Guided Sunday tours of Sea Girt Lighthouse are under way with more historic artifacts on display that capture the keepers, Coasties and important moments in the compelling story of the 118-year-old landmark.
Added to the displays are numerous historic photographs and documents uncovered by the lighthouse historian during a year of researching the book recently published by The History Press and available at the lighthouse.
Tours are conducted Sundays, 2-4 p.m., except holiday weekends, 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. Admission is free. Donations are appreciated.
Please note: There will be no tours on May 11 (Mother’s Day), May 25 (Memorial Day weekend), June 15 (Father’s Day), July 6 (Independence Day weekend), August 31 (Labor Day weekend) and October 12 (Columbus Day weekend).
Lighthouse of Distinction
Sea Girt Lighthouse was built in 1896 to illuminate a “dark space” encountered by mariners in storms midway between Navesink Twin Lights and Barnegat Lighthouse. Sea Girt, equipped with a 4th order Fresnel lens, flashed its first beacon December 10, 1896. It could be seen for up to 15 miles.
The lighthouse also served as identifier and warning of Sea Girt Inlet immediately to the north that mariners in the days of sail often mistook for the deeper Squan Inlet that provided a safe harbor in storms which Sea Girt Inlet being so shallow did not.
A lighthouse of distinction, Sea Girt was the first land-based station in the world equipped with a radio fog beacon transmitter, activated in 1921, that enabled mariners to navigate in fog by plotting the signals from Sea Girt, and transmitters aboard Ambrose Lightship and Fire Island Lightship.
Discoveries on Display
But, photos uncovered in the National Archives and now exhibited reveal the lighthouse in its early years was threatened by beach erosion from ocean storms and Sea Girt Inlet overflowing its banks. To protect the lighthouse, the Army Corps of Engineers in 1915 installed 30-foot long, interlocking steel plates, pounded into the ground, along the property line. In 1938 Wreck Pond was dammed. The inlet eventually dried up.
Added to the keeper exhibits are the wedding portrait of the second and third keepers Abram and Harriet Yates and a photo of the last keeper George Thomas at his previous posting with his wife Minnie and theirs daughters Alice and Lucy.
There are also candid photos now on display showing keepers and their families in relaxed moments, taking a break from lighthouse activities. One shows Abram and Harriet Yates on the porch, while off by herself at the other end of the porch stands an independent young Lizzie Yates.
The children of keepers pitched in and learned a lot about lighthouse operations and the new technologies, as captured in the photo of Lucy Thomas with her father, George, at a Marconi wireless station on Long Island while he was keeper at Fire Island Lighthouse in World War I.
And now in the binders of Lighthouse Service documents is George’s 1936 application to take a day’s leave from Sea Girt Lighthouse in early April to visit family in Brooklyn. He nominated as his replacement 20-year-old Alice, who was approved “with understanding substitute is to be furnished at your own expense.”
Newly added to the Coast Guard display is a photo of the first Coast Guardsman ever assigned to Sea Girt Lighthouse, Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Thurlow E. Jester, a 27-year-old Virginian, who assumed command November 30, 1940, after civilian keeper Thomas retired to Ocean Grove.
During World War II, the beacon at Sea Girt Lighthouse was extinguished and removed, so as not to give direction to enemy ships, which were known to be in local waters. Coast Guardsmen stood watch in the tower and patrolled the beaches.
Added to the lighthouse binders available for viewing by visitors, are pages from the Sea Girt war logs, photocopied at the National Archives, including these significant developments:
- 12:40 a.m., February 27, 1942: “Men on watch reported ship’s fire seven miles east of station.” The fire was aboard the Standard Oil tanker R.P. Resor, torpedoed shortly before midnight. Only two crewmen survived.
· 11:00 a.m., July 22, 1942: “Received orders from the commanding officer to discontinue the operation of the light.”
· 4 p.m. to mid., September 23, 1944: “Tested beacon light and found it to be in good operating condition.” With the end of war in sight, the blackout of U.S. light stations was lifted. At Sea Girt, the Fresnel lens was not re-installed. Instead an automatic beacon had been installed atop the lighthouse tower and activated soon thereafter.
With war’s end and the automatic beacon in place, the lighthouse no longer needed to be staffed.
Bygone Sea Girt Captured in Historic Photos
In addition to artifacts from the Lighthouse Service and Coast Guard eras, as well as the 1934 Morro Castle ship fire and rescue, the lighthouse collection has a substantial display of photos and documents of bygone Sea Girt, a once sleepy shore community of unpaved streets.
Things happened in Sea Girt and its population swelled in summertime. At the south end of town National Guard troops trained at the summer encampment which began in 1885. Locals and vacationers would go to the camp to watch troops parade and take artillery practice, shooting cannon balls into the ocean.
The campground was also the location of the Governor’s Summer Cottage, which was actually a mansion and had been the New Jersey exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The building was a replica of the Ford Mansion in Morristown where General Washington made his Revolutionary headquarters during the winter of 1779-80. After the World’s Fair, the building was disassembled, shipped by train to the National Guard Camp and rebuilt. It became known as the Little White House. Governor Woodrow Wilson was vacationing there in 1912 when he learned he had gotten the Democrat party’s presidential nomination.
Sea Girt was also for many years a busy transportation hub. The train station was built in 1895, a year before the lighthouse. For decades there was mainline service to and from New York City. Sea Girt was also a junction for a western spur line on which ran passenger trains to and from Philadelphia by way of Trenton and Freehold and freight trains of the Freehold & Jamesburg Agricultural Railroad with crops from western New Jersey farms. And Coast Cities Railway Co. operated trolleys from Long Branch to Sea Girt.
For alternative transportation, locals could be seen riding their horses along the sandy local roads and beaches from the DuBois Stables on Chicago Boulevard, west of Route 71. An annual end-of-summer festival, known as Big Sea Day, or Salt Water Day, brought revelers to the beach in their horse-drawn buggies in a celebration that originated with the Lenni Lenape Indians.
While the train station remains, and is now the borough library, trains have not stopped there since the mid-1970s. The trolley’s gone as is the DuBois Stables. The Little White House was demolished in 1971. While Big Sea Day is still observed in a few shore towns, nobody rides horse-drawn buggies on the beach. Yet these and other traditions and landmarks are vividly captured in the display of historic photos and postcards on the second-floor.
The Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, the all-volunteer organization responsible for maintaining and operating the historic landmark and preserving its history, invites newcomers to join the fun, accept the challenge and experience the satisfaction of helping to preserve local history by giving tours.
You don’t need to be an historian, just enthusiastic. You’d be joined on any given Sunday by several other volunteers. Each guide is assigned a room or two, such as the keeper’s office, the parlor or the lantern room. As visitors enter a room, the guide greets them, discusses the history of the room and points out the artifacts on display.
Pick your own room where you will be welcoming and chatting with people from down the block, across America and around the world. There’s a script for quick reference. But after giving a tour or two, most guides know the lighthouse story so well they don’t need the script.
Volunteers of any age are welcome, from students to retirees. For students, the experience can fulfill community service requirements and makes for an impressive activity on college applications.
During Sunday tours, volunteers are also needed to staff the merchandise desk, where lighthouse scale models, prints, postcards, caps, shirts and other souvenirs are sold.
All sales proceeds and donations go to maintaining and operating the lighthouse.