Expanded Lighthouse Tours: What’s New That’s Very Old

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Sunday tours of Sea Girt Lighthouse are underway. And there are more historic artifacts to see than ever before. Several exhibits have been expanded with the addition of important lighthouse artifacts that offer new insight into the lighthouse story.

Knowledgeable and friendly docents, who were busy during the off-season fine-tuning exhibits and expanding the tour narrative, guide visitors through every room in the lighthouse, explaining the purpose of each room and the artifacts on display, which include rare documents and photos and tools used by keepers and Coast Guardsmen.

Visitors will explore the changing missions of the lighthouse from its years under the command of the U.S. Light-House Board and then the U.S. Lighthouse Service, through the Coast Guard era that extended from mid-1939 to mid-1956, followed by the years it was the Borough library and recreation center. And since 1981, the volunteers of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee have maintained the shore landmark as the community beacon, preserving its rich history through tours and special programs, and making it available to community groups who meet there. The lighthouse is in use some 180 days a year.

Tours are conducted Sundays 2-4 p.m. through November 20, except holiday weekends. Tours are free of charge. Donations are encouraged, appreciated and help the volunteers maintain the lighthouse and keep it open to the public. Please note there will be no tours on these Sundays: May 8 (Mother’s Day), May 29 (Memorial Day weekend), June 19 (Father’s Day), July 3 (Independence Day weekend), September 4 (Labor Day weekend) and October 9 (Columbus Day weekend).

Recent Discoveries of Old Photos

The parlor, furnished with period pieces, transports visitors back in time to the early days of the lighthouse a century ago. On the mantel of the soapstone fireplace surround are photos of the keeper families that called Sea Girt Lighthouse home. Recent discoveries that have been added to the photo collection include:

001o Elvin (Toots) Lake, who grew up at Sea Girt Lighthouse as the son of the longest-serving keeper William (Pappy) Lake, who served from 1917-31. Toots was an adventurous boy who fished, swam, rowed his boat on Wreck Pond and kept rabbits in the backyard hutch. A photo, circa 1917, captures Toots in a sailor suit, holding a pair of binoculars he used to scan the waters, just like his dad did every day.

o George Thomas, assistant keeper at Fire Island Light, is seen standing on the deck of a listing wrecked ship, stranded off the island, circa 1910. Another photo shows Thomas and his wife Minnie, with daughter Lucy, at a family gathering, circa 1915. In 1931 George Thomas, recently widowed, requested transfer to Sea Girt Light and arrived in October, with daughters Alice and Lucy.

003 o Alice Thomas became acting keeper for one day in 1936, taking charge while her father was away on family business. She would go on to attend the local Ann May School of Nursing. Her photo appears in the 1941 yearbook and identifies her as the class president. In October of that year she enlisted in the U.S. Army Nurses Corps, served during World War II in Australia and later the Philippines, nursing wounded Allied troops. She would rise to the rank of captain and was awarded the Bronze Star.

o Irvie S. Camburn, from an old seafaring family from Waretown, N.J., had retired from the U.S. Coast Guard after a 33-year hitch. (BoaHe was called back to duty during World War II, and was given command of Sea Girt Light. Here he is seen after World War II in his second retirement.

The photo of Alice Thomas was uncovered in the Medical and Nursing Archives Collection of Jersey Shore University Medical Center by archivist Darlene Robertelli, who conducted her search at the request of lighthouse historian Bill Dunn. She sent a copy of the photo to the lighthouse. The other photos were donated to the lighthouse collection by descendants of the keepers and the Camburn family, who were contacted by Dunn during his year-long research for the pictorial history of Sea Girt Lighthouse, published April 25, 2016 by Arcadia Press in its Images of America series.

The photo book, with a 1,500-word introductory essay followed by some 230 captioned pictures including many images never before published, is a companion book to Dunn’s Sea Girt Lighthouse: The Community Beacon. The latter is a 50,000-word historical narrative with over 100 different photos, published by The History Press in 2014. Both books are for sale at the lighthouse, at $21.99 each, or through the publishers. All author royalties go to lighthouse.

Artifact Additions to Expanded Displays

Lighthouse trustees are ever on the lookout for appropriate artifacts to add to the collection to help tell the lighthouse story. One such recent acquisition is a pair of U.S. Signal Service binoculars, manufactured circa 1895 by Audemair of Paris and used by keepers at a Long Island lighthouse. Signal Service binoculars of this type were routinely issued by the U.S. Lighthouse Service to its light keepers and by the U.S. Life-Saving Service to its station keepers.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The binoculars are exhibited in northeast cabinet of the first-floor community room, beside artifacts used by various Sea Girt  keepers, including a 1903-06 lighthouse journal, a 1927 edition of Instructions to Employees of the United States Lighthouse Service, and a brass oil lamp that belonged to Sea Girt’s longest serving keeper, Pappy Lake. The oil lamp was donated by the family of SGLCC trustee Bill Mountford, the keeper’s great-grandson. Bill has served as lighthouse president for two years.

Also, exhibited in the cabinet are two Lighthouse Service artifacts acquired last season:

o Harden Star Hand Grenade Fire Extinguisher, circa 1890, which is a thin glass globe filled with brine water that breaks on impact, spilling its contents. Each lighthouse would be issued many grenades of this type that would be stored throughout the building, which was lighted by oil lamps, including the Fresnel lens. In the event of a fire, the keeper and family would throw as many grenades as necessary to extinguish the fire.

o U.S. Lighthouse Service first-aid kit, circa 1900, that includes: needles and thread for suturing a wound, cloth compress and gauze bandage. The artifact was donated to the collection by Jude Meehan, an SGLCC trustee who collects Coast Guard, Navy and other nautical artifacts and has shared several artifacts with the lighthouse. Jude succeeds Bill Mountford as SGLCC president and will serve a two-year term, beginning May 2016.

Maps and Signal Flags

Exhibits at Sea Girt Lighthouse, which are organized by theme in each room, are works in progress. As artifacts are donated or purchased, they are put into the appropriate exhibit, strengthening that exhibit with new visual elements to be viewed by visitors and explained by docents. And occasionally an entirely new exhibit is added, as was the case last year with the addition of signal flags, now hanging in the tower’s supply room and watch room. The signal flags also come from the nautical collection of Mr. Meehan.

009 The International Code of Signals, drafted by the British Board of Trade in 1855 to enable ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications in the days before radio, was eventually adopted by most seafaring nations, including the United States. There is a flag for each letter. When flown alone, each flag conveyed a message, e.g. danger ahead, stop your vessel, communicate with me, etc. The Light-House Board adopted the International Code of Signals in 1898 to improve communications with all vessels and assist U.S. Navy ships in the Spanish-America War.

Also displayed at Sea Girt Lighthouse on the south wall by the second-floor entrance to the tower is an 1898 Light-House Board map, one of the 008 earliest maps showing Sea Girt Light. A red flag beside the notation Sea Girt Light identifies the lighthouse as also being a Coast Signal Station, gathering weather data. That year the Light-House Board installed phones to enable stations to call each other and report weather conditions to the U.S. Weather Bureau, which issued forecasts based on incoming reports.

In the days of sail, long before satellite navigation by GPS (global positioning system), maps that identified shore landmarks, harbors, inlets with latitude and longitude and distances between lighthouses were essential to dead reckoning, plotting an accurate course and avoiding hazards, such as sandbars, rocks and wrecks. An essential reference series, identifying lighthouses, buoys and other daymarks along with hazards, is U.S. Coast Pilot, published annually by the U.S. Coast Guard in regional volumes. A set of U.S. Coast Pilot is on display at Sea Girt Lighthouse.

The most recently added exhibit is a collection of early New Jersey maps and atlases that pre-date Sea Girt Lighthouse yet are an integral part of the lighthouse story. These early maps and atlases, displayed in the upstairs meeting room on the south wall, illustrate features of the northern New Jersey coastline that presented problems to mariners in the 19th century and finally led the U.S. Light-House Board to build Sea Girt Light, activated December 9, 1896.

The centerpiece of the map collection is an 1877 map that details New Jersey’s 135-mile coast along the Atlantic and up the Delaware. From Navesink Twin Lights to Barnegat Lighthouse is 44½ (land) miles. In fog and storms, mariners often encountered a dark space at the midpoint. Beside the map is an 1879 print of Squan Village, the next town south. In 1888, the Light-House Board was considering the village as the location for a lighthouse to illuminate the dark space. The map and print were donated to the lighthouse collection by trustee Jack Ohweiler.

The Light-House Board’s first choice for a mid-point light was near the navigable Manasquan Inlet, which is seen in an 1879 map photocopy donated by Jeff Heim. But the selected parcel, upon inspection, proved problematic. The Light-House Board then bought another parcel, a mile north, in Sea Girt near the shallow Sea Girt Inlet and Wreck Pond, illustrated in an 1877 map. Sea Girt Inlet was occasionally mistaken for Squan Inlet by sailors seeking a spot to drop anchor and ride out a storm. Sea Girt Lighthouse was built near Sea Girt Inlet to illuminate the dark space midway between Navesink Twin Lights and Barnegat Light and to serve as an identifier of Sea Girt Inlet and a warning to mariners to avoid it and the risk of beaching.

In a display box nearby is Historical & Biographical Atlas of New Jersey Coast (New York: Woolman & Rose, 1878) containing a few hundred plates and maps, some are hand-colored. The volume is opened to the Sea Girt pages. The atlas, which is in excellent condition, was also donated to the lighthouse collection by trustee Ohlweiler. The display box was donated by trustee Bob Varcoe.

At the center of the map room is a ship’s wheel, five feet in diameter, mounted on a pedestal to create a nautical table, which was donated by Don and Cindy Burke. Atop the table is the blowup of an 1890s New Jersey map on which have been placed scale models of New Jersey’s lighthouses, each one at its appropriate location. The exhibit has proven very popular, especially with children.

Keeper’s Dress Blues

In what was the bedroom of the keeper and later the Coast Guard commanding officer is the jewel of the lighthouse collection, a 4th order Fresnel lens that had long been in service at Crowdy Head Lighthouse, New South Wales, Australia and is believed to be the original lens there from 1878. Sea Girt’s 4th order Fresnel lens was removed by the Coast Guard during World War II, so as not to give direction to enemy ships. SGLCC trustees, unable to locate the original lens and wanting to add a lens to the collection, found the Australian lens being offered on eBay in 2001.

012When not tending the Fresnel lens, keepers were often immersed in writing reports, completing requisitions for supplies, updating the daily logbook with details of station and ship activity and weather conditions, and responding to queries from the district superintendent. This routine but essential work is captured in a new display. By the Keepers Gallery of photo portraits of Sea Girt’s keepers, trustees Meehan, Catherine Schwier and Peter Halas have recreated a keeper’s office with period items they donated, including a fold-down secretary desk, a 1920s L.C. Smith typewriter and a silver pen tray, circa 1900, with two ink bottles and a dipping pen. Neatly arranged on the table are stacks of actual USLHS-Sea Girt Lighthouse correspondence and various official forms including a leave-of-absence application and a completed station inventory and accounts booklet. Inserted into the typewriter is a USLHS form, just waiting for the keeper to complete.

Beside the desk is a clothes tree on which hangs a replica of a keeper’s 1900 Lighthouse Service dress blue uniform, expertly tailored by Jim Newberry, who makes his own uniforms for Revolutionary War re-enactments and made the military uniforms for the 1992 Hollywood film Last of the Mohicans. Seen wearing the uniform as he stands by the Fresnel lens is Jude Meehan.


Volunteers of all ages are welcome. For students, volunteering as a docent qualifies as community service, which many schools now require students to do. It also is an opportunity for young people to develop confidence and poise as well as public speaking ability. Scripts are provided to all docent recruits who are teamed with an experienced docent in the beginning.

Anyone interested in volunteering to be a docent or to donate artifacts or to help in other ways is asked to send an email to, or call the lighthouse at 732-974-0514 and leave a message on the answering machine. All emails and messages are promptly answered by a trustee.

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