Friday, April 24, 2009

Old Mysteries from Great Beds

Great Beds Lighthouse in January 1918, when Raritan Bay was frozen solid. (Men played golf on the ice!) See story here.

In doing research for the Mid-Atlantic Lighthouses map, I came across some tantalizing old New York Times articles about two hapless keepers at Great Beds, NJ (named for the "great beds" of oysters on its shoal, not the cramped tower's sleeping accommodations). All spellings sic.

May 1, 1883

Matawan, N.J., April 30--Searching parties from Keyport, South Amboy, and Perty Amboy are dragging the waters of Raritan Bay, Raritan River, Cheesequakes* Creek, and Matawan Creek for the body of George Brennen, the missing keeper of the lights of Great Beds Light-house. Brennen rarely visited the shore except to obtain provisions or draw his pay. One day last week he visited Perth Amboy Custom-hosue and received his pay, after which, accompanied by some friends, he paid a visit to South Amboy. In the evening he started in a row-boat for the light-house, but it was noticed that the light did not burn that night. The next morning Brennen's boat, upturned, was washed up on the beach. the police believe that Brennen was followed to his lonely abode on Great Beds and was murdered and thrown into the Bay, or that while trying to reach the light-house in an intoxicated state his boat capsized and he was drowned. Brennen always bore the reputation of being of sober habits, and strictly attended to his work. John E. Johnson, of Perth Amboy, has been appointed keeper of the light-house until Brennen's fate is knows.

May 16, 1883

The body of Col. Brunnan, the keeper of the Great Beds Light-House, in Raritan Bay, was found yesterday in Staten Island Sound, off Tottenville. Col Brunnan disappeared about 3 weeks ago. He had in his possession 3 months’ pay, amounting to about $150.** Toward evening he started from Amboy, New Jersey, in his boat for the light-house. The next morning his boat was found bottom up drifting in the Sound. Only $40 in money was found on the body.

August 28, 1883


John E. Johnson, a resident of Tottenville, Staten Island, and keeper of the Great Beds Light-house, has mysteriously disappeared. Johnson was last seen on Saturday night, Aug. 18, when he was on duty at the light-house. His boat was found moored at the light-house. His coat was in the boat. The keys were found inside of the light-house on a table. Some think that Johnson drowned himself by jumping into the bay, while others think he has disappeared for a reason. He has a wife and four children. A former keeper of the same light-house disappeared last Winter and his body was afterward found in the Sound.

*One of my favorite names ever.
**Even in 1883, $50/month wasn't great pay.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Primary Research or Above & Beyond the Call

Concord Point Lighthouse, Havre de Grace MD, by Peter M. Mason
from forthcoming
Mid-Atlantic Lighthouses Map & Guide

Now that the Maine Lighthouses map is done we're on to the Mid-Atlantic. What a job that's turning out to be! We're redoing the cartography and rewriting the text on the Hartnett House Mid-Atlantic map (newly out of stock). As with the Maine map, we're adding tower height and focal height for each lighthouse. Our researcher, Peter, has been supplying most of the stats, culled from US Coast Guard listings.

The guide that will go on the map's reverse starts with New Jersey and goes south, to Virginia. Editing was going swimmingly till I hit Concord Point Lighthouse, Havre de Grace MD. The 1827 stone tower's height was supposedly 32 ft and the focal height 36 ft.

Whoa! With a 32-ft tower, the light has to be more than 36 ft above the water. But by how much? I dash off an email to Peter and for good measure leave a voice message at the Friends of Concord Point Lighthouse.

Peter replies, apologizing for a typo: Concord Point's focal height is actually 39 ft.

Whew! Problem solved. I change the focal height from 36 to 39.

The next day I get a call from Concord Point's president, Marsha Jacksthite. Her late mother founded the Friends some 30 years ago after thieves spirited away the light's massive Fresnel lens--without arousing the keeper in his house just 200 ft away. (Yeah, it's a fishy story.) Marsha tells me that, according to the original drawings, the tower is more like 20 ft tall. Just as important, her hometown is pronounced "Havver da Grace," not "Ahvr de Grahss" as this francophone said it.

Whew! Problem solved. Again! I change the tower height from 32 to 20.

Marsha phones back a couple of hours later. Seems that no one has actually measured the Concord Point tower in the past 180 years, so she sent someone out with a tape measure. In fact it is 29'6" tall and the lantern's midpoint another 4'10" higher. She figures that the tower sits about 4 ft above high tide, putting the light's focal point at about...39 ft.

Whew! Problem solved. Again!!! I change the tower height from 20 to 29.5.

So the Coast Guard has the wrong information about Concord Point. There are 65 more standing lighthouses in the Mid-Atlantic. Now what?

I tell myself that this is the Coast Guard's only error, make sure an errors & omissions disclaimer goes on the map's back cover and wait to hear from anyone else with a tape measure.

Friday, April 3, 2009

How High?

Portland Head Light, by Peter M. Mason
from Maine Lighthouses Illustrated Map & Guide

I didn't get clued into the different ways to measure a lighthouse till I decided that we should include focal heights along with tower heights in our Maine Lighthouses Illustrated Map & Guide. On some websites, I discovered, a light's distance above sea level (focal height) was shorter than the tower; on others it was higher.

What the...?

That's when I learned that some sources cite the tower height without the lantern atop, others with. (See How Tall?)

OK, I figured, I could sort of fudge the tower heights, but sea level is a constant, right?

WRONG. There's mean low tide, mean high tide, and somewhere in between ("just plain mean").

After racking my brains and drinking yet another tub o' latte, I made an executive/editorial decision: We'd use "sea level" and let other people figure out its exact meaning.