Guiding Lights

Visits to New Jersey's lighthouses illuminate maritime history

September 09, 2007|By Diane Stoneback | Diane Stoneback,Morning Call

THE LIGHTHOUSES ALONG NEW JERSEY'S shore are so much more than photographs on souvenir postcards, subjects for paintings and models for light-catchers in kitchen windows. Although often overshadowed at vacation time by beaches, sun and seashells, they have stories to tell to all who are willing to listen.

Just as surely as waves roll in and rake sand and shells into their swirling grasp for an instant, exploring the state's lighthouses is like breezing into history at full sail.

"The lighthouses represent the maritime history of the nation, when wooden ships were sailed by iron men," says Brett Franks, spokesman for the 1,000-member New Jersey Lighthouse Society.

A volunteer at the Absecon Lighthouse in Atlantic City, Franks says, "We tell people what life was like for the keepers whose job it was to keep the lights blazing from sunset to sunrise and spend the rest of their waking hours maintaining the buildings and equipment."

The lights were never designed for their keepers' comfort, he adds. "When the keeper was at his post in the watch room, it could be as cold indoors as it was outdoors in winter. There was just enough heat to keep the lamp oil from freezing. In summer, it could be very hot, particularly since the men wore wool uniforms.

"In winter, they also had to keep the windows from freezing over with ice by washing them down with salt water. Hanging off hand- and footholds on the outside of the light, with snow falling and a good wind blowing, was very dangerous. These men had to have plenty of guts to do their jobs," Franks says.

But the importance of what they did to protect shipping isn't open to any debate. Author David Veasey, who wrote Guarding New Jersey's Shore: Lighthouses and Life-Saving Stations (Arcadia Publishing, $19.99), explains their role.

"New Jersey's flat, low-lying coast, without harbors of refuge, was especially treacherous. Danger lurked in the shoals several hundred yards offshore, running along most of the coast's 127 miles and in its arms jutting into the sea at Sandy Hook and Cape May.

"A glance at the navigational charts shows why: As ships followed a coastal route north or south in the Age of Sail, winds blowing toward the land could easily drive vessels onto those shoals."

Although Cape Hatteras, N.C., has the reputation for being the Graveyard of the Atlantic, Veasey writes, "The truer graveyard of the Atlantic is New Jersey's coast. More shipwrecks have been documented here than at Cape Hatteras, according to shipwreck data in the Life-Saving Service's annual reports for the 25 years between 1887 and 1911. During that period, New Jersey recorded 1,257 shipwrecks, while North Carolina had 916."

But many of the lighthouses have become victims, too, of time, neglect and the elements. Some have rusted away. Others, of bricks, stone or rubble, have crumbled slowly and dropped into the sea.

According to the list maintained on the New Jersey Lighthouse Society Web site,, a total of 18 lighthouses, lightships and beacons have faded from existence. Of those that remain, only 11 are open to the public.

Visiting the grounds, climbing the towers and checking out historic exhibits and museums truly is a time to see the light and appreciate the role these structures have played, and in some cases, continue to play, in saving lives.

There are tall lighthouses. Short, stubby ones. A lighthouse that looks like a Victorian home (Sea Girt). A Swiss Gothic-style summer cottage with a tower jutting from its roof (Hereford Inlet). And the rare twin brownstone lighthouses at Navesink in the Atlantic Highlands that resemble the front of a military fort.

Travel the coastline and see conical towers, round and rectangular ones, too. Although less appealing to the eye, there also are skeletal towers (with black tubes housing the stairs to the top and an open-to-view web of metal poles and cables supporting them).

Check out their day marks (outdoor paint schemes) that readily identify the various lighthouses by day. Absecon's tower sports yellow-and-black bands, while Cape May has a white tower with a red top. Barnegat is half-red (on top) and half-white (on bottom), while Finn's Point and Tinicum Island, the skeletal towers, are solid black.

See them at night and the lighthouses' night marks (light patterns) provide different identifying features. When the sun sets, their guiding beams are the keys to their identities. Sandy Hook has a fixed white beam. Hereford Inlet releases a white flash of light every 10 seconds. East Point's signal is a red flash on for three seconds and then off for three seconds.

If you're a fit-as-a-fiddle, cardio type, climb their stairs for stunning views of the seashore as you've never seen it before. Incidentally, climbing all stairs in the 11 lighthouses open to the public would be the start to a good fitness program. Count them yourself, but the figure should be close to 1,303 steps.

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