Corrections or additions?

This article by Pat Summers was prepared for August 16, 2000

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

To the Real Lighthouses

We’re "down the shore," sitting on a bench

eating breakfast — sticky buns, of course — and gazing idly

into a variety store window. Which we suddenly notice is half full

of lighthouses: in wood, fabric, plastic, and ceramic, in pictures,

miniatures, T-shirts, even needlepoint kits — two and


collectibles and tchotchkes; bibelots and bric-a-brac; wearables and

the indispensable postcards. Which in turn prompts the question: Why?

Who buys lighthouses in any of these iterations? What do lighthouses

suggest to those who buy them? Oh, all right, maybe a lighthouse is

a symbol of the seashore, a tangible reminder of the coast and the

visit there. But what other subterranean or sub-aqueous memories do

lighthouses summon up? Are they nostalgia-triggers — harking back

to those thrilling days of yesteryear when lighthouses were a


best friend and seafaring heroism was the name of the game? Do they

remind us of our better selves; of when we braved the elements; of

Nor’easter gear and rowboats; of keeping the lamp lit at all costs;

and, probably incongruously, of Winslow Homer’s dramatic painting,

"The Life Line"?

Nor are lighthouses confined to variety stores, or coastal regions.

Who hasn’t played a miniature golf course that features a lighthouse

in name and centerpiece? How about frozen custard stands and


of that moniker? The turnpike’s projected new toll plaza at


1 will feature "a lighthouse-inspired spire, symbolic of New


coastal heritage," between the north and southbound lanes. Knowing

a good thing when it sees it, even Connecticut’s Danbury Mint


an "attractively priced" sculpture of "Old Barney"

or Barnegat Lighthouse, in cold-cast porcelain. And, as you rush to

your PC to list your own lighthouse sightings, note the Netscape icon:

a you-know-what with either a tilted revolving beam or a halo.

Images and replicas of lighthouses are in — and

so are New Jersey’s real-life lighthouses. In a far less demanding

second incarnation, they are being lovingly reconditioned, restored,

landscaped, protected, and opened for tours by "friends of the

lighthouse" groups. They are attracting visitors in surprising

numbers and even before that, cadres of docents, so you know


have arrived.

Once there were 38 lighthouses along this state’s Atlantic and


coasts; 20 remain, with nearly half on the west coast. Like


everywhere, they come in all sizes, shapes, and materials, often


to distinguish them from their backgrounds and serve as


Their height varies too, depending on location. A lighthouse might

be on a hill and need little further elevation; it could be at the

water’s edge or even in the water.

Every operating lighthouse had a distinctive "characteristic,"

an assigned pattern achieved by using lights of different colors,

and by showing some lights continuously while others go on and off

in regular patterns of great variety. Sometimes the light shone only

in sectors, rather than for 360 degrees, to warn of shoals and other


One lighthouse’s "characteristic" might be as simple as that

of Barnegat Light: a flash every 10 seconds at each point of the


Chapman’s "Piloting" (written during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s

presidency and still the small boater’s favorite reference work),

describes a different beacon’s pattern as "a complex


"alternating fixed white, red, and flashing red," or, in a

90-second period, the light showed fixed white for 59 seconds, fixed

red for 14 seconds, a high-intensity red flash for 3 seconds, and

fixed red again for the final 14 seconds. On a navigation chart or

a light list, this would be coded as "Alt. F. W., R., and Fl.

R;" a mariner could use this data to move toward positive


of a coastal beacon, a specific place.

Lighthouses are far from new-fangled. Around 280 B.C., Ptolemy II

built a 400-foot-high lighthouse in the harbor of Alexandria, Egypt,

with a flame reportedly visible for 70 miles. One of the seven wonders

of the ancient world, it served for more than 1,000 years.

The first lighthouse in the Western Hemisphere was in Vera Cruz,


and Boston erected the first one in this country in 1716. Today, the

coastal state with the most lighthouses is Maine, with 62, while


with about double that number, wins overall.

Most 19th-century lighthouse lenses were designed by a Frenchman named

Fresnel (FREN’L), and even today, the pride of several New Jersey

lighthouses is the original Fresnel lens still in use or on display

nearby. The lenses ranged in size from "sixth-order" (a foot

and a half tall) to "first-order" (almost eight feet tall),

and their surface was a series of horizontal prisms designed to


the throw of light.

Signage near New Jersey’s Cape May Point lighthouse provides some

surprising information. Until its price became prohibitive in the

1850s, most lighthouses were powered with sperm whale oil. Then, for

about 20 years, lard was used as an alternative. In the mid-1870s,

when kerosene became readily available and less expensive than lard,

it was adopted as the official power source for lighthouses. This

in turn led to the building of separate oil houses to lessen the


of fire near or in the tower. Finally came electricity. And with it,

too often for purists, plastic lenses replacing many of the Fresnels.

Progress reared its ugly lenses.

Although modern, electronic equipment has made most of them


redundant, off-shore beacons and three of the state’s land-based


— Sandy Hook, Cape May, and Tinicum — are still active. And

all lighthouses still serve as landmarks, upright reminders of their

own glorious past — and that of the courageous "keepers"

who inhabited them, kept them operating, and saved untold lives. Just

one stirring example: Near the Statue of Liberty, "Robbin’s Reef

Lighthouse" is nicknamed "Kate’s Light" for Kate Walker,

a diminutive woman with a giant spirit who lived there and tended

the light for more than 30 years after her husband’s death. By the

time she retired in 1919, at age 71, she was credited with saving

more than 50 lives. On one bitter winter’s night, she rowed to the

rescue of five men and a Scottish terrier who had all been tossed

into the sea when their schooner hit a reef.

Of New Jersey’s 20 lighthouses, seven are on the state’s Coastal


Trail, and they and some others can be visited at specified times.

And visiting lighthouses — with or without climbing yea-many steps

to the top o’ the tower — is a popular activity that can include

re-enactments of the light-keeper’s duties, films, and displays.


City, home of Absecon lighthouse, "sister" of Barnegat


for some 140 years, plans a first annual Lighthouse Festival for


During the weekend of October 14 and 15, lighthouse buffs are


to visit, and climb, all the lighthouses around the state.

The Absecon site, now in its second season after a "comprehensive

historic restoration," boasts the state’s only first-order Fresnel

lens. In 1856 George Meade, an engineer who was later to command the

Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, had supervised construction of

this lighthouse (altogether, he was to oversee work on three New


beacons), and his responsibilities included importing the lens.

Further down the coast two more lighthouses beckon.

"Wildwood" suggests wide beaches and a miles-long boardwalk,

as well as fake palm trees, nightclubs, and downright honky-tonk.

Forget all that. Picture instead a well-appointed white Victorian

frame home surrounded by flower and herb gardens, complete with a

picket fence. The tall light rising from the structure is the only

indication of the building’s purpose.

Located in Anglesea, North Wildwood, the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse

is worth a visit if only for its charming English cottage gardens,

with 170 plant species including wonderful, old-fashioned flowers,

boardwalk paths, and bird houses in many styles. In the back, a sea

walk gives visitors a splendid view of the ocean and the inlet between

Wildwood and Seven Mile Island, with Stone Harbor and Avalon, to the


Inside there’s a small museum and a cozy entry room fitted out with

gifts and reading material, as well as two pleasant staff members.

The lighthouse newsletter says a record 25,000 visitors toured it

in 1999. No wonder.

You can get all choked up — make that chokered up — at the

hip-boot-deep Victoriana that is Cape May. Gazebos, pastel houses

with contrasting trim, and gingerbread are, seemingly, everywhere

— except Cape May Point, south of the resort town, where ocean

and bay meet. Usually this laid-back sand-duney place, populated with

one dream house, thicketed with dense summer foliage, after another

— sweet peas all over — is well worth keeping secret. But

that’s impossible to do and still tell about the lighthouse at the

state park.

The 190-acre park is a draw in itself: bird-and butterfly-watching,

hiking trails, a sea-side pavilion and walkway, modest brown frame

buildings that house fascinating exhibits, notably clean restrooms,

and nice — no, proud — employees all over. Who wouldn’t rush

to the southernmost point of the state to experience that in our era

of zilch customer service? It was a delight to meet "Armand,"

a uniformed guide, at the base of the tower. He insisted on stamping

postcards and other literature with the "lighthouse stamp,"

then extolling all the cultural events in the area worthy for visitors

to try.

Built in 1859, the lighthouse at Cape May Point is the third beacon

at this site. The first structure, circa 1823, was destroyed by


and the badly-built second light was demolished on completion of this

one (the original Fresnel lens is on view in the Cape May Courthouse

Museum). The lighthouse is open to visitors during the $2 million

restoration now in progress.

Other New Jersey beacons of special note include Sandy Hook’s, the

oldest operational lighthouse in the country, in service since 1764.

The Coast Guard maintains the light atop the well-preserved octagonal

tower, which is on the grounds of Fort Hancock, in the Sandy Hook

unit of Gateway National Recreation Area. The imposing Twin Lights

of Navesink are located in medieval style towers in Highlands, 250

feet above Sandy Hook Bay. Here in 1841, the Fresnel lens was first

used in the U.S. It resembled "a huge beehive of glass surrounding

a lamp, whose light was reflected by prisms at the top and


Although the lighthouses were decommissioned in 1949, the building

now houses a museum of lighthouse and life-saving station artifacts.

Like other beacons in the state, Sea Girt Lighthouse, located in an

L-shaped Victorian building, has been restored and stocked with period

furniture. Gloucester County’s Tinicum Rear Range Lighthouse, the

most northerly beacon on the Delaware coast of the state, guides ships

bound for Philadelphia. East Point Lighthouse, on the Delaware Bay,

marks the mouth of the Maurice River and has long served commercial

fishing and pleasure boaters.

New Jersey lighthouses and you — perfect together? You won’t know

until you drop those sticky buns, and pick up and go "to the


New Jersey Lighthouse Guide: An Enthusiast’s Guide to New

Jersey’s Majestic Beacons , from New Jersey’s Office of Travel and

Tourism (1-800-VISIT NJ, extension 0923, or online at, is a handy reference pamphlet.

The website for the New Jersey Lighthouse Society is or Box 4228, Brick, NJ 08723.

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