200 Plus

Is It Too Late to Save Barney?

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jun 19, 2019

Barnegat Light — During the winter of 1919, it became apparent the famous Barnegat Lighthouse was in danger of being washed into the Atlantic. At first, federal officials showed little interest in saving it; instead, they favored replacement with a lightship. However, the Washington bureaucrats didn’t expect the groundswell of support from newspapers, politicians and people across the country to save the landmark.

As the beach continued to erode, the government officials talked and held meetings. Finally, Washington gave in, and on June 6, 1919, the New Jersey Courier announced victory, saying, “The Lighthouse Bureau, Department of Commerce, has taken action to try to save Barnegat light. Friday of last week there reached Barnegat City a force of men and a carload of cement, as the first move in the attempt to save the tower. As told in the Courier last week, the currents had cut in so that they had in part undermined the cement bulkhead or retaining wall which some time ago was built around the lighthouse property, and which is not very far from the base of the lighthouse itself.

“The Lighthouse Bureau has notified the Courier that the work now being done at the lighthouse is a ‘temporary expedient,’ with a view to following it up with jetty construction.”

Three days later the Tuckerton Beacon reported how critical the decision was.

“Twenty-five feet of the concrete bulkhead around the Barnegat lighthouse property has been washed way, and unless the Government acts quickly the encroaching tides will soon undermine the foundations of the lighthouse structure. … Government engineers were rushed here today, but decline to say what they will recommend, although they broadly hinted that the cost of building bulkheads such as would stand the ravages of the ocean would be much greater than the cost of a new structure.”

The Asbury Park Press of June 17 explained it might be too late.

“A large force of men have arrived, and cement bulkheads are to be constructed. The first carloads of cement have reached here, and from now on the government will engage in a contest with the ocean to stem the inroads it is making by washing away millions of tons of sand from this section of the beach.”

A report in the Beacon on the 19th was even more ominous.

“The engineers sent by the light-house bureau are not positive that they will be able to save it, as the currents are cutting deep into the shore and reaching such depths that it may be finally necessary to abandon the historic structure. The lighthouse bureau has announced that the present work is purely experimental.”

As June ended the Philadelphia Inquirer sent a reporter to LBI.

“Work will start as soon as materials can be accumulated at Barnegat City.

“But no chances are being taken in saving the world famous Jersey shore coast light. Delays in securing the required stone might afford ole ocean the chance it needs to complete the work of destruction which has already been allowed to go too far. One good north-easter, it is said, would do this, as the sea has cut its way under the south-east angle of the solid concrete retaining walls and washed away some hundred of tons of sand from within. To obviate the possibility of a final disaster completing the wreck, ... 1500 bags filled with sand are being used in the construction of a temporary jetty. This temporary breakwater is to extend fifty feet into the sea.”

To many, the old lighthouse was more than just bricks and mortar.

“The rescue corps organized to prevent the destruction of the Barnegat Light, drew its personnel from along the entire Atlantic coast. From the coast of Maine to the Florida Keys the saving of Barnegat Light became little less than a religious mission in which hundreds of lovers of the Jersey coast participated.”

When the government considered abandoning the light, “The protestants were not drawn from any particular class. Mariners and Ministers; bankers and judges; yachtsmen and land-lubbers; hunters and fishermen; politicians and social leaders; rich and poor, joined in the great ‘Barnegat Crusade.’ In every conceivable way they made their protests felt. Congressmen and United States Senators were enlisted in the rescue movement. It has been one of the most popular and widest movements on the coast in years in behalf of a project that possibly had little (more) to support it than sentiment. … And according to the Light-house Bureau it has been sentiment as much as anything else that has resulted in forcing the government to save the venerable old shaft.”

While the government waited for supplies, the ocean continued its assault. The July 18 Courier carried “The cottage owned by Rev. Nathan B. Melhorn, a Lutheran minister in Philadelphia, had been in danger from the ocean a long time. The ocean has at last won its fight to gain possession of this cottage. Tuesday July 8 about 6 p.m., the cottage was so undermined that it fell and part went into the sea. Mr. Melhorn and family have the sympathy of all the resort in their loss. Mr. Walamuth’s cottage, which stands next to where the Melhorn house was, it is hoped can be saved. … Lighthouse Inspector Luther says that they are getting along fine in their efforts to save the lighthouse, and it is very pleasing to hear such good news.”

William Fisher, the editor of the Courier, went to see for himself.

“If one wants to see the effects of the ‘Tides of Barnegat’ just go over to the inlet and view the remains of the cottage we mentioned last week as being about to fall. All that is left is a piece of floor and some of the roof, the rest is strewn along the shore. The next one to it is a stone house only about 25 feet from the edge of the bank which looks like a wall about 8 feet high and ready to cave with every high tide.”

Fisher talked to the lighthouse keeper.

“To show the situation, Capt. Cranmer is removing his things in order to make a hasty exit from the home he has occupied for 26 years. Although they realize the grave danger, Capt. Cranmer and his wife are like the officers of a sinking ship, determined to stick by until the last hope is exhausted and their home settles under them. Then and not till then will they give up the ship.”

The editor took one last glance.

“When we stand and look at the old tower which has stood as a sentinel for these dangerous shoals for 60 years, never failing with its guiding rays to the lonely mariner who has watched anxiously for a glimpse of the light of his never failing friend, a feeling of sadness goes over us. We contemplate on how may lives it has saved, how many who lived within sight of it have passed to the great beyond, how many of its keepers passed weary hours in the silent watches of the night, when the storms ever beat. How many shipwrecks have occurred within its rays that have brought death and destruction to those who would not heed its warning or were driven there by gales they could not resist.

“And now this grand old tower that has stood through wintry storms, summers filled with pleasures for the sojourners, and witnessed the many changes, is threatened with an ignominious death while our government officials figure out on paper how the tide ebbs and flows at Barnegat inlet.”

At the lighthouse today there is a bust of Gen. George Meade, the designer of the lighthouse, but nothing for William Fisher, its savior.

Next Week: Cedar Bridge.


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