A steady stream of Scouts and school groups from shore communities and even more distant towns visit Sea Girt Lighthouse on group tours, which are conducted year-round by prior arrangement. The youngsters often come as part of a history project.
A recent tour by nine Cub Scouts from a neighboring town offered a lesson in living history. Among the boys was one who was returning to his ancestral home. Cub Scout Charles Harrison Height is the great, great grandson of William Henry Harrison Lake, Sea Girt’s longest-serving keeper.
Mr. Lake, nicknamed “Pappy” and also known to many as “Bill the Lighthouse Man,” served 14 years at Sea Girt from 1917-31 – twice as long as his predecessors. He won numerous Efficiency Stars from the U.S. Lighthouse Service for his outstanding operation of the lighthouse. After Pappy’s retirement, he worked in real estate and for awhile ran the old boardwalk pavilion at Chicago beach.
“It was amazing that my great, great grandfather was so cool,” said seven-year-old Charlie with pride.
Taking the tour that day were three generations of descendants of keeper Lake. Charlie was joined by his mother, Lori Lake Height, and her father and Charlie’s grandfather, Bill Lake, who was named for “Bill the Lighthouse Man.” The lighthouse represents an important and proud part of their family history as well as shore and maritime history.
Earning Credit Toward Merit Badge
“By visiting Sea Girt Lighthouse, the scouts are completing a part of the Know Your Home and Community requirement,” noted Den Leader Christine Testa. Their visit will also earn them needed credit toward achieving their Wolf badge.
“I picked Sea Girt Lighthouse to fulfill these requirements because of the location – what a gem to have in our backyard,” Mrs. Testa explained. “I am glad I picked Sea Girt Lighthouse to find out the great history of the family of one of my Scouts.”
In keeping with the Scout motto semper paratus, the Cub Scouts, ages 7 and 8, came prepared. They asked good questions and made perceptive comments on what they saw, heard and learned. To get the boys ready, Mrs. Testa had encouraged them to go to the lighthouse website (www.seagirtlighthouse.com) before the actual visit.
Erected in 1896, Sea Girt Lighthouse guided mariners safely in their voyages for more than half a century. Decommissioned after World War II, the lighthouse was sold in 1956 by the federal government to the Borough of Sea Girt, which used it for two decades as the children’s library and recreation center. Since 1981, the lighthouse has been maintained and operated by the all-volunteer Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee.
Lighthouse History, Family History
The boys and their chaperones were escorted by a lighthouse trustee from the keeper’s office, through the living quarters and finally up to the very top of the tower.
In the parlor on the mantle were framed photos of some of the keeper families who called the lighthouse home, including Pappy Lake, wife Edith, and their son, Elvin.
Edith Lake was a successful businesswoman who had her own real estate office in town, served on the Borough Council and helped found the Sea Girt Women’s Club, which now meets regularly at the lighthouse. Elvin, known to all as “Toots,” grew up to be one of the hero lifeguards in the 1934 Morro Castle rescue.
Of special interest to Charlie and his family was the brass oil lantern that keeper Lake used to find his way throughout the lighthouse at night in the days before the lighthouse was electrified in 1932.
“It surprised me that my family lived in the lighthouse with no TV or lights,” Charlie admitted.
The Cubs Scouts and adults got the chance to repeat the very climb Pappy Lake and all the other keepers, including Harriet Yates in 1910, made several times a day to keep the light burning bright by refueling the tower lamp, trimming the wick and cleaning the Fresnel lens.
“It was really cool climbing the stairs,” said Charlie. “I loved it.” From the keeper’s office to the very top is 42 steps. The last nine steps are a nearly vertical climb up a wrought-iron ladder through a trap door that opens to the octagonal lantern room where the view is spectacular.
Charlie said he felt “good being in the very place my family lived.” He added: “I would like to live there when I grow up.” In fact, he’d like to be a lighthouse keeper, just like Pappy.
Charlie, his mother and grandfather are continuing an honored tradition at Sea Girt Lighthouse of descendants of keepers returning to the lighthouse to share what they know about their forbearers.
Descendants of three other keepers – Abram Yates (1903-10), Harriet Yates (June-July 1910) and George Thomas (1931-1940) – have also visited the lighthouse as have several Coast Guardsmen stationed at Sea Girt during and after World War II.
Much of what is known about the keepers – and mentioned during the tours – has come from descendants who provide invaluable historical details and often photos and artifacts.
The photos of Pappy, Edith and Toots Lake had been donated by various members of the Lake family over the years. Pappy’s lantern was donated to the lighthouse collection by Bill Mountford and his family. Bill, a lighthouse trustee, is the great-grandson of Pappy Lake, the grandson of Toots Lake, and a cousin of Mrs. Height.
Junior Lighthouse Members
At the conclusion of their tour, the Cub Scouts gathered in the parlor. Each Scout was presented a Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee Junior Member card in recognition of the visit and having climbed up the tower.
In addition to maintaining the building and grounds, the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee preserves the lighthouse history through guided tours, programs, special events, publications and the website.
The boys were encouraged to return to Sea Girt Lighthouse with their families and friends. Visitors, new members and tour guides are always welcome.
Arranging Group Tours
Group tours, like the one the Cub Scouts took, can be arranged by calling the lighthouse at 732-974-0514 or submitting a written request from the Contact Us page at the lighthouse website (www.seagirtlighthouse.com).
Guided Sunday tours run May 1 through the Sunday before Thanksgiving, except for holiday weekends.