It was a beautiful summer day when Arundel Corporation employee Theodore “Teddy Lighthouse” Beuthe took a last longing look at a final part of his childhood home. On June 19, 1951, he pressed the detonator button that would put an end not only to his nostalgic memories, but to 100 years of lighthouse guardianship of the Kill Van Kull strait between Staten Island, New York and Bayonne, New Jersey.
Bergen Point - A History in Brief: The Bergen Point Lighthouse station was established in 1849 in New Jersey at the junction of Newark Bay and the Kill Van Kull, about fifty feet from the official border of New Jersey and New York. Poorly built, that first tower, which only lasted ten years, had to be rebuilt and was lighted in 1859.
For the one hundred years of the station’s actual use, it was home to a number of light keepers, two of whom were women. Hannah McDonald was appointed keeper on July 16, 1873 to replace her deceased husband, John. She served for next 5½ years until she resigned and was replaced by her son John Jr. who stayed there for the next ten years.
On January 24, 1902, Robert Ray, a native of Ireland, became keeper of the Bergen Point Lighthouse. Being a single man, he moved out to the lighthouse with his aunt, Mrs. Francis Kelly, and her three children. However, a few weeks later, on February 15, 1902, while going for supplies, he drowned.
According to newspaper reports, Mrs. Kelly and the children nearly starved as they had no food at the lighthouse and no way to leave it due to Robert having taken the boat. It was only when a policeman on shore noticed that the lighthouse flag was flying upside down, to signal their emergency, that they were finally able to receive provisions.
The government then appointed Mrs. Kelly as the keeper in her nephew’s stead for the next thirty days. On March 31, 1902, she was replaced by August Kjelberg, who served for the next four years.
One of Bergen Point’s most distinguished keepers was Swedish native John R. Carlsson, a veteran of the Lighthouse Service, who, on March 16, 1906, became the keeper of the Bergen Point Lighthouse. Carlsson had previously served on the Sandy Hook Lightship, the lighthouse tender Larkspur, and from 1903 to 1906 at the Latimer Reef Lighthouse - a stag station in Fishers Island Sound, south of Mystic Connecticut.
Keeper Carlsson welcomed the appointment to Bergen Point where his wife Anna and daughter Annie could live with him. Annie became quite well-known in the newspapers of the time as the daring young lighthouse keeper’s daughter who would be photographed rowing her boat to school, not allowing the wind or tides to deter her as she would strain at the oars of the boat. In 1916, John R. Carlsson was transferred to the New Dorp Lighthouse, a land-based lighthouse on Staten Island, New York, which is also known as the Swash Channel Range Rear Lighthouse.
The Last Keeper: The U.S. Lighthouse Service era came to an end at Bergen Point Lighthouse when its final keeper, Hans Theodore Albert Beuthe, transferred there with his family in 1916 to begin his 25 years of stewardship. Hans had spent almost his entire life on the water, having left home at the young age of 14 in 1889 in his native Frankfurt, Germany to become a sailor on multiple clipper ships that plied European and American waters.
Even after he immigrated to America ten years later, Hans still continued his seafaring profession for at least another four years. By 1901, he had married Marie Munsinger, a widow with four daughters, and in November of that year, their only child, Theodore “Teddy” Beuthe, was born.
At some point in the early 1900s, Hans stopped going to sea on long voyages and became a tugboat deckhand in the Staten Island, New York area. This occupation would prove hereditary as both his son and grandson would follow in his footsteps and work on tugs as well.
In 1910, Hans was living in Stapleton, only a couple of miles distant from the main U.S. Lighthouse Depot in Thompkinsville, Staten Island. It is highly probable that his familiarity with the depot and the many personnel who worked there influenced his decision to join the ranks of the Lighthouse Service as a seaman on a lightship. Sources indicate that he only served in that capacity for a couple of years before accepting a transfer in 1914 to something more stationary – the Hog Island Shoal Lighthouse in Rhode Island.
It must have seemed a luxury to Hans to have only one other keeper to share the entire lighthouse with while working, though he was still offshore in a caisson “sparkplug” light with limited space. After two years as first assistant, Hans Beuthe got promoted to his dream job – that of the one-family lighthouse station at Bergen Point.
Life at the lighthouse was perfect as far as Hans was concerned. In an interview he gave to the Bayonne Times in the 1930s, he stated, “There’s no place I know of in the world I’d rather be than right here. 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.”
At least twice, Hans T.A. Beuthe was commended for just doing his job. The first time was reported in the 1923 Annual Report when he rescued and sheltered a tug operator who fell overboard from the Julian C. Moran when it hit bottom near the lighthouse.
The second time was in 1925 and in the original letter Hans wrote to inform the district superintendent of his actions; without fanfare, he reported, “During NW gale on October 10th, Tug Holliswood with barge in tow blew onto rocks near Station, Tug sunk immediately, took off crew of 5 men and transferred to Tug Dempsey. Then took men (2) off barge and gave them shelter until storm abated October 11th.” It must have been no mean feat for a solitary lighthouse keeper to rescue seven men in the midst of a gale!
Like many lighthouse wives, Marie Beuthe would also rise to the occasion when needed. In the Bayonne Times interview, Hans reminisced about the “tough winter of 1917. 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.”
Childhood Memories: In general, Marie also enjoyed their quiet lighthouse life. Hans stated that they both had “exactly the same ideas.” In a recent interview with Marie’s 97-year-old granddaughter, Hilda “Sugar” Ziemba, she fondly recalled her memories of her regular summer visits to Hans and Marie at the lighthouse between 1931 and 1941.
“Oma [Marie] always had a smile on her face and was always happy to see everyone. She had a container off the kitchen with all children’s clothes. Sometimes family came to stay and didn’t have the right thing to wear, so she had a variety of clothes to choose from. She was a loving grandmother, wife and mother.
“Oma sewed, cooked and cleaned. She took pride in her home, Opa [Hans], and the family. The family was everything to them both. Family was welcome at the light anytime; rest assured scrumptious home cooked meals with desserts, cookies and cakes were a staple.
“Opa was a generous, gentle giant. I truly loved him. When we were in the boat, he was stern. We knew we had to stay seated. He was a good captain and everybody loved him and felt safe with him. The light was home to them, and they made it home for all of us, too. Everybody loved to go to the light!”
Sugar told of how Hans made a small boat for her to paddle around at the light. She would also frequently go swimming and jump off the lighthouse steps. Once, when Hans had put her into an inflatable tube, she got caught in the fast current moving away from the light. After much yelling for her to come back, Hans finally had to kick off his shoes and dive in to retrieve her.
Another time, when Hans and Marie had gone ashore, Sugar and her cousin Dot, who was seven years older, went out in the boat and some of Dot’s high school friends came by with a speed boat. They threw Dot a line and took off towing the rowboat at a fast speed through the wake behind them. Hilda thought it was great fun bumping along until Dot noticed that Hans and Marie were returning and they saw them. Dot exclaimed, “Oh boy, am I in trouble!” When they all got back to the lighthouse, Dot got scolded for taking Sugar out and going that fast.
Hans and Marie had two dogs over the course of their years at the lighthouse. The first, Nikki, was there during Sugar’s early visits. Nikki’s doghouse was under the three steps leading up to the lighthouse. He would bark at anyone coming or going. Sugar remembered Nikki frequently riding on the prow of Hans’ motorboat, but never falling off.
Sugar recalled that there was a window in the dining room facing the shore. They used to put a flag up there at the dock to signal Hans to come in and fetch whomever needed to go out to the light. Sugar loved to take the binoculars and sit by that window to watch for the flag.
Regarding Hans’ lighthouse work, Sugar remembered him painting the lighthouse every summer. Hans built a walkway and floating dock to aid in landing the boat at the station, but unfortunately, it was destroyed by a big Nor’easter one year.
Hans used to take Sugar up every night to see the light but she was never allowed to light it because she was too young. However, he would let Sugar’s cousin Ruthie do it because she was several years older.
Because of Hans’ work schedule, dinner was always the big meal of the day and served at 1 P.M. There was a cot in the dining room, and after eating dinner, Hans would sleep for a few hours and then have a lighter supper with coffee at 6 P.M. before he lit the light and started his watch.
The lighthouse had no heat, but each room had a potbelly stove, and they used to put bricks in them to heat and then wrap in rags to put in bed on their feet to get warm at night. There was no electricity there either, so any lights, as well as the oven, were fueled by the kerosene that the lighthouse tender would deliver regularly and was stored down in the basement. Sugar remembered Marie heating the old irons on the stovetop and wrapping their handles in rags before she did the ironing.
There was a piano at the lighthouse, and while Sugar played on it a time or two, she never remembers either Hans or Marie playing it. They used to like to play cards a lot in their spare time and Hans enjoyed reading such books as Gone with the Wind. But his big love and passion was stamp collecting. Hans got Sugar into “stamping” and they would stamp together for hours, creating many albums.
Hans had a friend on Staten Island who used to visit regularly and would order stamps by mail and get first day covers for Hans from the post office. Hans also used to write for them and collected them from all over the world. The family still has his priceless stamp albums containing well over 30,000 stamps. Hans’ dedication to this hobby showed his philosophy of life that he expressed to Teddy in an early letter that said, “If you do a thing, make it a rule, do it as good as you can, or do not do it at all!”
All of the five children and many of the grandchildren spent a lot of time out at the light during the 25 years Hans Beuthe was stationed there. While the daughters were in their late teens through early 20s when the family moved there, son Teddy was only 14 and had to take the boat in daily to Mariner’s Harbor on Staten Island to attend school.
Later, two of the daughters were working at Gimbel’s in New York City, but would always come back out to the light for the weekends. It was where they all wanted to be. However, the Beuthe’s tranquil, perfect life at Bergen Point could not continue forever.
The River and Harbor Act of August 1935 stipulated a widening of the entire Kill Van Kull channel to accommodate increased commercial traffic which would be done by stages and result in the eventual destruction of Bergen Point Lighthouse.
In preparation for that, Hans T.A. Beuthe was transferred in 1941 to Fort Wadsworth Light, only a few miles away. Unfortunately, according to the family, in 1942 Hans fell down the stairs at the lighthouse and injured himself severely. He resigned from service and subsequently passed away a short time later on June 3, 1942 at his home on Staten Island at age 67. Marie Beuthe died seven years later and is buried next to her loving husband in the Moravian Cemetery in New Dorp on Staten Island.
The Closing Chapter
By the time Hans Beuthe passed away, his son Teddy Beuthe was well entrenched in his maritime occupation as a captain working on tugs and dredges, first for the Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co., and then for Arundel Corporation. No doubt his years spent in ferrying himself to school and living at Bergen Point Lighthouse gave him early expertise and contributed to his choice of career. That was why he was given the nickname of “Teddy Lighthouse” by his friends and colleagues. There was no one better suited to demolish the lighthouse when the time came – both by experience as well as connection.
In April of 1941, the Coast Guard announced that it would demolish the Bergen Point Lighthouse for the widening of the channel. But with the outbreak of war, many planned projects, such as the changes in the channel that would make the lighthouse obsolete were delayed. Because of these uncertainties, a replacement to keeper Hans Beuthe was never made. Instead, the Coast Guard assigned men in twelve hour shifts to staff the lighthouse, most who travelled by boat back and forth to the lighthouse for their shifts.
Sadly, by 1948 the beginning of the end of Bergen Point Lighthouse started when the keeper’s house was demolished, leaving just the shell of the tower standing. Even then, it would be almost another three full years before the architecturally beautiful tower itself would come down – blown up in a dramatic explosion captured on film.
The Bergen Point Lighthouse and its keepers had been a fixture for over 100 years in the Kill Van Kull Strait. It is now only a memory, but thankfully, a memory preserved for future generations through the pages of Lighthouse Digest.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2020 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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