Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2016

Captain Gustav A. Lange Was the Last of His Kind

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Gustav A. Lange (1869-1954), who became a ...

By Timothy Harrison

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The Ambrose Lightship LV 87/WAL 512 as it appears ...
Photo by: Peter Elbert

For an amazing 22 years, from 1910 to 1932, Gustav A. Lange served as the captain of the Ambrose Lightship LV 87/WAL 512.

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The Ambrose Lightship LV 87/WAL 512 as it ...

The Ambrose Lightship LV 87/WAL 512 was a vessel that was often dubbed by many as the loneliest lightship in the world, but every day, year after year, its captain and crew welcomed more people to our shores than any other lightship. The “floating lighthouse” was stationed to guide ships safely from the Atlantic Ocean into the broad mouth of lower New York Bay between Coney Island, New York and Sandy Hook, New Jersey, an area filled with sand bars and shoals perilous to approaching vessels.

Because of his length of service on board this lightship, with its ever changing crew, Captain Gustav A. Lange may have witnessed, from a floating ship, more people arriving at our shores than any other person in history. In 1930 he took some time to tell his life story with reporter James C. Young, thereby preserving his legacy for generations to follow.

During his time as captain of the famous vessel that was never allowed to leave its position, Capt. Gustav A. Lange witnessed many near disasters that required a strong heart and immense composure that might have made a lesser man quit the job. He recalled the day when a French freighter tugged out of the fog striking the lightship beam on. The sturdy Ambrose swung her chain and slipped off course far enough for the freighter to pass. A close call, as the captain admitted, but at the time he really thought himself a goner was the day a big liner drew from the shroud of fog. “I could have put my hand on her” he said, “though she went by without scratching our paint.”

Another time, during the Great War, a long black something emerged from the water – a German submarine. Only a few days before, one of the enemy subs had sunk the Cape Hatteras Lightship, and he thought it was about to happen to the Ambrose. But, for reasons unbeknownst to him, the enemy sub submerged and he never saw it again.

At the time James Young met with him, he described Captain Gustav A. Lange as a man of 60 who had the physique that men of 20 might admire, and anyone who knew sailors would instantly know that the captain “was a deep-water man whose complexion showed the wind and sun of many latitudes,” a look that showed his half a century of life on the ocean.

Gustav A. Lange was born in Germany, the son of a prominent and powerful father who intended his son to serve in the German Army, so, at the age of twelve, he put him in a military school. However, less than a year later he ran away, wanting nothing to do with his father’s military plans for him. As a young runaway, he was easily accepted as a cabin boy on a ship bound to India. These were still the days of the square-riggers, big ships with four, five, and even six masts and enough canvas to cover a circus. On board, he learned to knot a rope and climb the rigging. When his ship returned to Germany, word reached him that he was about to be arrested for desertion from military school. He slid down a rope and swam to another ship and another voyage. By the time he was fifteen, he was Able Seaman Lange.

Then, for a number of years, he sailed all over the world on various ships. He was shipwrecked 13 different times; one time on an island inhabited by cannibals where he barely escaped the cooking pot.

When the “fever” struck the crews of a number of ships in Rio de Janeiro, there was not only a shortage of able-bodied seaman, but men to skipper one of the ships. With his pipe in hand, while sitting by the snug cabin stove of the Ambrose as the lightship rocked back and forth, he recalled his big break. “The Rio agents called for volunteers to take her home. A few men stepped out, but no skipper. Well, there I was, nineteen and a second mate. Why not become a skipper myself?” They put him onboard with a crew of 25, all of whom were tough hardener sailors, some who could be described as being worse than the “fever.” With the hardened and tough crew watching his every move, Capt. Lange worried about the fever striking the crew at sea, or possibly a mutiny against himself, especially since he was such a young captain. However, he successfully skippered the ship to Norway without losing a man. While in Norway, Gustav A. Lange studied navigation and then sailed on Norwegian ships for years.

When the word of the California gold rush reached him, he decided to make his way to New York in the United States, but ended up taking a ship to Hawaii. In recalling those days, he said, “The islands were not Uncle Sam’s when I landed there. They belonged to old King Kalakaua. Bought him many a drink myself when he was around the docks. He wore a plug hat and frock coat sometimes; queerest looking king that I ever saw. Honolulu was the door to the Orient in those times; the real door, I mean, about as different as anything that you could find in the world.”

Exactly how, when, or why Capt. Gustav A. Lange came to join the U.S. Lighthouse Service as the captain of a lightship that never goes anywhere, from being a captain of ships that went everywhere, is not known. Apparently the reporter, James Young, never asked him, or perhaps his editor cut that part of the story for space, or it was not interesting enough.

But James Young did give a good final report about Capt. Gustav A. Lange when he wrote, “There is something about your deep water man that sets him apart; even when he is gray and anchored close to shore, even when the ships he once sailed are no more. He has a swing and a manner that bespeak his calling; he is a protest from the past in the face of an indifferent present, bent on reaching Europe in five days. Yet, as Captain Lange remarked, the world changes. For his part he is content. Every Sunday afternoon about three-thirty he puts on the ear phones in the radio room and listens to the sacred concert broadcast from a certain radio station.

“‘We never had anything like that in the sailing ships,”’ he said, “‘Reminds me of home, every time. I can close eyes and think that I am back in church, before I ran away to be a cabin boy and finally an old sailor. Two years more and I will have fifty years to my credit, all spent at sea. Of course I couldn’t go ashore now. I wouldn’t know what to do. And, don’t you think that somebody has got to stay out here to tend the lights?”’

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2016 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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