Lots To See At Sea Girt Lighthouse On Guided Sunday Tours

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Visitors to Sea Girt Lighthouse are guided by knowledgeable and friendly docents from the keeper’s office, throughout the living quarters and up into the tower’s lantern room. A docent in each room welcomes visitors, explains the original purpose of the room and points out the historic artifacts on display and their relevance to the operation of the lighthouse.131

Tours are conducted most Sundays, from 2-4 p.m., except holiday weekends now through November 19, 2017. [See tour schedule on homepage]. Tours are free of charge but donations are appreciated.

Sea Girt Lighthouse was built in 1896 and activated December 10 of that year, as a midpoint light to illuminate a dark space that mariners previously encountered in this area, especially in fog and in storms when they could not see the beacons of Twin Lighthouse to the north and Barnegat Lighthouse to the south. Sea Girt Lighthouse was equipped with a 4th order Fresnel lens, which could be seen at a distance of 15 miles.

The jewel of the lighthouse exhibits is an authentic Fresnel lens. While not the original Sea Girt lens that was removed during World War II, the displayed lens is also a 4th order lens and has a very interesting history. Lighthouse trustees in 2001 spotted the lens being offered for sale on eBay, the online auction site, and decided to submit a bid. They submitted the winning bid, with the generous help of a grant from the New Jersey Lighthouse Society.

The lens, which is believed to date from the 1870s, had long been in service at the Crowdy Head Lighthouse, New South Wales, Australia, before being decommissioned and acquired by the seller. The lens travelled 10,000 miles by sea and remarkably arrived in one piece. It is the most photographed artifact in the Sea Girt Lighthouse collection and the one that visitors like to be photographed standing beside it.


Sea Girt Lighthouse was operated by the U.S. Lighthouse Service from its activation through June 30, 1939. In addition to the Keepers Gallery, which features photos of Sea Girt’s keepers and their families, three items recently added to the display are exact replicas of a keeper’s double-breasted dress blue uniform, circa 1900, which would have been worn during inspections and other official business, a fatigue uniform for daily wear, a double-breasted woolen overcoat, and a regulation blue cap, which was worn at all times.

012The uniforms were made by Jim Newberry, a history buff from Burlington County who participates in re-enactments of Revolutionary War and Civil War battles. He makes his own uniforms so expertly that he has made replica uniforms for other re-enactors and was hired by Hollywood to make the French and British uniforms for the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans, starring Daniel Day Lewis.

Jude Meehan, president of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, who wears a size 40 suit, served as the model for the dress uniform, fatigues, overcoat, as well as the cap, size 7¼. He has worn the dress uniform and cap for special occasions at the lighthouse, including the annual summer lawn party and the annual Lighthouse Challenge of New Jersey, the third weekend of October. On Sundays, the uniforms usually hang on a coat rack between the Fresnel lens and a period desk on which are displayed official correspondence from headquarters received by Sea Girt keepers as well as carbon copies and some drafts of their outgoing letters and reports.

Mr. Meehan, who is a collector of navigational and military artifacts, has generously donated items to the lighthouse collection that have gone on display, including a Lighthouse Service first-aid kit. Another addition, on extended loan from his collection, is a set of signal flags, like the ones issued to Sea Girt and all other U.S. lighthouses in 1898 for communicating with the crews of passenger and cargo ships, as well as sailors aboard U.S. Navy ships going to and from Cuba that year of the Spanish-American War.

The signal flags went on display in 2016, and can be seen in the upper watch rooms of the tower, along with a framed 1898 nautical map that identifies Sea Girt Lighthouse as a Coast Signal Station and a framed International Code of Signals handbook, issued by the U.S. Navy. The map was acquired by the lighthouse board from a dealer in nautical antiques, while the handbook was apparently issued to Sea Girt Lighthouse and was discovered in the lighthouse archives.


Exhibits are constantly being tweaked with the addition of new items, donated or purchased. On the first floor in the east side cabinets are two complementary displays of items acquired over the years. In one cabinet are items the keepers used in their daily duties, including: the 1903 daily logbook of Keeper Abram Yates, donated by Sea Girt historian and former lighthouse trustee Richard Venino, an oil lamp used by Keeper Bill Lake (1917-31), donated by his great-grandson and lighthouse trustee Bill Mountford and his family, and a 1927 edition of Instructions to Employees of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. The manual, which details keeper duties in operating the lighthouse and what to do in emergencies, was left behind by one of the keepers and discovered by trustees in the attic. 021

In the other cabinet are the tools that mariners used to find and identify Sea Girt Light and other aids to navigation, including: a telescope, circa 1917, and a U.S. Navy quartermaster’s long lens, circa 1920, both donated by career mariner George Kimmel, who had captained freighters and tugboats and served as a harbor master. Also a U.S. Life-Saving Service brass lantern, circa 1890, a Coast Guard binnacle compass, circa 1925, and U.S. Coast Pilot, the navigational reference books found on the bridge of most every ship listing all lighthouses and lightships, the latitude and longitude of each, its beacon’s beacon flash sequence and distance to neighboring lights, all donated by Robert Bossett.


Several children lived at Sea Girt Lighthouse. They and their mothers played important roles in the operation of the lighthouse, which is documented in the exhibits. Families knew how to run the lighthouse by observing the keeper and pitching in as needed in ways big and small. Two women actually ran Sea Girt Lighthouse under very different circumstances.

003Harriet Yates was married to Abram Yates, the second keeper. They had four children, the first children to live at the station. On May 29, 1910, Keeper Yates died of a heart attack. Mrs. Yates took charge, becoming acting keeper for two months. In those cases where a keeper was injured, fell ill or died, the Lighthouse Service required families to step in and keep the light burning bright, because lives depended on it.

Alice Thomas, daughter of Keeper George Thomas took command of the lighthouse for one spring day in 1936. Her father had to go to Brooklyn on family business. Before a keeper could leave his post, he or she had to nominate a replacement, who was usually a retired keeper or Navy or Coast Guard veteran. But Thomas nominated his 20-year-old daughter Alice, who was approved by the Lighthouse Service, on one condition, that the father – not the Lighthouse Service – pay her the daily wage of $5.

Alice and her older sister Lucy were the first keeper children at Sea Girt to continue their education beyond high school. Alice enrolled at the Ann May School of Nursing, which is now a part of Jersey Shore University Medical Center. She graduated in June of 1941 and that fall enlisted in the U.S. Army Nurses Corps. During World War II, she nursed wounded Allied troops in Australia and toward the end of the war was attached to General Douglas MacArthur’s troops in the Philippines. She would rise to the rank of captain and was awarded the Bronze Star. A photo of Alice, in her nurse’s uniform was added to exhibit in 2015 after its discovery in the archives of Jersey Shore University Medical Center.


In 1920 Sea Girt Lighthouse became the first land-based station in the world equipped with a radio-fog beacon transmitter, which broadcast its signal from an antenna held aloft by two truss towers taller than the lighthouse itself, as seen in two displayed photos. Two other transmitters were installed on Ambrose Lightship and Fire Island Lightship. Each of the three stations transmitted a unique signal that identified the sending station.

The Lighthouse Service was experimenting to see if mariners, who could not see the beacons of lighthouses and lightships in thick fog, could be able to navigate safely by radio signals. The experiment over several months involved Lighthouse Service tenders, including Tulip that delivered supplies to Sea Girt. The tenders were able to navigate safely in and out of New York harbor by triangulation – picking up the identifying signals of the three transmitting stations, which enabled the navigators to fix the positions of their ships. Having been proven effective in 1920, the system was activated May 1, 1921 and extended to other stations.

The keeper at Sea Girt then was William “Pappy” Lake, whose wife Edith was the first woman elected to the town council, a co-founder of the Sea Girt Women’s Club and the first woman realtor in town. Their son, Elvin, was known to all as “Toots”. His parents welcomed his friends to the lighthouse, one of whom later recalled the lighthouse became “more or less a headquarters for all the kids of the area.” When the keeper and Mrs. Lake weren’t looking, the story goes that Toots and his playmates used to have races, climbing the truss towers.

The radio fog beacon system was big news in its day, a breakthrough in navigation that was reported in the major newspapers and scientific journals and in the books by George Rockwell Putnam, U.S. Lighthouse Commissioner, all mentioning Sea Girt’s contribution. The transmitter operated at Sea Girt into 1928 and was then shut down, replaced by a more powerful transmitter at another station. The truss towers were eventually disassembled.


The cruise ship Morro Castle was on its 174th return voyage from Havana to New York only hours from its scheduled arrival in Manhattan Saturday, September 8, 1934, but never reached her destination. The ship was ravaged by fire of suspicious origin, which was discovered in the reading room in the early morning hours Saturday and was out of control within 45 minutes.

The Morro Castle fire and rescue is a part of the lighthouse story, because the beacon of Sea Girt Lighthouse enabled the crew to fix their position before they dropped anchor three miles offshore. Keeper George Thomas kept the beacon flashing, well past sunrise when it was normally extinguished, to guide rescue ships, including Coast Guard ships, and the freighter R. F. Luckenbach and the Furness liner Monarch of Bermuda.

The beacon was also kept lighted to help passengers and crew, who went overboard, to orient themselves and direct them to shore. One survivor, who was exhausted and on the verge of giving up, credits the beacon with saving her life. It pointed her to shore and gave her hope as the light got bigger as the wind and waves pushed her to the beach.mc_rescuers_sg_lifeguards6

The Morro Castle is well documented at the lighthouse with displays upstairs and down that include: two lifejackets, a lifeboat oar, historic photos, newspaper front pages, private and official correspondence, donated to the lighthouse collection by rescuers, a crew member, descendants of another crew member and witnesses. Among the rescuers were six Sea Girt lifeguards who saved a dozen or more people. Among the lifeguards was Toots Lake, who grew up at the lighthouse. Many more people were saved the crews of responding ships and by fishermen who went out in their boats and pulled people from the water.

The cause of the fire has never been determined, and will never be, because all the evidence was incinerated. While arson is suspected, there are other plausible theories, including an electrical short, a carelessly discarded cigarette or cigar, lightning, improperly stored cargo. While a mystery and a tragedy that claimed 137 lives, the Morro Castle remains to this day a gripping and inspiring story of heroism – the heroism of people who risked their own lives to save others. In all, more than 400 people survived.


In addition to the Morro Castle exhibit, there is much else to see at Sea Girt Lighthouse that would be of particular interest to merchant mariners as well as active duty and retired military, which is why so many visit the lighthouse and several have donated historic photos and other artifacts.

Among items of particular interest to merchant mariners, Navy and Coast Guard veterans would be the navigational charts and maps, volumes of U.S. Coast Pilot, early navigational tools and dramatic historic photos documenting 19th shipwrecks, rescue efforts by volunteers of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, founded in New Jersey because of all the shipwrecks here in the days of sail, and predecessor of the U.S. Coast Guard.

During World War II, Sea Girt Light was under Coast Guard command. The light was extinguished, so as not to give direction to enemy ships, which were definitely in local waters. The Fresnel lens was removed to enable men to stand watch in the tower. They also patrolled Sea Girt’s mile of beachfront from Wreck Pond to the edge of the Army National Guard Camp, whose beachfront was patrolled by Army troops with guard dogs.

048In the lighthouse tower and other towers, and on foot patrol, armed troops were looking for enemy ships and planes and landed saboteurs (there is a documented case of German saboteurs landing on Long Island). The Coast Guardsmen and soldiers were also looking for Allied ships, planes and servicemen needing assistance. Late evening February 16, 1942 the men standing watch in Sea Girt Lighthouse tower reported an explosion several miles offshore. The Standard Oil tanker R.P. Risor afire had been struck by torpedoes fired by the German U-boat 578. Only two Resor crewmen survived, 47 perished.

By August 1943, there were 28 Coast Guardsmen at Sea Girt Lighthouse, with four Army troops camped on the lawn. A block south, the Hotel Tremont had been requisitioned by the Coast Guard. Recruits were billeted there and trained on the beach and at the Army Camp, before being assigned elsewhere. During the war, the Coast Guardsmen at the lighthouse were rotated, and almost all were reassigned to sea duty. The commanding officer, BSM1 Irvie Camburn, from an old seafaring family in Waretown, was brought out of retirement to take command of Sea Girt. During his first tour in the Coast Guard, he served aboard Coast Guard ships and at lighthouses.

Sea Girt Lighthouse during the war years is thoroughly documented in photos, official alerts of the Coast Guard Intelligence Office and in artifacts, which combine to make a most powerful display. Among the most striking are: the cryptic alerts from the Intelligence Office detailing the worsening situation in Europe, and the alert December 8, 1941 to all Coast Guard units, including Sea Girt, advising “a state of war now existing,” a color photo of the lighthouse painted brown by the Coast Guard to camouflage it, the photo of the doomed R.P. Resor afire after being torpedoed, a new electric light installed atop the tower and activated in September 1944, as the Allies were then in control of the North Atlantic, as well as America’s East Coast.

After the war, the automatic light continued to operate. The building no longer needed to be regularly staffed, except for occasional inspections and maintenance work. In spring of 1954, the last Coast Guardsmen arrived to oversee construction of a metal tower, taller than the lighthouse, on the northeast corner of the property. When it was completed, it became the new platform for the automatic beacon that was moved there from the top of lighthouse lantern room. That beacon operated into 1977, when it was extinguished and the tower removed, replaced by a brighter light at Manasquan Inlet.


In 1956 the federal government sold the lighthouse to the Borough of Sea Girt, which reopened it as the town library and recreation center. Some two decades later, the heavily-used building was in need of major repairs. The town council considered all options, including selling the property. In 1981, concerned citizens formed the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, a non-profit preservation and educational organization to “save our lighthouse.”

It has. SGLCC leases the building from the town for $1 a year, and is responsible for all expenses related to maintenance and operations as a museum and community center. In addition to tours and special events, community groups meet there regularly. The lighthouse is in use some 180 days a year.

While Sunday tours, are conducted through mid-November, group tours are conducted year-round by prior arrangement. To arrange a group tour, please submit your request through the website's Contact Us page, or call us 732-974-0514, or write Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, P.O. Box 83, Sea Girt, NJ 08750.

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