The Beachcomber

Rich With Historical Significance, Barnegat Lighthouse Still a Big Deal 160 Years Later

By DAVID BIGGY | May 24, 2019
Courtesy of: Barnegat Light Historical Society For 160 years, Barnegat Lighthouse has stood the test of time at the north end of Long Beach Island.

Barnegat Light — Throughout its history, Barnegat Lighthouse definitely has had some big moments. Many of them are highlighted inside the Barnegat Lighthouse State Park visitor center, amid the grounds surrounding the lighthouse and, of course, inside the red-and-white conical tower itself.

Even more historical facts and figures can be found at the Barnegat Light Museum, operated by the Barnegat Light Historical Society. In fact, Reilly Sharp, the museum’s curator, recently finished with production of the book Barnegat Light, and within it much more of the lighthouse’s rich history will be unearthed.

“Barnegat Lighthouse absolutely has an incredible historical value,” Sharp said. “When you think about its place in history – the inlet as it was, all the inflow of European immigrants, the currents and winds offshore that ships had to navigate, its proximity to New York – the lighthouse being there really has helped chart the history of this country and has had a global impact.”

Certainly, the current tower, which has stood for 160 years, has provided hope, comfort and a welcomed sight to mariners from all over the world, and has been a symbol of strength and durability at the height of the storm. But as fascinating as its history is, the lighthouse endured a lot of tumultuous times to get to this point along the northern tip of Long Beach Island.

It all started in 1855, as the previous, 40-foot-tall light tower constructed by Winslow Lewis, originally built some 900 feet from the ocean, not only was in danger of being lost to erosion. but essentially was failing miserably as a navigational aid.

“The construction of the current tower is a highlight in itself,” Sharp said. “The other tower that had been there was so poorly made and it was falling apart, and then a couple of really big shipwrecks occurred in 1856, either because the ship captains misread the light or thought it was a pilot boat.

“First, there was the cargo ship Tasso, which went aground around Loveladies. Then the passenger ship New York, with about 300 Irish immigrants aboard, hit ground in the breakers off Barnegat Light in a blizzard not long after that, and that became a real human horror story back at that time. That’s when the government realized it had to go for a bigger tower and a first-order lens, which was exponentially better than the previous tower and lens.”

It was at that point Army Lt. George G. Meade was brought in by the U.S. Lighthouse Board to fix the problem, and Meade was intent on making the new tower built to last. Construction began in 1857, only a few months after the second wreck had occurred in December, about 100 feet south of where the original tower was washed away.

Obviously, Meade’s task – as one of the U.S. Army Bureau of Topographical Engineers’ best structural designers – was to come up with a light tower that not only would stand amid nor’easters during the winter months and possible hurricanes in the summer, but also would remain standing among the shifting sands of what had been dubbed by Dutch explorers who settled the land in 1614 as “Breakers Inlet.”

Based closely on the plans he had developed for Absecon Lighthouse, which was first put into service in 1857 some 40 miles south of Barnegat Inlet, Meade designed another structural marvel, and his recommendation for a “first-class light” was built under the watchful eye of construction supervisor Lt. W.S. Reynolds.

That “first-class light” was first put into service and lighted on Jan. 1, 1859. In 1889, a 20-room, two-story triplex was built to house the keeper and his two assistants then assigned to tend to the light and grounds. Unfortunately, in 1920, after several storms during the winter months caused further erosion, the keeper’s house was sold to salvagers and razed within a few weeks.

Still, the lighthouse stood as a crucial marker for mariners sailing west from Europe along the 40th Parallel. In fact, “Old Barney” was the northward turning point toward New York for 68 years.

A year after the lighthouse was turned over to the state of New Jersey in 1926, Barnegat Lighthouse was decommissioned and replaced by the Barnegat Lightship, stationed 8 miles offshore. The first-order Fresnel lens designed and made by Henri LePaute in Paris, France – a specimen of a lighting fixture at 6 feet in diameter, 10 feet high and formed from more than 1,000 separate glass prisms and 24 bull’s-eye lenses mounted to a brass frame weighing nearly 5 tons – was removed from the lantern room and sent to Staten Island for safekeeping.

“Its decommissioning was a big moment as well,” Sharp said. “By the time the lighthouse was shut down in 1927, it was more landmark than navigational aid. Congress was pushing for more lightships, and because erosion near the base of the lighthouse was starting to take a toll, it was almost lost again. But the town and county did a lot of work to keep it standing.”

In 1934, the federal government appropriated $12,000 to reinforce the grounds surrounding the lighthouse in an effort to cut down on the erosion near the base of the tower, which at that point was just 2 feet from the water at high tide. The grounds surrounding the lighthouse were designated a state park in 1957, and the permanent jetties at the south end of Island Beach State Park and to the south of the lighthouse were set in place.

But for dozens of years, the lantern room atop Barnegat Lighthouse remained dark, as the efforts continued to maintain the historic structure. During a $660,000 project starting in 1988 and ending in 1991, the lighthouse underwent renovations to its masonry, brick and stone portions, as well as the cast-iron section of the lantern and gallery.

After reopening to the public in June 1991, the lighthouse went another 13 years before being temporarily closed for a new paint job, which revitalized its red-and-white daymark – the distinct colorization and pattern that mariners of old used as their navigational landmark during daylight hours.

In 2008, the nonprofit Friends of Barnegat Lighthouse State Park announced plans to relight the lantern for Old Barney’s 150th anniversary on Jan. 1, 2009. While the Long Beach Township Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 donated $15,000 to acquire a new lamp – interestingly, the same price tag for the original first-order Fresnel lens back in 1856 – additional funds were raised by the friends organization to replace the lantern room’s windows.

The new lens, imported from Vega Industries in New Zealand, is about 20 inches high, 20 inches wide and made of Lucite panels. A rotating turntable behind the panels sends four beams of light to all points of the compass to deliver a white flash once every 10 seconds, the tower’s original characteristic that distinguishes it from the other six lighthouses along New Jersey’s Atlantic coast – specifically Absecon, the next lighthouse to the south, and Sea Girt, the next one to the north.

Visible for up to 20 nautical miles, when the new light was activated for the first time just after 5 p.m. on New Year’s Day 2009, that, too, became one of Barnegat Lighthouse’s big moments, Sharp said.

“For the lighthouse to be dark for so many years, to come back around and relight it was a really big deal,” he said. “That was a heck of a gap for the lighthouse not to be active, so it was great to see it light up for real again. There’s no question that was a special moment in the lighthouse’s history.”

Today, Barnegat Lighthouse not only is celebrated as a piece of maritime history, but also stands as a testament to the man who designed the structural marvel – one with some 675,000 bricks, an outer wall with a thickness of 4½ feet at the base, and an inner cylindrical wall 9 inches thick throughout the tower’s 163 feet.

“It’s the prettiest lighthouse in the United States, and the fact it’s still standing is awesome,” said Karen Larson, president of the Barnegat Light Museum and whose late father, John, had navigated Miss Barnegat Light past Barnegat Lighthouse thousands of times during his lifetime. “It’s a great landmark. I mean, who doesn’t look north as they’re coming onto the Island to see it? And I’d say the lighthouse evokes a lot of memories for a lot of people. I know every time I go up there, I think about my dad.”

Of course, the lighthouse has an intricate connection to many families of Long Beach Island and Southern Ocean County. One of the last lightkeepers, Clarence Cranmer, who spent a significant portion of his life (1915-1926) tending to the tower and the grounds surrounding it, first was rescued after his boat capsized just south of the light during the mid-1880s. The last official lightkeeper, Andrew Applegate, later took over the former Butterworth’s store and developed Applegate’s Store through the 1940s and 1950s, before it became the Inlet Deli.

“A lot of the mysteries surrounding the lighthouse are the people who were taking care of it,” Sharp said. “The history of how they lived, what they did and how they interacted within the local community has a lot of interesting aspects to it, but a lot of it remains unknown. And as a historian, it’s fun to scratch one thing and dig up another about the people who were involved. But, for sure, most of the people involved have a direct link to today and what’s in Barnegat Light, as well as many other things on the Island.”

The book Barnegat Light, scheduled for release as part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series on June 10, can be pre-ordered on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites. And don’t forget to stop by the Barnegat Light Museum, which opens Memorial Day weekend and will operate on weekends in June and be open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in July and August. The original Fresnel lens has a spot of honor there.

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