Morro Castle 80th Anniversary September 8, Ship Fire and Rescue to be Remembered at Sea Girt Lighthouse

Published by admin at 6:24 AM under

The cruise ship Morro Castle, heading north through local waters on her 174th return voyage from Havana to New York, never reached her destination, dropping anchor several miles offshore as a fire of suspicious origin raced through the ship September 8, 1934. By day’s end, 134 people were dead, three more would die weeks later. But more than 400 were saved, many by local people who risked their own lives to save others.

MC_DROPS_ANCHOR The tragic fire, those who lost their lives, the survivors and their heroic rescuers will be remembered at Sea Girt Lighthouse Monday, September 8 in a morning memorial and program to mark the 80th anniversary.

Presiding over the lighthouse program will be Bill Mountford, president of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, and the grandson of Elvin (Toots) Lake, one of six Sea Girt lifeguards who helped to save a dozen people that fateful day. Toots had grown up at Sea Girt Lighthouse, the son of William (Pappy) Lake, who had been keeper from 1917-31.

Pappy was succeeded by George Thomas, who was Sea Girt keeper during the Morro Castle disaster. Thomas had won a commendation while keeper at Fire Island Lighthouse in 1917 for rendering assistance “in rescuing from a dangerous position two aviators whose hydroplane had plunged into Great South Bay and partly sunk.”

MC_BEACHED_ASBURY Keeper Thomas took the initiative again in the Morro Castle disaster. The official keepers’ handbook titled Instructions To Employees of the United States Lighthouse Service instructed keepers to extinguish their beacons at sunrise. However, it also advised: “It shall be the duty of light keepers and their assistants … to give or summon aid to vessels in distress, whether public or private, and to assist in saving life and property from perils of the sea whenever it is practicable to do so.”

There was a Nor’easter the morning of September 8, 1934 and visibility was reduced. It is believed that George Thomas kept Sea Girt’s beacon burning bright and flashing to provide navigational aid to the Morro Castle crew and rescue ships, and to give direction and hope to passengers and crew who went overboard when the order was given to abandon ship. One Morro Castle survivor credits the lighthouse beacon with saving her life.

TPARAMOUNT_RESCUERSwo of six lifeboats that could be launched beached in Sea Girt around 9 a.m. The other four beached in Spring Lake. People bobbing in the water in their bulky cork lifejackets were pushed to shore by the currents, reaching shore mid-morning and continuing into early afternoon. Many of those rescued were plucked from the water by the crews of fishing boats, including the John Bogan Sr., sons John and Jim and other volunteers aboard the Bogan fishing boat Paramount, who saved 67, and by the crews of cruise ships and freighters in the area that launched lifeboats. The crew of the Monarch of Bermuda rescued 71 people who were brought on board.

The afternoon of the fire, a towline was finally secured to the Morro Castle and the anchor chain cut. The crew of the Coast Guard cutter Tampa began towing the charred wreck to New York. But the towline broke, the powerless and rudderless Morro Castle drifted toward shore, pushed by the strong winds, beaching in Asbury Park, where the charred ship remained for 6 months becoming a macabre tourist attraction.

The cause of the fire was never conclusively determined because forensic evidence was incinerated in the fire. There was a strong suspicion of arson, but other possible causes included an electrical short circuit, over-heating equipment, a carelessly discard cigarette or cigar, and spontaneous combustion of improperly stored cargo. The ship’s heavily lacquered paneling in staterooms and public areas provided fuel for the fire, while the air ducts that ran throughout the ship to circulate cooling ocean breeze fed the fire.

Lighthouse Memorial Program

The schedule of the Morro Castle memorial at Sea Girt Lighthouse is as follows:

· Sunrise: Tower kept lighted.

· 9:00 a.m.: Memorial wreath placed by the front steps of Sea Girt Lighthouse by Mr. Mountford and Jude Meehan, SGLCC vice-president. Brief remarks by Mr. Mountford.

· 9:05 a.m. to 11 a.m.:

o Mr. Mountford and Mr. Meehan and lighthouse historian Bill Dunn will lead tours of the Morro Castle collection and displays.

o Screening in the 1st floor community room of newsreels and home movies of the disaster, rescue and the beached ship.

o Tri-fold poster display and screening in the parlor of a 3-minute documentary, T.E.L. Morro Castle: New Jersey’s Titantic, by three middle school students who won regional and state honors in the 2013 National History Day competition.

SG_LIFEGUARDS_SAVE15 The thesis of their documentary is that the Morro Castle disaster prompted reforms that made sea travel safer: establishment of the U.S. Maritime Commission and an expanded Coast Guard for closer monitoring and more frequent inspections, tougher regulations, better training for crew in emergency procedures and more safety features built into ships.

Among the Morro Castle artifacts that will be on display are: a miniature Morro Castle life preserver bought in the ship’s gift shop on the Easter cruise five months before the disaster, stationery, the cruise schedule and fares pamphlet, invitation to the captain’s masked ball, Ward Line publicity photo of the newly launched Morro Castle anchored by the Brooklyn Bridge, photos of the captain and executive officer.

Also, two canvas over cork lifejackets, a 14-foot-long lifeboat oar, front-page reports and dramatic news photos from newspapers across the country that published extra editions, eyewitness photos, forensic photos of the exterior and interior of the burned ship, a congressional report of its investigation findings, photos of various rescuers, including the Sea Girt lifeguards and the crew of the Paramount, a letter of gratitude sent by a young woman to Jim Bogan of the Paramount thanking him and the crew for rescuing her, a photo 60 years later where she and Mr. Bogan were reunited at Sea Girt Lighthouse, Senate Bill 1874, proposing the awarding of medals to the rescuers. While the bill passed the Senate, it got bogged down in the House and was never voted on. Medals never were issued.

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Lighthouse Lawn Party Success

Published by admin at 2:58 AM under

LAWN_PARTY_2014_1 The 34th annual Signing of the Lease Party, August 2, held at Sea Girt Lighthouse, attracted some 350 supporters to the annual fundraiser. Cool ocean breezes and lively conversation filled the air, as guests enjoyed themselves as they gathered under white tents on lawn.

Arrangements of shore flowers, prepared by a team of trustees led by Lauren Behr, graced the tables. Historic and colorful signal-code flags, of the type used at Sea Girt Lighthouse as early as 1898, hung from the porch and railing of the tower gallery. Once again Carol Ann McLaughlin, who catered the very first party in 1981, returned with a savory selection of hors d'oeuvres

The community beacon was the theme of this year’s party. “In so many ways, our lighthouse truly is the community beacon, a symbol to all of shore history, now alive with the activity of community groups who meet here, people from near and far who come for tours, special events like October’s Lighthouse Challenge and the occasional private party,” noted Bill Mountford, president of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee. He is also the great grandson of Sea Girt’s longest serving keeper William Lake (1817-31).

The theme was also in recognition of the recent publication of Sea Girt Lighthouse: The Community Beacon by trustee Bill Dunn, who signed copies of the book.

“The party was a gratifying success,” added Mr. Mountford. “The trustees enjoy throwing this party, which brings together so many friends at our favorite lighthouse. This is our thank-you to our members and their guests. I also thank my fellow trustees for their hard work in making this the success it was.” Mr. Mountford, along with Jude Meehan, SGLCC vice-president, Virginia Zientek, immediate past president, and docent Catherine Schwier greeted people as they arrived, thanking them for their continuing support.

Mr. Mountford and Mrs. Behr were co-chairs of the event. All proceeds from the party and book sales go to the lighthouse operations. Tickets sold out for the first time in five years. There was also a 50-50 drawing, with half the proceeds going to the guest with the winning ticket and the balance going to the lighthouse.

LAWN_PARTY_2014_6Long Tradition Continued

The first lawn party, formally named the Signing of the Lease Party, was held in 1981, to celebrate the founding that spring of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee as an all-volunteer, non-profit preservation organization and the group’s taking charge of the landmark after signing a lease with the Borough of Sea Girt August 10 of that year.

The Borough, which bought the decommissioned lighthouse from the federal government in 1956, used it as the town library, recreation and LAWN_PARTY_2014_3 community center. Two decades later the building was in need of extensive and costly repairs, prompting the Borough to consider selling the property. That was the impetus for concerned citizens to come together and organize to “save our lighthouse.”

Under the $1-a-year lease agreement, the Lighthouse Committee assumed financial responsibility for the restoration, maintenance and operation of the building. The committee is also committed to preserving the building’s rich history through Sunday tours, group tours, talks and slide presentations at the lighthouse and in the community, the lighthouse website, special programs such as October’s Lighthouse Challenge of New Jersey and now the book.

Photo of signal-code flags on the tower railing by Catherine Schwier

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Sea Girt Lighthouse Members Participate in Sandy Hook’s 250th Anniversary Celebration

Published by admin at 10:49 AM under

by Peter R. Halas and Bill Dunn

with photos by Catherine Schwier

Sandy Hook Lighthouse celebrated its 250th anniversary June 14, 2014. Representatives of Sea Girt Lighthouse participated in a full-day of events on the grounds of America’s oldest lighthouse, first lighted June 11, 1764, and still active.

SH_250_1The festivities began with The Fifes and Drums Band of the Old Barracks in Trenton performing Colonial era marching music. The music, a passing schooner under sail, children’s games, many exhibits and re-enactments of American Revolutionary War battles took several hundred visitors back in time to Colonial America.

Dressed in period costumes, enthusiastic volunteers recreated family life as it was over two centuries ago as they tended a flock of sheep and chickens, worked a garden and cooked meals over an open fire. Youngsters in attendance were encouraged to join in the fun by playing the games that children played in Colonial times, such as hoop rolling, ring the hob (ring toss) and Scotch hopping (hopscotch).

Re-enactors in the colorful uniforms of the Continental Army and the British Army staged the battles fought SH_250_5during the Revolution for control of Sandy Hook Light, which ultimately fell into British hands. Sandy Hook Lighthouse was the fifth of 11 lighthouses built in the Colonial era, but it is America’s oldest, surviving lighthouse. The original Boston Light – the first lighthouse built in the American Colonies – was destroyed in the Revolution.

Visitors to Sandy Hook had the opportunity to explore the keeper’s quarters and climb the tower’s 95 steps up the spiral staircase and then the 9-rung ladder to the very top of Sandy Hook for the spectacular view it offered of the New Jersey Coast and the entrance to New York Harbor.

Patriotic red, white and blue bunting hung from the railing of the gallery that surrounds the lantern room. Wayne Wheeler, president of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, gave an enlightening presentation on the life of a lighthouse keeper and the history of Colonial lighthouses.

Sea Girt Lighthouse Display

Popular bonus features that day were the displays of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, the New Jersey Lighthouse Society and Sea Girt Lighthouse. Volunteers from each group exhibited historic photos, artifacts and literature and talked about their respective missions.

SH_250_7 Jude Meehan, vice-president of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, and SGLCC member Catherine Schwier, represented Sea Girt Lighthouse. Both are knowledgeable and experienced docents, who frequently give Sunday tours at the lighthouse. But this Saturday of the Sandy Hook anniversary celebration, as a steady stream of people visited their display, Jude and Catherine gave brief summaries of Sea Girt Lighthouse’s colorful history, answered questions and invited all to come to the lighthouse to see for themselves.

On the front of a long table they hung a banner with a photo of the lighthouse by trustee Robert S. Varcoe. Colorful signal-code flags, similar to the type issued to Sea Girt Lighthouse in 1898 for communicating with passing ships, were displayed at the Sea Girt exhibit. Atop the table was a model of the lighthouse, a few other artifacts and historic photos including one from the lighthouse collection of the cruise ship Morro Castle afire three miles offshore September 8, 1934. And there were stacks of the 4-page lighthouse history pamphlet that ranges from the station’s first lighting in 1896 to present day. Also displayed was a copy of the recently published book Sea Girt Lighthouse: The Community Beacon.

Sea Girt Lighthouse was the only lighthouse represented under the green-and-white tent, which was pitched in a central spot by the keeper’s quarters. Jude estimated some 300 people passed by the Sea Girt table. “We had a wonderful time,” he acknowledged. “We were pleased to represent Sea Girt Lighthouse on the historic occasion of Sandy Hook’s 250 anniversary and to have the opportunity to talk to so many friendly and interested people about our lighthouse of distinction.”

Catherine noted Sandy Hook Lighthouse directors, museum docents and National Park Service rangers of the Gateway National Recreation Area, where Sandy Hook is located, were most welcoming and appreciated Sea Girt Light’s involvement. She added: “Everyone that day – rangers, volunteers and visitors – were drawn to Sandy Hook by a deep sense of its historical importance. And there was an appreciation for the many other lighthouses in our state that together guided mariners in their journeys and thereby contributed to the economic and population growth of our nation.”

Sandy Hook to Sea Girt

Construction of Sandy Hook was financed by two lotteries authorized by the Provincial Congress of New York and a SH_250_4tax on ships entering the Port of New York. The lighthouse was proposed and promoted by merchants and manufacturers of New York City, who had lost valuable cargo when several ships wrecked in the treacherous shallows off Sandy Hook. The tower and its beacon not only warned mariners of the shallows and the narrow channel but guided them through the channel to New York Harbor.

The Revolutionary War demonstrated the importance of Sandy Hook and New York Harbor, which both sides fought to control. Fearing a British invasion, in March 1776, the New York Congress ordered the light to be extinguished and the lens removed. Having survived many battles, Sandy Hook Lighthouse in June of 1776 came under the control of British troops who rigged a replacement light. Continental troops under the command of Captain John Conover then bombarded the tower, using cannons mounted on several small boats. Cannonball damage can still be seen on the stone of the lighthouse.

In the wake of America’s gaining its independence, Sandy Hook was equipped with a new lens and relighted. Realizing the importance of lighthouses, not only to the young nation’s economy but also the nation’s security, President Washington federalized lighthouses. The Ninth Act of the first Congress established the U.S. Light-House Establishment to plan, build and run America’s lighthouses.

“As commercial ship traffic in and out of the harbor increased tremendously after 1800, so did the need to better mark the sea approaches leading to the Port of New York,” according to Tom Hoffman, a National Park Service ranger and the historian at Sandy Hook.

SH_250_9 Less than five miles south of Sandy Hook are the 200-foot-tall Highlands of the Navesink, where the Light-House Establishment built Twin Lights in 1828. The present, taller towers replaced the original towers in 1862. And 44 statute miles south stood three successive Barnegat Lights, located at the 40th parallel, a crucial change point in transatlantic navigation. The first Barnegat Light, activated in 1835, collapsed in 1856 because of beach erosion. It was replaced by a temporary tower and that was replaced by the current tower, Old Barney, lighted in 1857.

Despite the powerful beacons of those lights, mariners in fog and storms often encountered a dark space around Sea Girt where they were unable to see the beacon of Barnegat to the south and Twin Lights and Sandy Hook to the north. That is why Sea Girt Lighthouse was built. It was lighted December 10, 1896, illuminating the dark space.

An 1898 Light-House Establishment map, one of the earliest to show Sea Girt Light, identifies some two dozen aids to navigation along New Jersey’s coastline and up the Delaware River. They formed a constellation of lights, each with a distinct beacon signature that enabled mariners to identify where they were in their journeys. One light guided sailors to the next light and on to their destination.

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