200 Plus

Imminent Threat to Old Barney

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jun 05, 2019

The battle for Barnegat Light would be one fought with words, not bullets, but it was a David versus Goliath story of a few local citizens versus the bureaucracy of the federal government. Like all good Jersey Shore stories, it starts with a shipwreck.

On Dec. 12, 1916, the 351-foot-long Army transport Sumner ran aground just off the Barnegat Lighthouse. Throughout the winter of 1917 the Army salvaged what it could, but with war clouds on the horizon, the hulk was left in place to be pounded to pieces by the Atlantic. Almost at once local residents began to complain that the wreck had caused the channel to shift and created beach erosion near the lighthouse.

The complaints fell on deaf ears until after World War I was over and the DuPont Corp. was given the contract for the removal of the Sumner.

The company’s magazine reported, “Dynamite was brought in from Barnegat City in December, 1918, but weather conditions were unfavorable for the work at that time, so the explosive was buried in a huge sand dune until the weather cleared, where upon it was exhumed, placed in position and detonated with perfect results. A charge of 13,450 pounds of 60 percent gelatin dynamite was used to break up this vessel, which was of heavy construction. On account of its position directly in Barnegat Inlet, in comparatively shallow water, the vessel had to be destroyed completely.”

Dr. Howard Frick of Philadelphia would later investigate the aftermath. He stated, “Residents of the borough hold the government responsible for the present condition. During the war the transport Sumner was wrecked off Barnegat City and large quantities of dynamite were used to blow her up. The action has had a considerable effect in changing the current in the inlet … with ensuing damage to the foundations of the lighthouse and those of many houses in the borough.”

The Sumner was finally gone, but the erosion continued. The April 9, 2019,  Asbury Park Press told, “Storms have cut into the sand at Barnegat Inlet so severely that the foundations of the famous Barnegat lighthouse on the south side of the inlet, are threatened. In two years, the tides have cut away 250 yards of the sand and the big lighthouse now stands only 75 feet away. The ocean is now up to the retaining wall. … The last storm cut in 50 feet. The Barnegat light stands 157 feet above sea level. It is one of the oldest marks of navigation on the Atlantic coast and is a famous beacon in history and fiction.”

Still Washington was silent. The New Jersey Courier did continue to follow the story, and on April 18 it ran, “Word from Barnegat City yesterday stated that the last storm had reached within fifty feet of the built-up ground at the base of the lighthouse, on which the lighthouse and the keeper’s quarters are built. It is figured that another storm would cut the sand away clear to this base.

“The great damage is done on the ebb of the tide. The high easterly winds, sending a great flood tide into the bay, followed by high west winds, making the ebb unusually strong and long has cut the sand away. … Beach dwellers say that only quick action can save the lighthouse. A jetty of brush and sandbags, out into this new channel, while a more permanent stone jetty was being built might do it.”

This time the story was picked up by the Associated Press, and on April 23 papers across the country carried the story.

“The famous lighthouse at Barnegat Inlet is in danger of being undermined by the Atlantic Ocean, engineers report. During the recent heavy storms, the sea encroached to within seventy-five feet of the lighthouse. … The terrific current at the inlet, backed by a powerful sea has cut into the beach for a considerable distance, and unless breakwaters or jetties are constructed, the lighthouse surely will go down in a heavy storm, engineers say.”

On April 25, the Courier announced it had taken action.

“The Courier was notified that the light was endangered, and that the storm tides had cut in to about 120 feet of the concrete bulkhead surrounding the lighthouse property. At once the information was forwarded to Washington. Quite naturally U.S. Senator Frelinghuysen was told of the situation, and so was Congressman Scully. Congressman J. Hampton Moore, as one of the men in the country most interested in waterways, and as a former summer resident of Barnegat City, who would have firsthand information for the bureau, was also told of the conditions.”

New Jersey Sen. Joseph Frelinghuysen would take up the fight. He wrote the lighthouse board, saying, “It is the judgment of those upon the ground, men who have lived in that section all their lives, and who are altogether familiar with the action of the tides, and the menace to property resulting therefrom, that the danger to Government property at that point is greater than the representatives of your Bureau seem to realize, and that quick action should be taken to protect the same.”

The senator wanted immediate action.

“In this connection I beg to invite your attention to the havoc wrought only a year ago, at the lower end of the same beach, near the Tucker’s Beach Lighthouse. … The theory of locking the stable door after the departure of the purloined equine does not appeal to me. That kind of conduct cost this country billions of dollars in the late war. I beg to commend to you the doctrine of preparations, and to urge that prompt action be taken to protect the Government’s property at Barnegat Inlet before it is too late.”

The matter of the fate of the lighthouse was in the hands of inspector H. B. Bowerman of the lighthouse board.  He wrote to the Courier.

“I beg to state that conditions at Barnegat have been under careful observation, and that because of recent changes arrangement had already been made for additional inspection of conditions at Barnegat by engineers of this Service within the next few days. Consideration is also being given to the establishment of a light vessel off Barnegat, which it is believed will be of very great benefit to maritime interests, if a suitable vessel can be made available.”

The Courier’s editor realized the paper was dealing with a bureaucrat.

“Inspector Bowerman made a personal inspection at the lighthouse on Wednesday and then came to Toms River to talk the matter over with the Courier. He stated that he found the situation at Barnegat inlet very threatening, though he did not agree with other reports from that place as to the nearness of high water to the lighthouse property. … The Inspector also said that it was probable a lightship might replace the tower, if the tower were to wash away. He said the department had little money to work with, and that the cost of protecting the lighthouse would be the determining factor. … Mr. Bowerman of course could make no statement of what it is proposed to do, other than that he would make his report in Washington. He was careful not to say that it was the purpose of the bureau to let the seas take the tower, and replace it with a lightship, yet that is the only construction that can be placed upon the commissioner’s letter, taken with the inspector’s conversation, and the failure of the bureau to take action before this.”

The paper then issued a call to arms.

“From this it is evident that the friends of Barnegat lighthouse, if they wish to save it, must get busy at once. Pressure must be put not only on the bureau, but everywhere else where it will react on the bureau. If it isn’t done, the only thing to save Barnegat light is some freak or whim of tide and wind.”

When Frelinghuysen was told of this meeting, he replied, “Every day enough money (is) wasted in Washington to provide protection for fifty lighthouses.”

The sides were now chosen. But as they say, time and tide wait for no bureaucrat.

Next Week: “Now or Never.”

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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