The third weekend of October was especially busy at Sea Girt Lighthouse, as enthusiastic participants in the 2013 Lighthouse Challenge of New Jersey from near and very far and points in between kept coming and coming to explore the lighthouse, collect their official Sea Girt sticker in their Challenge passport, take a few photos and then off to their next stop.
Participation was up 18% over last year, with 1,341 people coming to Sea Girt Lighthouse over the two days. They came from 15 states, Washington, D.C. and abroad. There was a strong contingent of Pennsylvanians, as there always is, second only to New Jerseyans. They also came from California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin. One family drove 24 hours straight from Kansas to do the Challenge.
From Europe, came a woman from the Czech Republic, who was here visiting her brother, a lighthouse buff. There was also a family from Germany on vacation who chanced upon the Challenge, and four thirysomethings, originally from Russia, now living in the United States.
This was the 14th consecutive year of New Jersey's Lighthouse Challenge, the first challenge of its kind anywhere that has inspired lighthouse challenges in several other states and Canada.
Passport to Success
The Challenge for participants was to visit 11 historic New Jersey lighthouses over the two days. There were four bonus stops – two lighthouse-related museums and two life-saving stations. At whatever was the first stop, everyone picked up their Challenge passports, which were available for a $1 per copy. The 36-page souvenir passport contains a one-page description of each landmark or museum. On the top half of the opposite page is a photo of that stop, onto which the sticker of the same photo would go. Beneath the sticker was the spot where a docent would put the official stamp of that location.
As always, the Challenge attracted a wide range of participants, including many families, couples of all ages, some folks doing the Challenge solo, Scout troops, a few clubs of lighthouse enthusiasts, many military veterans, including Coast Guard veterans and the niece of a Coast Guardsman from Minnesota who served at Sea Girt during World War II. Many came with their still and video cameras.
Shane and Linette Koranda, teachers from Wichita, Kansas, win the Challenge prize for endurance and miles driven. They took turns driving the family van to reach New Jersey Thursday, after one full day on the road. They came with their four children, Kaycee, 21, Kaylee, 11, and twins Chase and Isaiah, 5. The adventurous family spent Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, camping in a tent in Bass River State Forest, in Tuckerton in Ocean County.
Linette, who grew up Brick, still has relatives in the area, whom she and her family visited their first day here. Then it was onto the Challenge, their third in five years. At the completion of the Challenge Sunday evening, having driven some 430 miles from lighthouse to lighthouse, they then drove some 1,300 miles back to Wichita. The parents and children were back in school Tuesday.
Michael and Susan Renner, and their children, Lena, 12, and Jakob, 9, from Homburg, Germany, were on a 10-day visit to the United States. Their itinerary extended from Washington, D.C. to New York City with stops along the way, including the Jersey shore. They chose to stay in Sea Girt at the Beacon House, a guesthouse a block west of the lighthouse.
As they walked to the beach on Saturday, the Renner family saw many people coming into and out of the lighthouse. Wondering what was happening, they ventured inside to discover the Challenge. They decided to join the fun. Michael, Susan, Lena and Jakob had a mini-challenge, exploring Sea Girt Lighthouse from the keeper’s office to the very top of the lantern room
Paula Hurychova, came from Prague to visit her brother, Vladimir Hurych, who lives in New York City. A lighthouse buff, Vladimir has visited some 200 lighthouses in the last 10 years and has completed 5 Challenges before this one.
He invited his sister to join him for the 2013 event. They arrived at Sea Girt Sunday around 11 a.m., with only two stops to go. “This is my first Lighthouse Challenge. I like it,” said Paula.
After each participant collected the stickers at every stop, one more sticker was awarded and affixed at the last stop to the last page of the passport. That sticker is the gold seal that reads: Congratulations – Challenge Completed! For participants, the passport filled with all the stickers and official stamps becomes a treasured keepsake.
Among the Challenge takers was actor Matt Servitto, who played FBI Agent Dwight Harris who spent six seasons trying to bring Tony Soprano to justice in the HBO series The Sopranos. A spur of the moment decision, he, his wife and their two children set out Sunday to make a few Challenge stops. Driving from their northern New Jersey home, they went first to Sandy Hook, then Twin Lights and finally Sea Girt. They chatted easily with people who recognized him. He seemed pleased when someone remembered his character’s name. The Servitto family would like to do the Challenge next year, getting an earlier start to reach every light station.
Several dogs accompanied Challenge takers. A young man came inside with his service dog. Most dogs stayed outside, minded by friends as the pet owners dashed inside. Lighthouse trustee Jude Meehan, at his post on the west lawn by his special exhibits, offered to watch a pair of dachshunds for a woman while she went to get her sticker.
Sea Girt’s Special Displays
In addition to the permanent exhibits inside the lighthouse, there were added displays outside of artifacts from the personal collection of Mr. Meehan that recalled events from lighthouse history. Hanging from the porch were World War II era signal flags. For centuries, mariners, navies and lighthouses around the world used flags to communicate ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore.
There’s a flag for each letter that can be arranged to relay a message. Each flag alone also represents a message. The flag for E means: “Directing course starboard,” G means: “Pilot required,” P announces: “All personnel return to ship, proceeding to sea.” The Annual Report of the Light-House Board for 1899 has Sea Girt news: “Flagstaff was erected, telephone installed, a set of signal code flags, etc., furnished.”
In World War II, Coast Guardsmen stood watch in the tower and patrolled the beach. A small U.S. Army contingent was posted to Sea Girt in mid-1943. A handful of soldiers pitched a tent on the west lawn and joined the beach patrols.
Recreating those times, Mr. Meehan and his son, Julian, 10, pitched an octagonal Army tent big enough for 6 soldiers and a pup tent that could handle two troopers. The father and son slept in sleeping bags in the big tent. During the hours of the Challenge, they welcomed visitors to Camp Meehan, answered questions and gave tours of the encampment.
The Challenge is an all hands-on deck event. At Sea Girt there were a few docents in every room, working in shifts. It’s something the docents look forward to, because the volunteers at Sea Girt, and at every other stop, enjoy spotlighting what they have preserved. Each lighthouse has a compelling story that its volunteers are eager to share with the visitors, many of whom are equally as enthusiastic for these landmarks and the need to preserve them.
The Challenge offered a rare opportunity to visit the state’s dwindling number of surviving lighthouses. At the peak at the end of the 1800s, there were more than 40 lights illuminating New Jersey’s 135-mile coastline.
Today, fewer than half those light stations survive. And some of the survivors are inaccessible to the public, such as the offshore Great Beds Lighthouse, off South Amboy, Brandywine Shoal in Delaware Bay, the land-based Conover Beacon, a range light in Leonardo, which is decommissioned and is up for sale by the General Services Administration, the federal agency that manages government property, and another decommissioned light station nearby that is now a private residence.
Of those that are open to the public, only a handful are in use and accessible year-round, including Sea Girt.
Heading south along the ocean and then up the Delaware River, the lighthouses in the 2013 Challenge, with the year of activate in parenthesis, plus the bonus stops, were:
o Sandy Hook Lighthouse (1764). Oldest surviving U.S. lighthouse – and still on duty.
o Twin Lights (1862). On the Navesink Highlands 200 feet above sea level. First electric powered lighthouse (1898) and the most powerful beacon that could be seen for 22 miles.
o Sea Girt Lighthouse (1896). Illuminated blind spot between Twin Lights and Barnegat.
o Barnegat Lighthouse (1858). Denotes 40th parallel, crucial point in transatlantic sailing.
o Barnegat Light Museum. Old Barney’s 1st order Fresnel lens on display here.
o Tucker’s Island Lighthouse (1868). Replica built 1999 of lighthouse lost in 1927 storm.
o Absecon Lighthouse (1857). Built near Atlantic City as warning of dangerous shoals.
o Life-Saving Station 30 (1885). Stations like No. 30 were built with funds released by an 1871 bill sponsored by a New Jersey congressman that created the Life-Saving Service.
o Tatham Life-Saving Station 35 (1895). Built on the Stone Harbor site of one of the earliest U.S. life-saving stations.
o Hereford Inlet Lighthouse (1874). Built in North Wildwood to guide ships in the inlet.
o Cape May Lighthouse (1859). Replaced two earlier lights destroyed by storms and tides.
o Cape May Museum. Current tower’s 1st order Fresnel lens on display here.
o East Point Lighthouse (1849). At the confluence of Delaware Bay and Maurice River.
o Finns Point Rear Range Light (1877). Mariners were safely in the Delaware River channel when this beacon and a shorter front-range beacon aligned as one beam.
o Tinicum Range Light (1880). Rear-range light farther up the Delaware River, teamed with a smaller front-range light to guide ships into Camden and Philadelphia Harbors.
The Challenge was a collaborative effort, co-sponsored by the organizations that run the individual sites. The primary goal of the Challenge was to promote awareness of New Jersey’s lighthouses specifically and lighthouses generally.
Admission to Sea Girt Lighthouse and several others was free, although donations were encouraged and appreciated. Several stops did have nominal admission charges. The funds raised enable the various preservation groups to continue their efforts.
Mark your calendar for next year when the 2014 Lighthouse Challenge of New Jersey will be October 18-19.