BARNEGAT LIGHT, N.J. - So much sand is being scoured by tides at the base of what is probably New Jersey's most famous beacon, Barnegat Lighthouse, that the 170-foot-tall structure is being undermined and potentially threatened.
Officials contend that "Old Barney" is probably still a long way from being in danger of toppling into the sea, as its predecessor did in 1856. But the Army Corps of Engineers will spend $1.38 million to fill a 50-foot hole near the base of the lighthouse.
The cause of the erosion is uncertain, officials said. But speculation has centered on a new, elongated jetty built by the Corps in 1992 to shore up the unstable inlet. Corps officials say there is no proof, but they have agreed to perform the repair work anyway.
"This project is not something we would term an emergency, but it is certainly preventative maintenance that needed to be done soon," said Jerry Jones, project manager for the Army Corps' Philadelphia district office, which is overseeing the work.
The gap, roughly the height of a five-story building, may have formed because of the swift way water moves through the narrow Barnegat Inlet, which separates the northern tip of Long Beach Island and the southern cape of Island Beach State Park.
The sliver of water provides virtually the only opening to New Jersey's largest bay, a relatively shallow ecological marvel that is 40 miles long, one to four miles wide, and home to hundreds of species of birds, fish and other wildlife.
Long history of erosion
The inlet has a long history of shifting and is regularly dredged as sand accumulates in some areas and erodes in others. Before it was first stabilized in 1940, the inlet was known to move as much as 40 feet a year. After the lighthouse was undermined by erosion in 1856, collapsing into the sea, officials built a new lighthouse 100 feet inland.
Jones said that the surging tide runs close to the base of the lighthouse and has washed away sand, creating a hole in the inlet floor near the northwest side of the structure.
To stabilize the lighthouse, the Army Corps plans to place 160 rock-filled casings in the deepest part of the slope. The bags, measuring 6 feet by 20 feet, will be overlapped and gradually continue up the hole for about 30 feet. To help keep the casings in place, larger rocks weighing 550 to 5,000 pounds each will be placed across the top of the gap, which measures 50 feet at its widest point.
"Basically, we believe this will protect the bottom of the foundation structure from any further erosion or undermining," Jones said.
The first lighthouse was constructed in 1835 on a spot north of the existing one to warn mariners of the shoals and currents that swirl about the area. But a series of severe storms undermined its brick foundation and it collapsed. Two years later, in 1858, the red-and-white "Old Barney" was completed under the direction of future Civil War Maj. Gen. George G. Meade.
The two jetties built at the mouth of the inlet 60 years ago seemed to work fine for a while, but eventually engineers blamed the jetties for creating even more dangerous shoals and conditions in the area. In fact, in the 1950s, the Army Corps called Barneget "one of the most hazardous inlets on the entire East Coast."
Between 1970 and 1979, the Coast Guard estimated that there were 616 assists, 43 groundings and 12 capsizings per year in the Barnegat Inlet.
By the mid-1980s, the Corps mounted a plan to build a 4,270-foot jetty parallel to the existing north jetty.
But the problems persisted. Last summer, the Corps placed a $2.2 million dike along the north shore of the inlet to help seal a breach in protective dunes on the Island Beach side.
Last fall, severe storms and heavy erosion caused one section of the sand-filled dike to rip apart. Water surged into the area, tearing holes in the sedge islands and eroding sand on the backside of Island Beach.
The Corps is currently designing a solution to that problem as well.
Jones and others are reluctant to pinpoint a cause for the scouring at the bottom of the lighthouse, though they acknowledge that some people blame the new jetty.
"Some people have thought there is a cause-and-effect-type relationship between the two, but I'm not sure there is any indication one way or the other," Jones said. "Barnegat Inlet is probably one of the most complex inlets on the East Coast."
William Vibbert, superintendent of both Island Beach and Barnegat Light State Parks, agrees.
"This is probably the most dynamic inlet anywhere; from the air it looks like artwork with all the shoals and cuts within it," says Vibbert, 55. "I've been around this inlet all my life, and I take the tack that I'd be surprised if there wasn't a problem with scouring or shoaling. It's just bound to happen because of the nature of the beast."