On January 8, 1917 the logbook at West Bank Lighthouse in Lower New York Bay recorded that second assistant Julius Johansen left the station at 8 am for the purpose of “mail.” Usually this type of trip was of short duration with keepers returning within two to three days of leaving. The weather was reported as “fresh and clear” that day but there was rain on the 9th and a gale on the 11th. By January 13th keeper Johansen was long overdue and the log states that his absence was reported.
Two days later, the tender Daisy brought assistant district superintendent Edwin F. Bramin to investigate the situation. The next day, the Lighthouse Service requested the local police to aid in searching for the keeper on land, though he was presumed drowned. When nothing more was heard, on February 3, 1917, Enoch Olnowich was sent to replace him as the second assistant keeper.
Julius Johansen was a seasoned keeper of at least seven years at the time he went missing. He had served at Old Orchard Shoal Lighthouse in New York (1910); Southwest Ledge Lighthouse in Connecticut (1911-1912); Rose Island Lighthouse, Rhode Island (1912-1915); and for a short stint at Rhode Island’s Bullock’s Point Lighthouse prior to arriving at West Bank Lighthouse in 1916.
Born on March 10, 1864 in Buskerud, Norway, Julius had immigrated to the United States when he was 21 years old. He married Clara Sandburg in 1889 and they had four children over the next 16 years. Clara was from Sweden, and family members remember how she and Julius would speak to each other in their native tongues rather than using a common language.
Julius was a machinist and living in Rhode Island for at least 10 years before becoming a lighthouse keeper at the age of 46. One newspaper article reported that he had been in the Lighthouse Service since 1905, so perhaps he was working at a lighthouse depot or on a lighthouse tender, somewhere prior to 1910.
The family memories of him are from his time at Rose Island Lighthouse. His granddaughter Helen spent summers there while growing up. Julius once brought her back a pair of roller skates from a trip to Newport, and she learned how to skate along the seawall, which in hindsight, might have been a rather dangerous place to practice.
Julius and his wife Clara kept hens at Rose Island Lighthouse, and one particular favorite hen would come up the stairs of the lighthouse to be fed. Julius also had lobster pots that he tended to using the station rowboat. Helen called the lobsters the “funny men.”
Unfortunately, not much else is known of Julius, other than that he had a gold watch, with his name inscribed on it that had been given to him as a gift. It was that watch, still in his pocket, that confirmed the identification of long-lost Julius Johansen when his body was finally found on April 26, 1917 by a Coast Guard patrolman off the beach in Normandie, New Jersey on the coast below Sandy Hook. Julius had been drifting at sea for three and a half months prior to his recovery.
His wife Clara was left with daughter Dorothea, age 17, and son Earl, age 12, still at home. The two older daughters, Jennie and Emma had married by then and were living elsewhere. To provide for themselves, Clara became a nurse in a private practice while Dot worked as a winder in a cotton mill and later as a retail clerk at the Boston Store in Providence, Rhode Island. By the time Earl was 15, he was working as an oiler in the cotton mill.
As was the case with many families of keepers who died in the line of duty, it was a hardship on the surviving family members to have to find jobs to support themselves while still grieving for the loss of their husband and father. Working for the Lighthouse Service was a hazardous occupation for those in off-shore stations, and a number of them died while performing their duties. This is one more reason for all of us to remember the ultimate sacrifice that some of them made.
This story appeared in the
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