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
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
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
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
Jersey’s Majestic Beacons , from New Jersey’s Office of Travel and
Tourism (1-800-VISIT NJ, extension 0923, or online at
www.visitnj.org), is a handy reference pamphlet.
njlhs.burlco.org or Box 4228, Brick, NJ 08723.
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