Jul 02, 2020

Lighthouses of the Jersey Shore

By Lori Draz

Sailors navigate uncertain waters by looking to lighthouses to bring them safely back to solid ground. The symbolism is too hard to resist as we begin our journey back to the comforts of the lives we know so well. So this month, Historic Havens will visit these charming and comforting landmarks.

New Jersey holds a lot of records, and one of them is that we are home to the oldest working lighthouse in the nation. Opened in 1764, the Sandy Hook Lighthouse still operates as a necessary daily navigational aide for the numerous ships that use New York Harbor.

Standing at a timid 103 feet, the Sandy Hook Lighthouse is illuminated by a 1,000-watt bulb that throws a light 12 miles out to sea. This light was only dimmed during the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II.

Military history hounds will love exploring the entire Fort Hancock area which served as the first line of defense for the New York Harbor. From the retracting guns of 1890s, to the anti-aircraft nest of WWII to the Nike missiles of the Nuclear Age, the area is now enjoying a more inviting existence as a tourist site.

From the tower, visitors can see Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island, and Middlesex and Monmouth counties. These locales, teeming with life, juxtaposed against the peaceful, natural environment is something everyone should experience.

The Sandy Hook Lighthouse offers free tours for individuals and groups. Call the visitor’s center at 732-872-5970 for the most up-to-date information on availability.

Now for a lighthouse that is more of a house, visit the Sea Girt Lighthouse. It began operating on Dec. 10, 1896, flashing a light that could be seen 15 miles at sea. It was constructed to fill in the blind spot in the 38½-mile stretch between the Navesink (Twin Lights) and Barnegat Lighthouses.

The red, brick structure was the last live-in lighthouse built on the Atlantic Coast, meaning the tower is built into the living quarters. The keepers were a dedicated and interesting group, starting with its first keeper, Major Abraham Wolf, who was in his early 70s, making him the oldest active duty lighthouse keeper in the U.S. Lighthouse Service.

In 1921, Sea Girt became the first land-based light station equipped with a radio beacon navigation system for use in poor conditions and heavy fog.

It was the navigational point used by the ill-fated luxury liner Morro Castle which was destroyed by fire on Sept. 8, 1934. Many Sea Girt residents and fishermen risked their lives in stormy waters to rescue the 400 survivors.

The Sea Girt Lighthouse was almost demolished, but a group of concerned citizens formed the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, which reached an agreement with the borough in 1981 and is responsible for the building’s maintenance and preservation through 2056.

The Sea Girt Lighthouse is a busy place. In normal times, the lighthouse hosts presentations about local history, a summer art show and is a meeting spot for local community groups. It operates a museum gallery with many historic photographs and artifacts from the U.S. Lighthouse Service, its keepers and their families, the Morro Castle disaster and Sea Girt of bygone days.

Tours of the lighthouse are conducted Sundays 2 to 4 pm, from mid-April through the Sunday before Thanksgiving. It is located at Ocean Avenue and Beacon Boulevard in Sea Girt. For more info, visit SeaGirtLighthouse.com.

Finally, for a more unusual visit, head to Paulsboro to see the Tinicum Rear Range Lighthouse. The 85-foot steel skeletal structure, located on the Delaware River began operating on New Year’s Eve 1880. It stands 85 feet tall with 112 steps tower base to the lantern room. Directly below the lantern room is the watch room. When it was opened, adjacent to the tower was a seven-room keeper’s dwelling, with a brick oil house, frame barn, cow shed, poultry house and privy situated on 4.8 acres of land. Today, only the lighthouse remains. Benjamin Hannold was the first lighthouse keeper; Captain John Birch was the last. Birch retired in 1933, but at the request of the Coast Guard, he stayed as a custodian of the light until 1945.

It is a fixed red light that is visible for 8.5 nautical miles. To see photos and learn more, visit TinicumRearRangeLighthouse.org.

There are some great resources available for lighthouse lovers. The New Jersey Lighthouse Society (NJLHS) is one of the largest regional lighthouse societies in the United States. They invite you to take the Lighthouse Challenge this Saturday, Oct. 17 and Sunday, Oct. 18, rain or shine. Challenge participants will visit 10 land-based lighthouses on the Jersey Shore, plus one museum and three life-saving stations. Participants who complete a souvenir book with an image from each location will be entered to win a basket worth more than $1,000. For more information, visit njlhs.org. Another great website is LighthouseFriends.com. It has a ton of historic information on lighthouses around the country and upcoming event as well.