Sea Girt Lighthouse Milestones
Some 90 ships founder along the north Jersey coast, prompting shipping companies and mariners to press for more lighthouses to guide them in their journeys.
The U.S. Light-House Board proposes a lighthouse to be built midway between the Navesink (Twin Lights) and Barnegat Lighthouses, which are 38½ miles apart.
Congress passes legislation authorizing a lighthouse somewhere in the area.
Congress appropriates $20,000 March 22 to build the lighthouse in the vicinity of Squan (now Manasquan) Inlet, which provides a safe harbor for ships in storms. There follows a mixup in the property to be purchased. The sale falls through when the property offered is found to be unsuitable and not the parcel the Light-House Board wanted. There follows years of delay, confusion and disagreement over exactly where to put the lighthouse.
Finally land is purchased 1⅝ miles north of Squan Inlet in Sea Girt – a 100x100-foot lot on Ocean Avenue, just south of Sea Girt Inlet.
Construction of the lighthouse is completed in the fall. Sea Girt Lighthouse is the last live-in lighthouse (tower attached to – not separate from – the house) built on the Atlantic Coast. The U.S. Light-House Board assigns Major Abraham Wolf, retired Army officer who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, as the first keeper at Sea Girt. He earns $1.10 a day. On December 10, Wolf fires up the kerosene wick lamp, projecting a beacon through a fourth order Fresnel (pronounced fray-nell) lens that can be seen for 15 miles.
A 240-foot wood-and-sand fence is built by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect the lighthouse from steady beach erosion and storm surges from the ocean and Wreck Pond, a tidal basin north of the lighthouse that opens to the ocean through Sea Girt Inlet.
Despite the sand dune, water comes ever closer to the lighthouse during storms as the inlet and tributaries of Wreck Pond overflow their banks.
Harriet Yates becomes acting keeper upon the death of her husband Abram, Sea Girt’s second keeper. She serves two months. Her application for a permanent appointment is rejected because she is not a member of the Civil Service. Meanwhile, Congress dissolves the 58-year-old U.S. Light-House Board and creates the Bureau of Lighthouses, better known as the U.S. Lighthouse Service, as part of the Commerce Department.
The light source for the lens is changed from kerosene wick lamp to 35MM incandescent oil vapor lamp. The light color is changed from red to white by replacing the chimney inside the Fresnel lens, producing a brighter light.
A wall of interlocking steel pilings is driven into the sand on the east lawn to protect the lighthouse from storm surges and to prevent further beach erosion. This replaces a wall of wood planks and sand bags that had been built as temporary protection.
Storms so threaten the lighthouse that the front steps are moved from their original eastside location to the south side. A telephone is installed at the lighthouse. The number: 937, Party, West Spring Lake.
The U.S. Lighthouse Service on May 1 introduces the first radio fog system. Sea Girt Light, Ambrose Channel Lightship and Fire Island Lightship transmit radio beams – 3 dashes for 60 seconds followed by silence for six minutes. Ships locate their positions by triangulation – tracking radio signals of the three installations. This is a forerunner of LORAN (long-range radio navigation), developed during World War II as an alternative navigational tool to lighthouses that went dark during the war so as not to give direction to enemy ships.
The lamp in the Fresnel lens is changed from oil vapor lamp to an electric 300 Ps35 lamp of 100,000 candlepower.
Electricity and heat are installed throughout the lighthouse living quarters at a cost of $1,100.
Fire engulfs the luxury liner Morro Castle three miles offshore in the early morning hours of September 8 as a Nor’easter rages, fanning the flames. Fire is out of control within 45 minutes. The order is given to abandon ship. The lighthouse beacon gives people direction to shore and hope as they fight for their lives. The lighthouse also serves as a first-aid station under the direction of keeper George Thomas. While 137 die in the disaster, more than 400 are saved due to the heroism of local people. Six Sea Girt lifeguards including Toots Lake – son of retired lightkeeper William Lake – save 15 people.
The damming of Sea Girt Inlet between Wreck Pond and the ocean is completed May 24.A June storm breaches the dam, which is rebuilt. For better control, an outflow pipe is installed through which flows the tidal water between the pond and ocean. Sea Girt Inlet and the tributaries of the pond, which repeatedly overflowed in storms threatening the lighthouse, dry up.
On orders of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the U.S. Lighthouse Service is dissolved. All lighthouses in America, including Sea Girt, come under the command of the U.S. Coast Guard.
America enters World War II in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor December 7. The beacons at all lighthouses, including Sea Girt, are extinguished so as not to give direction to enemy ships. Sea Girt’s Fresnel lens is removed from the lantern room to make room for Coasties standing watch. Coasties and soldiers with guard dogs also begin daily patrols of the beaches looking for enemy ships and landed saboteurs.
World War II is finally over. Lighthouses throughout America turn their beacons back on. At Sea Girt an automatic beacon is installed on the conical metal roof of the lantern room. The lighthouse is decommissioned. Except for an occasional visit by an inspector, no one will be posted to the lighthouse for almost 10 years.
Seaman 1st Class Henry Wapelhorst, 19, and his commanding officer, a boatswain’s mate, oversee construction of a freestanding metal tower – taller than the lighthouse – that is erected on 22x24-foot parcel in the northeast corner of the property. The automatic beacon is removed from the lantern room roof and installed on the new metal tower. Upon completion in October, the last Coast Guardsmen ever to be stationed at Sea Girt Lighthouse secure the building, lock the windows and doors and depart.
The federal government’s General Services Administration sells the empty Sea Girt Lighthouse August 10 to the Borough of Sea Girt for $11,000. The lighthouse is used variously as the recreation center, town library, Civil Defense office and community center. Not part of the sale is the small rectangle of land on which stands the metal tower with the automatic beacon.
In June the automatic beacon on the metal tower on the north lawn is turned off. The tower is eventually disassembled and removed, although the federal government maintains ownership of the small parcel on which the light stood. Mayor Tom Black, who had been one of the lifeguard rescuers in the 1934 Morro Castle disaster, proposes moving the automatic light to the lantern room as a historic display. Instead the light was put in storage, while the Coast Guard considered the proposal.
Battered by storms and after two decades of heavy use as the library, meeting hall and recreation center, the lighthouse is dilapidated and in need of major and costly repairs. The Borough reluctantly closes the building and explores options, including sale of the property.
Concerned citizens form the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee to “save our lighthouse.” Volunteers go door-to-door seeking recruits and donations. The Borough agrees to lease the lighthouse to the Committee for $1 a day for 25 years. The Committee assumes all financial responsibility to preserve the building and its history. The first annual Signing of the Lease party fundraiser is held on the lawn. Restoration begins.
Volunteers and contractors continue the renovations of the beloved lighthouse. A new roof and porch are installed. Many floorboards are replaced, windows and shutters are repaired. Layers of paint are removed from the soapstone fireplace and the doors and wood trim. And committee members go to the National Archive, Commerce Department and Coast Guard headquarters to search for historic documents and other artifacts related to Sea Girt Lighthouse. Others are busy collecting period furnishings. And the Coast Guard agrees to Mayor Black’s proposal that the automatic beacon that had been atop the now dismantled metal tower on the north lawn be put on display in the lighthouse lantern room.
Restoration complete, tours of the lighthouse begin.
Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee and the Borough agree August 25 to extend the lease to 2056. Rent remains $1 a year.
Marjorie Irving, granddaughter of the second and third keepers of the Sea Girt Lighthouse, Abram and Harriet Yates, is the featured speaker at the annual meeting of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee.
Unable to relocate Sea Girt’s original Fresnel lens after years of communications with the Coast Guard and other federal agencies, the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee acquires a fourth order Fresnel lens from the online auction site eBay. The lens, which had been in service at Crowdy Head Lighthouse in Australia from 1920-70, is now on display.
The 70th anniversary of the Morro Castle disaster and rescue is observed in a memorial at the lighthouse. Among the speakers are Jim Bogan, whose father, uncle and grandfather were among the rescuers, and Col. (ret.) Thomas Torresson Jr., a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who had been the third assistant purser on the Morro Castle’s fateful final cruise. Among those attending is reporter Brian Hicks, who is inspired to write the book When The Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster and Its Deadly Wake.
Henry Wapelhorst, who in 1954 was one of the last two Coast Guardsmen assigned to Sea Girt Lighthouse, returns to speak at a program at which the Coast Guard role at the lighthouse during and after World War II is celebrated.
In the 9th annual New Jersey Lighthouse Challenge, in which the challenge is to visit 11 New Jersey lighthouses in just one weekend, a record 2,615 people visit Sea Girt Lighthouse – the most visitors recorded at any participating lighthouse. The visitors came from 30 states, Canada, England and Germany.
The great-grandson of William (“Pappy”) Lake, Sea Girt’s longest-serving keeper, 1917-1931 and the grandson of Morro Castle rescuer Elvin (“Toots”) Lake, Bill Mountford joins the board of trustees of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee.
The lighthouse is in use more than 200 days a year with tours, special events and regular meetings of community groups. And every night at dusk, a light projects out from the lantern room not as a navigational tool but as a reminder of the historic role of Sea Girt Lighthouse decades ago in helping guide ships, their crews and passengers safely in their voyages.