Towering Lighthouses Harbor the History of Maritime New Jersey

East Point Lighthouse

(And they make great day trips!)

By Wendy Greenberg

A gleaming white lighthouse, capped with red, towers over a strip of land at Sandy Hook, between Sandy Hook Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The lighthouse has been standing there since it was built in 1764.

“Think about that,” muses Carol Winkie, president of the New Jersey Lighthouse Society (NJLHS). “Sandy Hook Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in the United States, was built before the United States was a country.” Sandy Hook is the lone survivor of the Eastern Seaboard Colonial lighthouses.

The lighthouses of New Jersey that stand today are beacons of maritime history. It is a quirky history, and a fascinating one. The “ABCs” (Absecon, Barnegat, and Cape May) were designed by George G. Meade, a hero of the Battle of Gettysburg. Finn’s Point Rear Range Lighthouse was built in Buffalo, N.Y., shipped by railroad, and pulled on wagons by mules to Supawana Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in 1877. The Tinicum Rear Range Lighthouse sits in a football practice field in Paulsboro.

And, sadly, the original 1868 Tucker’s Island Lighthouse, a white tower with red trim, went into the sea in 1927, and soon after the entire island, formerly a resort, was wiped out. A replica stands today.

Lighthouse Lore

“Steadfast, serene, immovable…” is how the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described the lighthouse in 1849. And 170 years after he wrote “The Lighthouse,” we can not only still see many of the imposing lighthouses that dot the New Jersey shoreline, but we can climb those which are open to the public. (There are about 15 lost lighthouses, and other towers and lightships standing, but not open to the public.)

Lighthouse lore — coordinates, beam distance, classes, and characteristics of lights — is all there for those who want to find the facts. And, for those who just want breathtaking views of the coast, 11 towers await your sensible shoes.

Most have been lovingly and meticulously restored by area citizen groups so visitors can enjoy the panoramas that reward them after climbing narrow and often winding staircases. But the destinations have plenty to offer even for those who don’t climb up the steps, not the least of which is oft-overlooked history.

Think Maritime

Sara Cureton, head of the New Jersey Historical Commission, who was a keeper at Absecon Lighthouse for nine years, emphasizes the state’s maritime history when asked about the shore.

“I think New Jersey is justifiably known for the Jersey Shore, but people do think of beaches and boardwalks as the predominant images,” she says. “The part of the story that gets overlooked is that New Jersey is a maritime state and the New Jersey story includes a rich maritime history.”

With the state’s seaboard located between New York and Philadelphia, there was “tremendous maritime traffic traveling our shoreline,” Cureton notes. “Because of shipwrecks and the need to safely navigate, lighthouses were built.”

Sandy Hook was built to address the dangers of coastal ocean travel, but lighthouse service was not standardized until the mid-19th century with the building of Absecon, Barnegat, and Cape May lighthouses, which happen to be the three tallest in the state.

Many lighthouses are still equipped with a Fresnel lens — a multi-part lens invented by physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel of France — which consists of a beehive arrangement of glass prisms, allowing light to be seen over greater distances.

The NJLHS, one of the largest regional lighthouse societies in the U.S., has assisted on many lighthouse preservations, and on cleaning Fresnel lenses so they can be used or displayed on lighthouse sites, or in museums. The lighthouse society has helped in making renovations possible, including a railing at Finn’s Point, and help in obtaining grants.

The Romance of Lighthouses

Jean Muchanic, keeper of the Absecon Lighthouse near Atlantic City, credits a fellow lighthouse fan in explaining the romance of lighthouses. “Other continents, more ancient than the United States, have castles and structures that last through time,” she says. “Lighthouses are akin to these. They are recognized as having tremendous value to our history.”

Muchanic also explained why some lighthouses have different ways of reporting height. Some measure height by bricks and mortar. Others measure by focal plane, which is where the light shines out to sea. A lighthouse built on a cliff would have a taller focal plane whereas Absecon’s tower, for example, is right on the ground. It is the tallest in New Jersey and the country’s third tallest masonry lighthouse in terms of bricks and mortar.

Best Way to Visit

What is the best way to visit lighthouses? Winkie would like visitors to be able to observe aspects like type of lighthouse (tall tower, skeletal, or built within a house); when the light was first lit; the number of steps; the height; the colors; title of person who took care of the lighthouse; and who or what organization maintains the light.

Each lighthouse is unique and all have a “personal” history. For example, Gugliemo Marconi demonstrated the wireless telegraph from Navesink Twin Towers in 1899. Navesink was one of the first electrically-lit seacoast lighthouses in the country.

Adds Cureton, “What is fun is comparing different lighthouses. They are all different on purpose. Every lighthouse has its own colors and flash patterns so ships can tell them apart.

“I think for folks starting out visiting, the fun thing would be to pick two different ones — get a sense of the range of geography, the style.”

Consider, she says, the geography, whether they are on the ocean, or inlets. There was a need for mariners to differentiate during the day and night. They daymark was physical appearance — pattern colors, stripes. And at night, the pattern of light itself, whether it was a flash, pattern, or fixed light.

Some, like those at Hereford Inlet, East Point, and Sea Girt, have small houses integrated into the buildings.

Others, like Sandy Hook, are pyramidal with an octagonal base. Barnegat’s tall tower is a conical shape.

Rear range means that ship captains must line up the light from the rear range with the lights of the front range lights in order to be able to turn the ship to keep it in the channel, such as at Finn’s Point and Tinicum.

Lighthouse Day August 7

To better get to know each lighthouse, Winkie recommends participating in a special day this summer. She pointed out that the Ninth Act of the First Congress of the U.S. on August 7, 1789 created the Lighthouse Service under Alexander Hamilton’s Treasury Department. In 1989, the 200th anniversary of the Lighthouse Act, National Lighthouse Day was inaugurated. NJLHS celebrates by encouraging all lighthouses to be open August 7 for a free climb or reduced rate, with some exceptions. Some lighthouses will observe National Lighthouse Day the first Sunday of August.  Please check the NJLHS website to see when each lighthouse celebrates. Youthful climbers will get a junior keeper certificate.

This precedes the annual fall Lighthouse Challenge, which attracts more than 1,500 hearty climbers, this year on October 19 and 20, 2019.

The NJLHS has an extensive website at www.njlhs.org with a membership form, which Winkie encourages enthusiasts to complete. She says, “We want to attract a new generation of lighthouse fans.”

New Jersey’s Open Lighthouses

Absecon Lighthouse
31 South Rhode Island Avenue, Atlantic City
609.449.1360
www.abseconlighthouse.org

Want an awesome view of Atlantic City? Absecon Lighthouse, New Jersey’s tallest lighthouse, is also the third tallest masonry lighthouse in the U.S. at 171 feet tall. Completed in 1857, it is the only lighthouse in the state with its original first-order Fresnel lens still in place at the top. Although Absecon was decommissioned in 1933, it is lit every evening, thanks to a restoration by the Inlet Public Private Association (IPPA). Other activities include a museum, keeper’s house replica, children’s programs, and theme parties. A bonus: keeper Jean Muchanic officiates at weddings on site. Climbing fee. Steps: 228. Hours: September to June – open Thursdays through Mondays, 11am to 4pm. July and August – open daily 10am to 5pm; Thursdays until 8pm. (Last tower climb is ½ hour before closing.)

Barnegat Lighthouse
208 Broadway, Barnegat Light
609.494.2016
www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/barnlig.html

“Old Barney” offers majestic views of Long Beach Island. The site of the lighthouse on the northern part of the island was an important change of course point for coastal vessels, which depended on the lighthouse to avoid shoals. It was re-lit on January 1, 2009, 150 years to the day it was originally lit in 1859. The original lens is on display at the nearby Barnegat Light Historical Society and Museum. Without climbing, visitors can see views from the top through four cameras that transmit live images to screens in the Interpretive Center. Located in Island Beach State Park. Climbing fee. Steps: 217. Hours: Memorial Day to Labor Day, open daily 10am to 4:30pm. (Off season, weekends only, 9am to 3:30pm.)

Cape May Lighthouse
215 Lighthouse Avenue (Rt. 626)
Cape May Point
609.884.5404
www.capemaymac.org  

The third time was the charm….  In 1821, Congress appropriated money for the construction of a lighthouse at Cape May Point, and that lighthouse was completed in October, 1823. After some 25 years, beach erosion put the tower in water at high tide. A second lighthouse was built more inland, on a high bluff, with a light showing 14 feet higher than the first one. Yet this lighthouse was eventually razed and the present one was built in 1859, further inshore, equipped with a first-order Fresnel lens, lit by kerosene wick lamps. In 1938, a 250-watt electric bulb cast a beam for 19 miles. The light is now visible 24 miles to sea. The Fresnel lens is at the Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Museum in Cape May Court House. Nautical-themed story times are held from Memorial Day to Labor Day and Family Fun days are Wednesdays in July and August. Look for full moon lighthouse climbs. Located at Cape May Point State Park. Parking: free. Admission fee. Steps: 199, open grid. Hours: Call to confirm — through mid-June, daily 10am to 4pm; mid-June to mid-August, daily 9am to 5pm ; September, 10am to 5pm; reduced hours fall and winter.

East Point Lighthouse
10 Lighthouse and East Point Roads, Heislerville
856.785.0349
www.eastpointlight.com

Known for many years as the Maurice River Lighthouse, it is the second oldest lighthouse in New Jersey, built in 1849. The lighthouse was blackened out during WWII, and it was decommissioned in December, 1941. With no keepers, it quickly deteriorated and in February, 1971, the Maurice River Historical Society was founded with the goal of restoring the lighthouse. A fire that year damaged the lantern room, roof, and most of the interior, but over the years restoration work has been completed, including an accessible ramp to the first floor. To tour the lighthouse museum, check the schedule for times and dates. Admission fee, but free for 12 and under. Steps in tower: 17. Hours: July through September, every weekend from 1-4pm.

Finn’s Point Rear Range Lighthouse
Fort Mott and Lighthouse Roads, Pennsville
856.935.1487
www.friendsofsupawnarefuge.org

This 115-foot tall iron tower with a skeleton support structure was built in 1877 near a turn in the Delaware River, and was automated in 1939. It was discontinued in 1951, due to a change in the shipping channel. The keeper’s house was demolished in 1977, but in 1981 local citizens formed a “Save the Lighthouse” committee to refurbish the tower. It is part of the Supawna Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Admission: free. Steps: 130. Hours: Third Sunday beginning May 19 through Oct. 19-20, 1am to 4pm.

Hereford Inlet Lighthouse
111 North Central Avenue, North Wildwood
609.600.1561
www.herefordinletlighthouse.com

While the Wildwoods are known for beaches and boardwalks, Hereford Inlet Lighthouse is surrounded by English country gardens that showcase more than 200 plant varieties. The lighthouse, built in 1874 to stem frequent shipwrecks, is the only lighthouse on the East Coast built in Swiss Gothic style. As a result of a storm-damaged foundation in 1913, it was moved inland. In May 1938, there was a fire in the lighthouse that caused extensive damage. Used until 1964, it was discontinued and superseded by a nearby iron tower. But in 1986, the light was relit and is maintained by the Coast Guard as a navigational aide. The original Fresnel lens is on display. Look for full moon night climbs. Admission: free. Steps: 56. Hours: May 10 to October 20, daily 9am to 5pm; October 21 to December 8, Friday to Sunday 10am to 2pm.

Sandy Hook Lighthouse
85 Mercer Road, Highlands
Sandy Hook Visitor Center: 732.872.5970
www.nps.gov/gate

With its whale oil lamps lit on June 11, 1764, Sandy Hook was the fifth lighthouse to be built in the U.S. and today it is the country’s oldest operating lighthouse. New York colony merchants raised the money by lottery for its construction because of loss of property due to shipwrecks on the shallow sandbars around the hook. The 103-foot octagonal stone tower survived an attack during the Revolutionary War. The Sandy Hook lighthouse was the first lighthouse in the country to be lit by electric incandescent lamps in 1889. Since spring 2000, it has been administered by the National Park Service. Surrounded by Fort Hancock and part of Gateway National Recreation Area, visitors can enjoy fishing, hiking, birding, and a holly forest. Kids must be at least 48 inches tall to climb the tower. Steps: 95, and a nine-rung ladder to the top. Lighthouse admission: free. Hours: Lighthouse tours through October 31, 1-4:30pm; until 3:30pm thereafter.

Sea Girt Lighthouse
9 Ocean Avenue, Sea Girt
732.974.0514
www.seagirtlighthouse.com

Sea Girt Lighthouse was lit in 1896 to bridge the gap between the Barnegat and Navesink lighthouses after numerous shipwrecks. The last live-in lighthouse built on the Atlantic Coast, it was in disrepair until it was restored by a citizens’ committee. Today the lighthouse is open for tours, including the keeper’s office and living quarters. It was used until 1955, when the shipping lanes changed to a more easterly direction. Visitors can see historical photos and artifacts from Morro’s Castle, the cruise ship that burned offshore in 1934, when the lighthouse served as a first aid station. Admission: free. Steps: 42. Hours: Sundays 2–4pm, April through November 18, except holiday weekends.

Tinicum Rear Range Lighthouse
70 2nd Street and Mantua Avenue, Paulsboro
www.tinicumrearrangelighthouse.org

This still-active 1880 lighthouse, which sits in the middle of an athletic field, is equipped with a fixed red light of 1,000-watt lamps (500,000 candlepower), and is 112 feet above sea level.  The Tinicum Rear Range Light Society maintains the structure, which is on the foundation of the old front range light.  Admission: free. Steps: 112. Hours: The third Sunday of the month through October, noon to 4pm, and October 19-20 for the Lighthouse Challenge.

On October 12, 1927, the lighthouse keeper’s nephew Paul Rider photographed the Tucker’s Island Lighthouse toppling into the water. (Photos courtesy of Kraig Anderson, lighthousefriends.com)

Tucker’s Island (Replica)
120 West Main Street (Route 9), Tuckerton
609.296.8868
www.tuckertonseaport.org

Tuckerton Seaport & Baymen’s Museum illustrates the coastal culture of Ocean County, N.J. The Seaport is a recreated maritime village and nature trail, including museum exhibits, a lighthouse, visitor center, and coffee shop. The lighthouse is a reproduction of an 1868, 42-step lighthouse that fell into the ocean in October 1927. Admission fee. Hours: Daily 10am to 4pm. (Last museum admission 2:30pm.)

Twin Lights (Navesink)
Lighthouse Road, Highlands
732.872.1814
www.twinlightslighthouse.com

The unique dual tower design of the Twin Lights (Navesink Lightstation) offers views of the Atlantic Ocean from the north tower. The first twin lights, in 1828, were two identical but unconnected towers. In 1841, the towers became the first lighthouse in the U.S. equipped with the Fresnel lens. Twin Lights was the first to be fueled by mineral oil (kerosene) in 1883, and the first electrically powered lighthouse in 1898, when a huge bivalve lens was installed in the south tower, illuminated by an electric arc lamp. At that time, the south tower became the most powerful lighthouse in the country, producing a light that could be seen 22 miles at sea, though there were reports of greater distances. By 1862 however, the lighthouses were in such a state of disrepair that the current structure replaced them, until it was decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 1949. The bivalve lens is at the Boston Museum of Science. The Fresnel lens was returned. The on-site museum exhibits lighthouse and lifesaving station artifacts. Admission: free. Steps: 65. Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 10am to noon, and 1– 4pm.