eastley of Jamaica, Queens served in a 24 hour rotation, returning to Staten Island in a motorboat at the end of each shift.
A 1915 chart showing the Bergen Point Light and the recommendation to demolish the ledge under it, 36 years before the actual demolition. Depths between the light and Bergen Point ranged between 3 1/2 feet and 8 feet. Comprehensive Plan of Newark, 1915.
The Bergen Point Light, and the ledge beneath it, were finally demolished beginning on June 19, 1951. (See dramatic photos of the demolition from silive.com here, here, and here.) The light itself had been darkened months before. Theodore Beuthe, now a Concord tug boat operator, watched from the shore as his childhood home sank into the kills. It's replacements, the much dimmer skeleton tower and lighted buoy 12 A, did not go into service until some time later. The once shining entrance to Newark Bay was now a twisting blind channel at night.
Demolition of the Bergen Point keepers' home. The ledge underneath the light was dynamited by the Army Corps of Engineers to deepen the channel to 35 feet. Courtesy of The Noble Maritime Collection. Photo by John A. Noble.
In the early hours of May 24, 1951 the overloaded S.S. Sandmate headed east in the Kill Van Kull, enroute from a dredging site off Coney Island. She passed buoy 8 heading north in the 1:20 AM blackness. She then sheered to the starboard side of the channel at Bergen Point, scraping bottom twice. The sea rushed in and she sank about a mile further on, in Newark Bay. We can't know if this was a coincidence or if the recent extinguishing of the light contributed to the grounding. The ship was riding deeper in the water than the captain, who had a spotless 20-year record, understood. Even normally safe water was a danger to the vessel. The hearings focused on the overloading of the vessel and not hypothetical scenarios like "Would her course have been different if the light had been present?"
Whatever the causes of this particular sinking, night navigation in the area's strong currents and twisting channels was still risky, even with the widening of the channel. In the 1950s, ships had yet to acquire modern radar and GPS was far in the future. Mariners of the day must have missed the presence of a watchful keeper and the 12 mile illumination of the old "light to guide."
The S.S. Sandmate, sunk in Newark Bay, 1951. All 25 crewmembers were rescued by the tug Thomas E. Moran . The Sandmate was eventually raised, repaired and returned to service. Collection of the New York State Library.
Aerial view of Bergen Point Light and the Bayonne Bridge. Different sources give different dates for the actual demolition of the light - from 1948 to 1953. Here it can be seen, still standing, in a photo dated 1951. Courtesy of Historic Richmond Town. Photo by Herbert A. Flamm.
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.