Annual Lighthouse Meeting Explores Lifeguard History

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Members of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee at the May annual meeting conducted business and reviewed projects successfully completed in the last 12 months.

The highlight of the evening, which attracted a strong turnout, was a timely talk and slide presentation, Lifeguards of the Jersey Shore, by veteran Jersey shore lifeguard Michael “Spike” Fowler.

State of the Lighthouse

Jerry Hayward, SGLCC president, welcomed everyone and then delivered the traditional State of the Lighthouse report. “The lighthouse status is very good and the committee is strong,” he said.

DSC_0187The lighthouse, he noted, is in use some 180 days a year with meetings by local community groups, special events like the Lighthouse Challenge, group tours year-round and popular Sunday tours April through November. Such activities are made possible by a “robust volunteer docent corps” and member support. SGLCC has some 400 members.

Mr. Hayward discussed projects completed, including installation of copper flashing along the seam where the porch roof abuts the exterior brickwork to prevent leaking, refinishing and repainting of the southeast exhibit room on the second-floor after the installation of new water-tight windows, repairs to the sidewalk by the east entrance and rebuilding the slate steps at the west entrance and adding a metal handrail.

Trustees Sworn In

Two new trustees, Jack Ohlweiler and Jude Meehan , both of whom have long been Sunday tour guides, joined four veteran trustees in being elected to new three-year terms. They were sworn in by Sea Girt Mayor Mark E. Clemmensen. DSC_0188

He thanked the committee and its president for maintaining the lighthouse, which the mayor said is a treasured landmark and iconic symbol of the town and its rich history.

History of Ocean Rescue

With the business meeting concluded, featured speaker Spike Fowler delivered a lively and engaging presentation, based on the book he co-authored titled Lifeguards of the Jersey Shore: A Story of Ocean Rescue in New Jersey, published by Schiffer Books (http://spikefowler.com/).

Mr. Fowler, in his 48th consecutive summer of lifeguarding, has been a lifeguard in his hometown of Avon, as well as Belmar and Long Branch. A resident of Wall, he currently is lifeguard supervisor at Seven Presidents Park in Long Branch. In what he calls the “off-season,” Mr. Fowler is a professor of marketing at Brookdale Community College.

DSC_0176He has amassed a personal collection of several thousand rare photos of beach patrols and ocean rescues in their various forms. Of the some 300 photos in his book, Mr. Fowler showed more than half of them in his presentation.

He began by going back a few centuries when lighthouses first guided mariners through New Jersey’s coastal waters. Despite the guiding beacons of Sandy Hook (America’s oldest active lighthouse built in 1764), Barnegat (1858), Sea Girt (1896) and other lights, there are over 5,000 shipwrecks buried off New Jersey’s 130-mile coast, sunk over centuries by storms, shoals, structural failures and navigational errors.

U.S. Life-Saving Service

While many ships have been lost, countless lives were saved, including thousands of mariners and passengers rescued by volunteers of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, organized in 1849. The USLSS, foreshadowing shore towns organizing their own lifeguard crews, would eventually evolve into the modern U.S. Coast Guard.

Fishermen back on land and off-duty firemen and policemen comprised the rescuers – known as watermen – of the U.S. Life-Saving Service. They gathered at local beachfront Victorian stationhouses with tall and wide front doors that opened to the storage rooms where they kept their rescue boats and other life-saving gear.

The volunteers rescued people off a foundering ship, using lifeboats, life-lines shot from shore to the ship by a lyle gun, harnesses and fully-enclosed rescue capsules that glided to shore suspended from the life-lines secured to the ship’s mast and an on-shore tripod.

Hold Tight

Before they started their own lifeguard crews, beach towns and hotels installed poles and ropes in designated bathing areas to help bathers in the rough surf. Ropes were run along the beach into the water or dropped from overhead bars supported by poles driven into the ocean floor near shore.

As early as 1845, Cape May bath houses hung ropes for bathers to hold onto while they ventured into the surf in their heavy woolen bathing suits that extended from shoulders to mid-calf. Hotels began running rope lines and hired crews to man lifeboats, as people went “bottom dunking.”

Competent Bathers

SURF_CONSTABLESThe earliest lifeguards were volunteers. Paid guards were being hired in the second half of the 18th century. In 1855, Atlantic City had badge-wearing “constables of the surf.” Ocean Grove hired Bathing Masters in 1872. Long Branch hotels in 1874 advertised there were “competent bathers always on duty.” By 1892 Atlantic City had two paid lifeguards. Asbury Park hired lifeguards around 1896. Spring Lake had a few paid guards in 1906.

As men went off to World War II, the first woman guard, Mary Wood, was hired in 1942 in Surf City on Long Beach Island in Ocean County. Not far behind was Carol MacKinnon, Spike Fowler’s aunt, who was a lifeguard in Lavallette during the war.

Sea Girt Lifeguards

LIFGEGUARD_BIKESea Girt had paid lifeguards by 1933, reports Mr. Fowler. While guards on lifeguard stands were at one or two busy beaches, a photo in the lighthouse archive shows a lifeguard on a bike patrolling all the other beaches by riding up and down the boardwalk.

Among the rescues featured in the book and the presentation was the Morro Castle rescue, in which six Sea Girt lifeguards saved 15 people who jumped off the burning cruise ship Morro Castle September 8, 1934.

The section on the Morro Castle rescue was researched by co-authors Bernard and Edward Olsen, who visited Sea Girt Lighthouse in the summer of 2009. They were given access to the lighthouse’s extensive Morro Castle archives. One of the photos in the book of the Sea Girt lifeguards comes from the lighthouse collection.

Lifeguard Tradition

Mr. Fowler traced the improvement in equipment used by the lifeguards. He also discussed lifeguard culture – the strong bond that develops among lifeguards, who enjoy their work and the camaraderie but also carry a heavy responsibility.

New Jersey lifeguards now average some 3,000 rescues a year. In a longstanding and proud tradition, carried on and documented by Spike Fowler, lifeguards put themselves at risk to insure our summer days at the beach are safe and enjoyable.

Lighthouse Exhibits

Sea Girt Lighthouse was an appropriate venue for Mr. Fowler’s presentation. Among the artifacts displayed at the lighthouse are an early U.S. Life-Saving Service lantern and rare photos of local Life-Saving Service volunteers on watch by their lifeboats and in action as they rescue passengers from a storm-tossed sailing ship.

The U.S. Coast Guard was created in 1915 when the Life-Saving Service merged with the Revenue Cutter Service, founded in 1790 as the Revenue Marine to enforce customs laws.

There is also an extensive Coast Guard exhibit at the lighthouse, including service flags, numerous photos, World War II artifacts, intelligence bulletins and other official documents. During and after World War II, Sea Girt Lighthouse was a Coast Guard installation.


After Mr. Fowler’s well received talk, the annual meeting was adjourned and all repaired to the first-floor for refreshments and conversation. The reception afforded people the chance to chat with one another and to meet the author, who signed copies of his book.

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