Expanded tours of Sea Girt Lighthouse – with more historical details added to the narrative and recently uncovered artifacts added to displays – are being conducted Sundays, except holiday weekends, now through November 24.
In preparation for the 2013 season, docents examined the archives of stored material, discovering forgotten facts and artifacts that have been woven into the tour. In addition to uncovered items being added to exhibits, some artifacts already on view have been given more prominent display.
Tours are conducted 2-4 p.m. by knowledgeable and friendly docents, who take visitors through every room from the keeper’s office, through the living quarters and up to the top of the tower of the lighthouse built in 1896 to illuminate a blind spot encountered by mariners midway between Navesink Twin Lights and Barnegat Lighthouse. Admission is free. Donations are appreciated.
Sea Girt Lighthouse – one of only 8 surviving New Jersey lighthouses that are open for drop-in-tours beyond the summer months – offers visitors a rare opportunity to explore shore and maritime history, lighthouse contributions to economic and population growth, navigation and daily life in the decades before electrification.
Tours cover Sea Girt Lighthouse from its days under the U.S. Lighthouse Service authority, through World War II and beyond under U.S. Coast Guard command, and the modern era first as the borough children’s library and rec center and now a museum visited by thousands annually.
Exhibits bring to life each of the colorful keepers, including the first keeper, Abraham Wolf, who had been a Union soldier in the Civil War, pioneering Harriet Yates, third keeper who took over in 1910 upon the death of her husband Abram, John Hawkey, an inventor of an automatic door, and finally the 19-year-old Coast Guardsman who was on the 1954 decommissioning detail.
There are numerous photos of lighthouse children, including the Yeats children, Alice and Lucy Thomas and Elvin “Toots” Lake. Son of keeper Bill Lake (1917-31), Toots (shown here) was one of six Sea Girt lifeguards who saved 15 people from the Morro Castle, the cruise ship that burned offshore September 8, 1934. The fire and rescue are also well documented.
Bygone Sea Girt is recalled in another display including an 1892 auction map listing lots for sale ranging from $195 to $1,425, rare photos of Big Sea Day circa 1900, the Third Avenue trolley circa 1910, and vacationers in the 1920s camping in tents in the woods by Sea Girt Inlet.
Discoveries and Additions
An important find uncovered in the archives over the winter is a 1907 report on the lighthouse by the Army Corps of Engineers that contains rich detail on the building. The report has enhanced docents’ understanding of the building, its design, operation and amenities. The Fresnel lens was 12-sided with as many bull’s eye prisms and flashed a red beacon (light was changed to white in 1912). There was a windmill on the north lawn. But it no longer pumped water to the lighthouse because by 1907 the lighthouse was one of the early customers of the local water company that delivered water to the lighthouse through underground pipes.
The author of the army Corps of Engineers report described the condition of the lighthouse as “excellent.” But he concluded his report with a warning: “Station is threatened by the encroachment of Wreck Pond Inlet. If encroachment continues works of protection will be required.”
In 1915, a wall of interlocking steel pilings was driven into the east property line to rebuild the front yard, retain the sand and topsoil and prevent future erosion. There
were also numerous efforts to dam the Inlet, which finally succeed with the installation of the outflow pipe in the 1930s.
Also uncovered in the files and now hanging near the Fresnel lens display are two historic photos of the Lighthouse Service tender Tulip. Launched in 1908, the 190-foot-long steel-hulled ship, with a single smokestack, was berthed at the USLHS Depot on Staten Island.
With a crew of 15, the Tulip steamed along the coast, delivering supplies to lightships as well as off-shore and land-based lighthouses along the New York and New Jersey coast. After the captain dropped anchor off Sea Girt, six crewmen would offload supplies onto a longboat and then row to shore.
The responsibilities, regimentation, risks and rewards of lighthouse service, as well as the bureaucratic burden of paperwork are captured in the voluminous collection of official correspondence between the keepers and their boss, the Superintendent of Lighthouses.
A re-reading of the letters both filed away and on display prompted reworking of a few exhibits by adding letters and moving some others to more prominent positions.
Moved from the back of a display case to upfront is the Leave of Absence Request form submitted July 8, 1929 by keeper William “Pappy” Lake. In neat handwriting, he noted he had taken no days off that year and was now requesting 8 days of leave.
He listed his itinerary as “motoring to Long Island.” At the bottom of the returned form came the response of Superintendent J.T. Yates: “Approved with undertaking substitute is to be furnished at your own expense.”
Beside the Fresnel lens display is a typed 1939 letter from the superintendent to keeper George Thomas advising him that he was being sent polishing tissues – “approximately 2,400 square feet” – to be used in cleaning the lighthouse lens.
The Lighthouse Service was testing the effectiveness of tissues versus the standard buffskin. After using up the roll, Thomas was instructed to report back to hq on “the comparative efficiency and usefulness of the tissue as compared with using the buffskin.”
To make the best impression, keepers often wrote drafts of their letters and edited themselves before typing or writing the final version, especially when writing the lighthouse superintendent. Next to the superintendent’s typed letter is George Thomas’ undated handwritten draft response, with cross-outs and insertions.
He explains the reason for his delayed response – “inasmuch as I have only used 670 sq. feet to date.” Thomas then delivers his assessment: “In regard to polishing the lens it (tissue) is as good as buffskin, and the only fault that can be found with it, is that it leaves a fuzz on the lens … and it is necessary to use the buffskin to pick up this fuzz.”
Efficiency Stars and an Unmade Bed
In 1912 the Lighthouse Service began awarding medals – Efficiency Stars – to top-rated keepers, based on results of periodic inspections. On display are letters announcing the awarding of the medals to Sea Girt’s Lake and Thomas. In addition to the star, which could be worn for 12 months, the honored keepers were each sent an Efficiency Star flag to fly during the same period.
A letter to keeper Thomas from headquarters, dated February 5, 1935, announcing he is being sent the star and flag by separate cover, also advises: “Please see that the above star and flag are returned to this office at the end of the present calendar year.”
In the parlor, in a binder titled Children of the Lighthouse: Reminiscences of Alice & Lucy Thomas, there is a delightful 3,000-word manuscript by Alice in which she humorously recalls the day the inspector made a surprise visit to their previous post, Shinnecock Lighthouse on Long island. That also happened to be the day she forgot to make her bed. If the unmade bed had been spotted by the inspector, Alice’s father could have gotten a demerit. Luckily for Alice and George, the inspector did not discover her messy bed. He skipped her room. Everything else he examined was ship-shape. And keeper Thomas got a good rating and Alice learned her lesson.
Bygone Sea Girt
Pulled from the archives and added to the display of bygone Sea Girt is a brief history of the town, published in 1926, covering the earliest residents, the Lenni Lenape Indians, followed by the settlers and farmers and then vacationers. The history notes the Lenni Lenape origin of the Big Sea Day celebrations at the end of summer, a tradition that was continued into the 20th century by later residents.
Filed away but now rehung are fascinating photos from the 1920s of local families gathered at the Riding School stables near the National Guard camp and riding their horses on the sandy streets of town.