What began as a trickle became a steady stream much of the weekend of the Lighthouse Challenge October 18 and 19 as enthusiastic participants from all over arrived at Sea Girt Lighthouse in their quest to visit 11 historic New Jersey lights, two life-saving stations and one museum in just two days.
After signing the guest book, participants made sure to check in at the Challenge desk to collect the official souvenir of Sea Girt Lighthouse, a handsome card with a color image of the lighthouse in quadruplicate. This is the proof of having made the stop. If they were on schedule, visitors would have a quick look about and maybe a climb to the top of the tower before venturing off to the next stop. Many enthusiasts also brought lighthouse passports and added the Sea Girt stamp to their collection of lighthouses they’ve visited, not just this one weekend but on other excursions as well.
Having made every stop, successful Challenge takers received a prized card that read: Congratulations on completing the 2014 Lighthouse Challenge of New Jersey. The card featured the crests of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, the U.S. Coast Guard which absorbed the Lighthouse Service in 1939, and the two agencies – the Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Life-Saving Service – that were merged in 1915 to create the Coast Guard.
From Far and Wide
This is the 15th annual Lighthouse Challenge. While the majority of visitors over the Challenge weekend came from New Jersey with a strong turnout from New York and Pennsylvania, the guestbook recorded visitors from 16 states, from as far away as Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Illinois and Indiana. There were also visitors from France, Germany and Italy. Seconds before the clock in the hallway of Sea Girt Lighthouse chimed 6 o’clock on Sunday evening, the last visitor arrived to collect her souvenir.
She brought the total of visitors to 1,716. Of that number, 1,536 came specifically to do the Challenge. The others dropped in to see what all the excitement was about and to take the opportunity explore the lighthouse, during the two days of extended hours. And there were those who came Sunday during the normal tour hours.
Altogether the turnout was highest at Sea Girt in the last five years, and a 28 percent increase over last year. Certainly the mild weather and sunny skies and moderate gas prices helped boost attendance.
“We volunteers at Sea Girt Lighthouse look forward to this event and the chance to show our station to fellow lighthouse enthusiasts and tell them the story of our lighthouse of distinction,” said Bill Mountford, president of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee who was there both days. “We were gratified by the turnout.”
Exhibits and Special Displays
Visitors learned that Sea Girt Lighthouse was built specifically to address a problem that mariners encountered in the area in storms and fog when they often were unable to see the beacons of Navesink Twin Lights to the north or Barnegat Light to the south. Sea Girt, equipped with a 4th order Fresnel lens, was activated December 10, 1896, illuminating the dark space. Sea Girt’s beacon projected up to 15 miles.
Over the Challenge weekend, people were encouraged to explore the lighthouse from the keeper’s office, throughout the living quarters and up to the top of the tower. Docents were assigned to each room, welcoming people and answering any questions they had. Each room is filled with historic photos, maps, flags and other artifacts that tell the story of Sea Girt Lighthouse during its years of operation by the U.S. Lighthouse Service and then the U.S. Coast Guard. There is also a exhibit on the Coast Guard’s predecessors: the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, which was the customs collection agency, and the U.S. Life-Saving Service, which began in New Jersey because of all the shipwrecks here.
Among the artifacts on display: an 1898 U.S. Light-House Board map of the 4th Light-House District, one of the earliest maps to identify Sea Girt Lighthouse; an 1890s Harden Star Fire Grenade, a thin glass globe filled with salt water and brine that was standard issue to lighthouses over a century ago and would be thrown at a fire in hopes of extinguishing the flames; the 1903-06 logbook of Sea Girt’s second keeper, Abram Yates; the oil lamp used by keeper William Lake, 1917-31, before the lighthouse was electrified.
The jewel of the collection, which many visitors photographed and had their photos taken beside, is a 4th order Fresnel lens. It is not Sea Girt’s original Fresnel lens, which was turned off and removed during World War II, but the same size lens that had been in service at New Crowdy Head Lighthouse in Australia.
In addition to these regular displays there were two special displays from the personal collection of Jude Meehan, SGLCC vice-president, that he put up for the event, that recall lighthouse history.
Mr. Meehan was dressed for the occasion, wearing an exact replica of a keeper’s navy blue cap with the Lighthouse Service crest of lighthouse in silver thread above a laurel wreath in gold thread.
Hanging from the porch, the tower’s gallery railing and inside the tower were international signal code flags from Mr. Meehan’s collection, similar to the type of flags issued to Sea Girt and other stations in 1898 by the Light-House Board for station to ship communications.
And on the west lawn, Mr. Meehan pitched Army tents, as did Army troops assigned to Sea Girt on temporary duty in the summer of 1943. At that point there were 28 Coast Guardsmen at the station and a handful of soldiers. They patrolled the beaches and stood watch in the tower.
Among the visitors to Sea Girt was a familiar face, 23-year-old Greg Fitzgerald, who was welcomed by fellow docents. Greg, first volunteered at Sea Girt Lighthouse during the 2001Challenge when he was only 10-years-old. He’s been back most every year since. An unrivaled lighthouse enthusiast and authority, he has visited more than 400 lighthouses around the world, taking photos at every stop. He says Sea Girt is his favorite lighthouse.
A leading authority on lighthouses, Greg gives talks and leads tours of lighthouses. He qualifies as a leading pharologist, defined as a student of or expert on lighthouses. The term derives from Pharos, believed to be the first lighthouse, which was built on the island of Pharos, in Alexandria, Egypt around 400 B.C.
This year, Star-Ledger reporter MaryAnn Spoto and photographer Patti Sapone accompanied Greg as he visited Sandy Hook, Navesink Twin Lights and Sea Girt. The resulting story, “For Lovers of Lighthouses, New Jersey Offers a Tall Challenge,” can be seen at NJ.com here (http://www.nj.com/monmouth/index.ssf/2014/10/for_lovers_of_lighthouses_new_jersey_offers_a_tall_challenge.html).
In an accompanying video shot by Ms. Sapone, Greg makes an important point: “The one thing I hope people take away from this weekend is not just that they climbed 11 lighthouses and visited 3 museums and how many stairs they climbed, but how much work there is to be done at a lot of these stations. Every lighthouse in the state has some project that needs to be done. And it needs funding a lot of times from private sources.”
Sea Girt Lighthouse welcomes new members and volunteers to join the never-ending and always thrilling preservation effort.
Heading south along the ocean and then up the Delaware River, the lighthouses in the 2014 Challenge, with the year of activate in parentheses, plus the bonus stops, were:
o Sandy Hook Lighthouse (1764). Oldest surviving U.S. lighthouse – and still on duty.
o Twin Lights (1862). On the Navesink Highlands 200 feet above sea level. First electric powered lighthouse (1898) and the most powerful beacon that could be seen for 22 miles.
o Sea Girt Lighthouse (1896). Illuminated blind spot between Twin Lights and Barnegat.
o Barnegat Lighthouse (1858). Denotes 40th parallel, crucial point in transatlantic sailing.
o Barnegat Light Museum. Old Barney’s 1st order Fresnel lens on display here.
o Tucker’s Island Lighthouse (1868). Replica built 1999 of lighthouse lost in 1927 storm.
o Absecon Lighthouse (1857). Built near Atlantic City as warning of dangerous shoals.
o Life-Saving Station 30 (1885). Stations like No. 30 were built with funds released by an 1871 bill sponsored by a New Jersey congressman that created the Life-Saving Service.
o Tatham Life-Saving Station 35 (1895). Built on the Stone Harbor site of one of the earliest U.S. life-saving stations.
o Hereford Inlet Lighthouse (1874). Built in North Wildwood to guide ships in the inlet.
o Cape May Lighthouse (1859). Replaced two earlier lights destroyed by storms and tides.
o Cape May Museum. Current tower’s 1st order Fresnel lens on display here.
o East Point Lighthouse (1849). At the confluence of Delaware Bay and Maurice River.
o Finns Point Rear Range Light (1877). Mariners were safely in the Delaware River channel when this beacon and a shorter front-range beacon aligned as one beam.
o Tinicum Range Light (1880). Rear-range light farther up the Delaware River, teamed with a smaller front-range light to guide ships into Camden and Philadelphia Harbors.
In completing the Challenge, participants traveled some 430 miles.
Retaking the Challenge as a Board Game
This year’s souvenirs offered Challenge takers a special treat – the chance to do the Challenge all over again, as a board game to be played by 2 to 4 people. At the first stop, participants paid $1 to receive an attractive full-color, bi-fold board that when unfolded measures 10¾x25½ inches.
On one side was a stylized roadmap that identified each lighthouse, life-saving station and the one museum in the Challenge with the same images appearing on the souvenir cards given out at each station. Challenge takers were also issued a pair of dice.
The object of the game is to be first to land on all 14 stops, covering each with the souvenir token collected at the stations. To make the game interesting, there are hazards along the way, just as there are in the actual Challenge, e.g. construction zones, detours, traffic circles and speed traps that can cause players to lose a turn or go back a few spaces.
The Challenge was a collaborative effort, co-sponsored by the organizations that run the individual sites. The primary goal of the Challenge was to promote awareness of New Jersey’s lighthouses specifically and lighthouses generally.
Admission to Sea Girt Lighthouse and several others was free, although donations were encouraged and appreciated. Several stops did have nominal admission charges. The funds raised enable the various preservation groups to continue their efforts.
Lighthouse Challenge 2015
Mark your calendar for next year when the 2015 Lighthouse Challenge of New Jersey will be October 17-18.
Photos by Catherine Schwier