Researchers Explore Lighthouse Archives

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Sea Girt Lighthouse has become a popular destination for students, scholars, authors and documentary makers, who come to search the lighthouse archives. And what they uncover often finds its way into articles, books, theses and films which are then added to the archives, awaiting the next visitor seeking answers to history’s questions.

The lighthouse archives contain rare historic photos, documents and artifacts in several areas, including bygone Sea Girt, the U.S. Lighthouse Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the 1934 Morro Castle ship disaster and rescue and the New Jersey National Guard encampment at Sea Girt.

Books crediting the Sea Girt Lighthouse for material gathered here, including photos reprinted from the lighthouse archives include: Lifeguards of the Jersey Shore, Lighthouses of The New Jersey Lighthouse Challenge, Sea Girt, New Jersey: A Brief History, Inferno at Sea: Stories of Death and Survival Aboard the Morro Castle and When The Dancing Stopped: The Real Story of the Morro Castle Disaster and Its Deadly Wake.


A film crew making an A&E Channel documentary on the Morro Castle conducted interviews at the lighthouse and used photos from the archives. Three engineering students from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken visited to study the 1896 lighthouse architectural plans to get answers for a class assignment.

The Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee trustees review requests to access the archives. They consider the purpose, focus and use of the research and qualifications of each applicant.

They also consider the potential benefits to education and history, including the history of the lighthouse. When a request is approved, an appointment is set for the researcher to visit.

It’s like going to the library. First, a trustee conducts a tour of the lighthouse to familiarize the visitor with the collection. Then the researcher is seated at a long table to which the trustee brings items requested for review. Historic photos, if not covered by copyright, may be scanned.

By agreement, Sea Girt Lighthouse is cited as the source of any lighthouse material subsequently used in articles, books or broadcasts. Reprinted photos typically appear above the credit Courtesy of Sea Girt Lighthouse. Researchers are asked to donate a copy of whatever is produced.

Youngest Researchers

A team of middle-school honor students from northern New Jersey, preparing a presentation for a history competition, ventured to Sea Girt in early March 2013 after they read about the lighthouse and its collection during their preliminary research into the Morro Castle fire and the impact that had on subsequent ship design and safety precautions.

The Morro Castle was the ill-fated cruise ship that burned 3 miles offshore September 8, 1934, claiming 137 lives, while over 400 survived largely due to the heroism of local rescuers. Before the anchor was dropped and the order given to abandon ship, the crew fixed their position from the Sea Girt Lighthouse beacon. FBI and other investigations identified design flaws, inadequate safety equipment and emergency procedures as contributing to the high loss of life.

Sixth grader Kira and seventh graders Sabina and Sofia, all 12-years-old, and the director of the school’s gifted and talented program, Judith Vihonski, drove two hours so the girls could explore the lighthouse archives. They came prepared with sharp pencils and notebooks, a tape recorder, digital cameras and a video camera. They were accompanied by family members.

“We are preparing a list of changes – improvements – that came because of the Morro Castle,” explained Sabina.


“We each read different books and have our assignments,” reported Sofia. By the time the girls came to Sea Girt, they had been conducting their research for four months. They would get together every Wednesday after school – and in March added Thursdays – to share what they learned, determine what they still needed to uncover and then find those answers.

Internet searches gave them leads to the requisite primary sources. In addition to coming to Sea Girt, the girls by the time they had concluded their research had interviewed a 98-year-old Morro Castle survivor, a maritime and Coast Guard historian, a naval architect, the authors of three Morro Castle books and the historian at the Virginia shipyard where the Morro Castle was built. The students also gathered some 50 photos and over 200 pages of primary source material.

Investigating History

“I like to think of ourselves as investigators, because that’s what we are,” said Kira, the team’s videographer.

At Sea Girt, the students and their families were first given a tour of the lighthouse by a trustee, who pointed out the Morro Castle photos, government documents, news clippings, lifeboat oar and two lifejackets on display. The young scholars then sat at long tables where Morro Castle material was placed before them. Additional requested items were retrieved for their inspection.

They viewed newsreels and home movies of the Morro Castle afire and later beached in Asbury Park. They looked through the 1937 report of the Congressional committee that investigated the disaster. They photographed and scanned several pages of findings and recommendations. The students closely studied the two Morro Castle lifejackets on display, after the lighthouse trustee told them some passengers slipped out of their lifejackets when they hit the water and others were knocked out as the impact drove the front cork panels into their chins.

The students closely studied the two Morro Castle lifejackets on display, after the lighthouse trustee told them some passengers slipped out of their lifejackets when they hit the water and others were knocked out as the impact drove the front cork panels into their chins.

On the wall above the lifejackets is a photo of one of the six Morro Castle lifeboats that were launched as it beached at the north end of Sea Girt.

The girls wanted to see where the lifeboat landed. So they, their teacher and families followed the trustee to nearby Pier Beach to compare the surroundings now with the photo they brought from the lighthouse.

Revealing their command of their subject, Kira, Sabina and Sofia correctly referred to the ship as a turbo-electric liner or T.E.L. Morro Castle, unlike some journalists who have mistakenly referred to the vessel as a steamship or the S.S. Morro Castle.


The young researchers spent more than 3 hours exploring the lighthouse archives. They left with solid material to include in their presentation. They next turned their attention to writing, editing and finalizing their contest entry.

While initially acquaintances in school, the three have developed a friendship working together over the months, visiting one another’s homes. They were teamed up by Ms. Vihonski, after each separately chose their topic of inquiry from among 50 topics offered to the members of the honors program at their school as part of 2013 National History Day Contest, whose theme was Turning Points in History: People, Ideas, Events.

The challenge presented to all participants from across the country: produce a 3-minute video documentary, a tri-fold display of photos and documents and a position paper not to exceed 500 words that states the exhibit thesis, provides relevant background for the proposition, and then lists the arguments and evidence that prove the thesis.

Students compete in two divisions: Junior (grades 6, 7 and 8) and Senior (grades 9, 10, 11 and 12). The competition begins at the regional level where historians and educators as judges select the teams that advance to the state level where the winnowing process continues and a select few are advanced to the national competition.

Sea Safety Turning Point

The girls titled their presentation: T.E.L. Morro Castle: New Jersey’s Titanic. Their thesis: T.EL. Morro Castle was a turning point for sea safety.

Included in their list of maritime improvements resulting from the Morro Castle disaster:

· Oversight – U.S. Maritime Commission, launched in 1936, and an expanded Coast Guard led to more oversight, tougher standards and more inspections.

· Emergency Preparedness – Crew members were better trained and given specific emergency duties for faster emergency response including firefighting.

· Cooling Systems – Redesigned to eliminate Morro Castle flaw of air ducts meant to circulate cool ocean breezes inside the ship that fanned flames.


· Fire-Retardant Materials – Instead of the Morro Castle’s highly flammable lacquered wood paneling, ships used fire-retardant materials in staterooms and public rooms.

· Fire-fighting Systems – Higher-capacity water pipes, pumps, hydrants, hoses and sprinklers were retrofitted on existing ships and built into new ships with redundant capability to avoid a repeat of Morro Castle’s low pressure as available hydrants were opened simultaneously.

· Lifeboats – More of them and repositioned on all ships for easier access. Half the Morro Castle lifeboats – located amidships – could not be reached or were destroyed because that’s where the fire began and was most intense.

“Good News” Becomes “Great News”

Competition at the regional level, held at Kean University March 23, was keen with teams coming from the northern New Jersey counties of Bergen, Passaic, Sussex and Union. The judges proceeded methodically, studying each exhibit and interviewing every team about their research and what they uncovered. Anticipation built as participants awaited the results, which were finally announced in late afternoon.

The lighthouse trustee who guided the students through the archive got an email at 3:47 p.m. that day with the intriguing subject line: Good News. Ms. Vihonski reported the results: “The team advanced to the state competition.” The state competition was held May 4 at William Paterson University. The Morro Castle team arrived early to set up their exhibit, which they expanded since the regional competition. image

Ms. Vihonski again reported the results to the lighthouse. This time the subject line read: “Great news.” Ms. Vihonski wrote: “Girls won best NJ award. … And … A national finalist!!!! Going to dc in June.” At the state competition, their Morro Castle entry earned the special award as the best entry on a New Jersey topic.

The team of Kira, Sabina and Sofia was one of only two New Jersey teams in the Junior Category (grades 6-8) to be chosen to go to the national competition, which was held the third week of June at the University of Maryland.

The young scholars, their families and Ms. Vihonski will return to Sea Girt Lighthouse February 8 to present the trustees with their three-minute documentary, 500-word essay and tri-fold timeline display of photos and documents, to be added to the lighthouse archives, awaiting review by future visiting researchers.

Requesting Access

Requests to access the archives of Sea Girt Lighthouse may be submitted by email through the lighthouse website’s Contact Us page, by leaving a message on the lighthouse phone, 732-974-0514, or by writing SGLCC, P.O. Box 83, Sea Girt, NJ 08750.

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