From the Archives: Bunty—The Man Who Saved The Kids of Fort Lee
The story of Fort Lee's Bunty Hill, a legendary Hudson River lifeguard
The Borough of Fort Lee does not end at Hudson Terrace to the east though most Fort Lee residents don’t get past that somewhat busy thoroughfare these days. Those of us who have history in this borough and who grew up here in the 60s and 70s are the real last generation of Fort Lee kids who grew up along the Hudson River. We knew Fort Lee for what it was and really still is: a river town, and our river happens to be the mighty Hudson.
Songs, books and films abound of the history of the Hudson River. However I am about to share a tale that has, for the most part, been untold for years, and it seems about time to relive this chapter of Fort Lee Hudson River lore.
Maybe with the warm summer temperatures and sunny skies this tale seems ripe for the telling. The story centers on a man of Paul Bunyan-like proportions. Though he didn’t have a blue ox named Babe, he did swing a colorful shillelagh that had an old can opener taped to for use on especially hot days.
The man’s name was John Hubschman, but no one knew him by this moniker – his name for all of us was and always will be the one and only Bunty Hill.
Bunty told us his name came from the fact he was a great bunter in baseball and Hill was his mother’s maiden name. He used the name Bunty Hill for a comic diving act. Thus was born the legend of Bunty Hill.
Bunty started as a lifeguard on Hazard’s Beach in the 1920s near the present day George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee. He learned to swim in the mighty Hudson as a five-year-old, and it became a part of his life up until his death at age 72 in 1974.
Bunty told us that he first swam across the Hudson at age 12, and the last time he swam across was on his 72nd birthday in September 1973. Once the George Washington Bridge opened, Bunty became a lifeguard at the Palisades Amusement Park. The pool there was the largest salt water pool in the world with its own wave machine and waterfall.
It was truly spectacular.
The pool in a way allowed Bunty to continue his love affair with the Hudson River as the water in the pool was drawn daily from the Hudson below via large pipes and was purified for the pool.
The kids of my generation in Fort Lee missed out on Bunty’s days at the Palisades Amusement Park as we were kids of the 60s and early 70s, and Bunty had retired as a lifeguard by that time. However, until his death, Bunty never spent a day away from the Hudson River. Every day he would leave his small apartment in Fort Lee near Route 46 and walk down Main Street to the bluff atop the Palisades and then down the cliffs to his beloved river. Summers were when we really got to know Bunty.
He would sit on his dock, still on Hazard's Beach under the bridge and share stories of the Hudson with all the kids of my generation in Fort Lee who were lucky enough to know him.
He also taught us how to swim in the Hudson and to be wary of its strong currents and the way the river could change in a minute from a calm body of water to one that was rough with a tough current to swim. He showed us where to throw our crab nets into the river off certain rocks so we could catch the biggest blue claw crabs. We learned how to swim, and we learned how to live and appreciate nature along the Palisades.
Bunty taught us to take time to smell the roses and to observe the wonders of nature that surround us each day.
Bunty seemed to know everyone in Fort Lee in those long ago days. Every store keeper and lower Main Street resident knew Bunty and greeted him each day with a smile as he swaggered on by, shillelagh in hand. Bunty was liked by all, but it was the kids of Fort Lee he looked out for and tried to teach.
Though a popular man with the ladies in his day, Bunty loved the river too much to be constrained by wife or family. Thus all of us kids were really his kids, and he bequeathed to us a legacy worth more than money.
My dad was a good friend of Bunty’s, having worked with him at Palisades Amusement Park. When my dad purchased a rundown old house in Coytesville in 1962, it was Bunty who helped him restore the house. Bunty refused to take money from my dad so my dad offered him a place to come each Sunday for dinner, and every Sunday Bunty would walk to our house in Coytesville and spend the day with us. The same went for holidays such as Christmas.
Upon Bunty's death my dad received his scrapbooks and his shillelagh. These items have been donated by my family to the Fort Lee Museum so they can be preserved.
Bunty had a request he made of my dad and his other friends. He asked that when he died, he would be cremated and his ashes thrown into he Hudson River off his Hazard’s Beach dock.
Upon Bunty’s death in April 1974, my dad and some other of Bunty’s pals went to the dock and placed Bunty’s ashes in a bag along with a full bottle of his beloved Ballantine Ale, and they threw his ashes into the river. Why was this important to Bunty? Because, he told my dad, Fort Lee kids sneak down the river to swim when they are not supposed to, and he often pulled them out and taught them to swim correctly. Bunty wanted his ashes in the river to help any kid from Fort Lee that may have trouble in the river, so in a way, he might be able to help.
Thirty-seven summers have passed since Bunty died, but his memory to me is just as bright as the sunlight that glistens off the Hudson on a summer’s day.
That was Bunty Hill of Fort Lee.
Editor's Note: The author is Executive Director of the Fort Lee Film Commission.