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Battle Waged to Save Barney

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jun 12, 2019

Surf City — In April 1919, Associated Press articles told the country that the famed lighthouse at Barnegat Inlet was in danger of falling into the sea. This was a time before local historical societies or powerful preservation groups. Because of this, William Fisher, the editor of the New Jersey Courier, took up the cause, recruiting U.S. Sen. Joseph Frelinghuysen and shore Congressman Thomas Scully to intervene with the U.S. Lighthouse Board to save “Old Barney.”

The senator wrote G. Putnam, head of the board, on April 26, asking, “what program you have adopted to protect the government property at that point. As I have already pointed out, great damage and loss were likely to result from delay. Something more than inspection is desirable. Action is what is imperatively necessary. The Barnegat Lighthouse is an ancient landmark and seamark as well, there having been a light at that point for over a century. There can be no legitimate excuse for permitting its destruction, an outcome probable unless prompt and adequate action be taken.”

Putnam’s reply came on the 29th, and he painted a dark future for the lighthouse.

“I regret that this Service has no emergency appropriation available which could be used for any extensive work at this station. I should also point out the fact that in the past history of lighthouses on those portions of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States which are subject to erosion, there have been a number of instances where lighthouses have either had to be moved, if their construction so permitted doing this, or had to be abandoned and new lighthouses erected on account of the cutting away of the shore, and this has happened in some instances even after considerable amounts has been expended in protective works. … The problem must always be considered as to whether it is more economical to build a new lighthouse or to protect the old one.”

Enraged by the response, Fisher ran an editorial on the front page of the May 2 Courier.

“If the friends of historic Barnegat light want to save that famous structure, they must sit up on their haunches and howl – howl loud and howl long, till their noise is heard and felt, by the Lighthouse Bureau. Otherwise the lighthouse’s fate depends entirely upon the freak of nature, the whim of wind and tide. No effort so far has been put forth; none seemingly has been planned by the Bureau to save the lighthouse.”

Fisher wasn’t going to let the lighthouse go without a fight.

“The Courier would suggest again that any and every friend of the historic Barnegat light should get busy. He should write to his two U.S. Senators, his Member of Congress, and to any and all other Congressmen and Senators he may know. He should also make it his business to write to any friends of his in other places, who may have friends either in the Senate or House, or high in government circles, and urge them to push the matter. It is very evident that pressure and strong pressure is the only thing that can change the attitude of the Lighthouse Bureau, and make it see that it is preferable to have the lighthouse, rather than let it fall into ruin, and replace it with a lightship.”

The call was answered, and on May 15 the Tuckerton Beacon reported, “Two hearings have been announced for this week to determine the fate of the Barnegat lighthouse and the advisability of placing a lightship off the New Jersey coast to take the place of the lighthouse. A hearing will be held in New York today and in Philadelphia tomorrow, May 16, in the postoffice building at 10 A.M.”

It is interesting to note that no hearings were held within 50 miles of the lighthouse – but the Beacon said locals were prepared.

“There will be a big turnout of residents from this section, who, for various reasons prefer the lighthouse to a lightship and want the government to take measures to protect the present lighthouse from the ocean, which is daily washing away the sand and getting nearer to the structure, so that it is only a matter of a short time when the foundations will be washed away. … G.R. Putnam, commissioner of lighthouses, in a letter to Senator Frelinghuysen says that it is a question of whether it will be wiser to spend the money necessary to protect the lighthouse from the sea or to put the money in a lightship.”

The same day the Camden Morning Post told that the hearings might be all for show.

“The department states that investigation discloses the lighthouse at Barnegat Inlet to be dangerously undermined by the washing away of the shore and that it is in danger of collapse. In view of this, it is declared, it may be necessary to raze the tower and forever extinguish its light as a beacon for mariners.

“Department officials anticipate much sentimental opposition, but they assert that a lightship will be more serviceable than the lighthouse now at Barnegat. They declare it is better to anticipate the collapse of the tower than to wait until it takes place.”

The May 23 Courier reported on the meeting.

“A number of Ocean County people appeared in behalf of Barnegat light and its preservation, including Ezra Parker, President of the Barnegat bank; John M. Barber and Charles Elmer Smith of Barnegat City; H.B. McLaughlin of Brant Beach.”

The locals had brought with them more than just emotion. From the University of Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s leading experts on erosion and jetties, “Professor Lewis M. Haupt, who has a summer home at Belmar, and who is looked upon in this section as the final authority on the action of water and wind upon sand, was at the Philadelphia hearing, with a number of charts showing the coast from Bay Head to Cape May, with the shoals, ranges, etc. He also had a number of photographs, showing what had been accomplished by a small but intelligent outlay of money, under conditions resembling that at Barnegat lighthouse.”

The hearings were being conducted by Assistant Secretary of Commerce Edwin Sweet. The Courier reported it was like a scene from a movie.

“At the conclusion of the hearing, Secretary Sweet asked if there were any persons present who favored the moving of North East End lightship to Barnegat, would they please rise; no one rose. Secondly, if there were any who were opposed to the placing of an additional light off Barnegat, and the preservation of the existing structure, they should rise; again no one rose. The Secretary announced that the feeling was unanimous on these points, and that further, the hearing at New York resulted in the same show of opinion. He stated that the only difficulty in the way was to secure the necessary appropriations and all present pledged they would work to that end.”

Ezra Parker from Barnegat was there.

“I am very happy to state that there is little doubt but that what the lighthouse will be taken care of by the government, as there was so much objection raised against the removal of North East End lightship. … All the arguments were for the preservation of Barnegat light. … I feel the meeting was a success in every way, and the board stated that the meeting in New York presented similar arguments for the retention of the light, and the non-removal of the lightship.”

But just when it appeared that the locals had defeated the federal bureaucrats, saving the lighthouse, a storm struck the East Coast. The Courier of June 6 published, “A phone message from Barnegat City yesterday stated that twenty-five feet of the concrete bulkhead around the lighthouse property had been undermined by the tides and one small out-building had been washed away. … Government engineers were there last week, but nothing has been done to save the lighthouse.”

One hundred years later as you stand at the base of “Old Barney” and look up, you should realize how lucky you are the lighthouse is still there.

Next Week: Will it fall?


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