Sea Girt Lighthouse, activated in 1896 and today a popular museum and community center busy with events and club meetings, is captured in a photographic history just published by Arcadia Publishing in its Images of America series.
The book contains a 1,500-word essay by Bill Dunn, a lighthouse docent and the historian who spent almost a year doing research and gathering the 230 featured images from dozens of sources across the country and as far away as Alaska. There are historic photos of the lighthouse down through the years and the keepers and Coast Guardsmen assigned there as well as contemporary pictures of the events that keep the landmark alive with activity.
Bill explained the origin of the book: “Arcadia contacted us about doing a book on Sea Girt Lighthouse. I told them that History Press beat them to it, publishing my lighthouse book in 2014. ‘We know. We bought the company,’ the editor informed me. I then wondered if two books on the same lighthouse wouldn’t compete with one another. She responded, ‘The books would complement one another.’ And they do.”
The just-published pictorial book is a companion volume to Sea Girt Lighthouse: The Community Beacon. The latter is a 50,000-word historical narrative by Bill, illustrated with 110 photos. Fewer than 10 photos appear in both books. The books are for sale at the lighthouse, and through retail outlets, at $21.99 each. All author royalties go to the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, Inc., the non-profit, volunteer organization that operates and maintains the lighthouse and preserves its history through tours, special events and now books.
Quest for More Photos and Facts
In researching the second book, Bill widened his search. “I started in the lighthouse archives, then did online searches of the National Archives, the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office as well as regional and local archives and far beyond to new sources.
“Uncovered and appearing in the pictorial history are photos of two people who were put in charge of Sea Girt Lighthouse eight years apart under unusual circumstances. In 1936, 20-year-old Alice Thomas, daughter of keeper George Thomas, took command of the lighthouse for 24 hours, while her father was away on family business. The keeper had nominated his daughter as his replacement, which was approved by the district superintendent of the U.S. Lighthouse Service “with the understanding the substitute is to be furnished at your own expense.”
Alice attended the local Ann May School of Nursing from which she graduated in 1941. In October of that year she enlisted in the U.S. Army Nurses Corps. During World War II, she nursed wounded Allied troops in Australia and later in the Philippines. Mr. Dunn got in touch with Darlene Robertelli, archivist of the Medical and Nursing Archives Collection of Jersey Shore University Medical Center, which includes the archives of the Ann May School of Nursing. Ms. Robertelli enthusiastically undertook an extensive search of the archives, uncovering three photos of Alice, including the one that appears in the book, her senior yearbook photo showing a pretty and confident Alice in her nurse’s starched white uniform and cap.
The other photo discovery of a lighthouse commander came from Jean Weaver, who lives in Alaska and is the grand-daughter of Irvie S. Camburn, the Coast Guardsman who was the commanding officer at Sea Girt Lighthouse during World War II. Camburn was from an old sea-faring family from Waretown, N.J., with roots that go back to Colonial times. Bill contacted the Waretown Historical Society which put him in touch with two direct descendants, including Mrs. Weaver, who lives in a village of fewer than 500 people some 180 miles north of Anchorage. She promptly responded to Bill’s email query, sending a photo of her grandfather and providing details about his life, which all went in the book.
After a 33-year career in the Coast Guard, including a hitch at Montauk Lighthouse, BSM1 Camburn retired. During World War II, he was called back to active duty and was assigned as the commanding officer at Sea Girt. Last August, while Bill was in the final stages of gathering photos and writing captions and the 1,500-word essay, Mrs. Weaver was back in New Jersey to visit family and came to Sea Girt Lighthouse and was given a private tour.
History Captured in Postcards
“What I did differently this time was I focused more attention on private collectors of local maps, photos and postcards,” he explained. “Antique postcards provided many of the most interesting and important images to be found in the new book.”
William “Biff” Joule, Sea Girt’s retired police chief, has an extensive collection of Sea Girt photos, maps and postcards, which date back to the earliest days of the village that took its name from the 800-acre estate of Commodore Richard Stockton he named Seagirt, meaning land surrounded by sea.
Appearing in the book and coming from Mr. Joule’s collection are images of the first map of Sea Girt printed in 1890, Sea Girt Inlet, which no longer exists but featured prominently in early lighthouse history, the lighthouse at different stages, the lighthouse neighborhood including the house next door that first keeper built, the beach by the lighthouse covered with beach grass and sand dunes long before there was a boardwalk or pavilion.
These and other images show how the lighthouse, the immediate area and the town of Sea Girt changed over time. The earliest photo of the lighthouse, from 1900, shows a windmill nearby, which pumped water from a well into the house. Beacon Boulevard, then called Bellevue Place, was a sandy lane. A horse-drawn carriage is parked nearby. Photos from the mid-1920s show cars parked eastward along a paved and one-way Beacon Boulevard. The windmill is long gone. But towering over the lighthouse are the freestanding metal towers and a broadcast antenna of the world’s first land-based radio fog beacon transmitter, also known as a radio compass.
The transmitter was installed at Sea Girt in 1920. Transmitters were also installed at Ambrose Lightship and Fire Island Lightship. Each station broadcast a unique signal that identified the sending station. This enabled mariners to navigate in dense fog when they could not see the beacons but could accurately fix their position by triangulating the radio signals.
Also in the book are photos of other Sea Girt landmarks, including Commodore Richard Stockton’s 35-room Beach House, the Stockton Hotel that was a greatly expanded version of the Beach House, the Governor’s Summer Cottage at the National Guard camp nicknamed the Little White House. The Stockton was destroyed by fire in 1965. The Little White House, in need of major repairs, was instead demolished in 1971.
The lighthouse, decommissioned after World War II and acquired by the Borough in 1956, became the town library and recreation center. But after more than two decades of heavy use, the lighthouse was in need of major repairs. Growing concern over the future of the lighthouse in the wake of the loss of the other town landmarks prompted concerned citizens in 1981 to form the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee to “save our lighthouse.” After signing a lease with the Borough, the volunteer committee of preservationists assumed responsibility for the restoration, maintenance and operation of the lighthouse and the preservation of its history through tours and special events. All are captured in photos in the book.
Meet Keepers, Coasties, Volunteers and Visitors
Some 600 images were gathered and submitted to the publisher, a mix of very old, rare photographs, pictures from the last few decades and more recent photos that capture the preservationists, docents and members of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee and the many visitors attracted to the lighthouse by the activities held there. Bill, who had been a reporter for The Detroit News and later USA Today and has taken photos that have appeared in newspapers, magazines and books, took many of the contemporary photos. From the 600 photos submitted the editor and Bill selected the final 230 that best tell the lighthouse story.
“It amazed and pleased me to discover how many photos there are out there of Sea Girt Lighthouse, smaller than its neighboring stations, but with a rich and colorful history of distinction and accomplishment,” said Bill. “No matter the mission, Sea Girt Lighthouse not only survived but thrived, due to the dedicated and hard-working keepers, Coast Guardsmen, the Borough and a few generations of committed volunteers. You’ll meet them in the book.”
Sea Girt Lighthouse is open for tours Sundays through mid-November, from 2-4 p.m., except holiday weekends. In addition being available at the lighthouse, copies of each book may be purchased by mail. To order by mail, please specify the title desired, and send a check for $26.99 per copy for purchase, postage and handling, to Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, P.O. Box 83, Sea Girt, NJ 08750. The books can also be purchased from the publisher’s website (https://www.arcadiapublishing.com/Home) or at online bookshops such as Amazon.com.