Guided Sunday tours of Sea Girt Lighthouse this year offer visitors more to see and learn with the addition of several historic artifacts to the displays and a special exhibit of keeper uniforms soon to be unveiled. The tours are conducted Sundays 2-4 p.m. through November 22, except holiday weekends.
“I invite you to join us. We’ve expanded our displays with artifacts acquired in recent months. We’re eager to share the compelling story of this treasured landmark,” said Bill Mountford, president of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, the non-profit, volunteer organization that operates the lighthouse. Bill is himself living history, being the great-grandson of Sea Girt’s longest-serving keeper, William (“Pappy”) Lake, keeper from 1917-31, and the grandson of Elvin (“Toots”) Lake, one of the Sea Girt lifeguards involved in in the 1934 Morro Castle rescue.
Jude Meehan, vice-president and the head docent who can often be found in the tower during tours, adds: “Visitors explore every room in the lighthouse from the keeper’s office on up to the very top of the tower. There will be a friendly and knowledgeable docent in each room to point out the artifacts there and explain their significance and the room’s purpose.
Mr. Meehan encourages people to take the tour and then consider becoming a docent. “New docents are always welcome,” he said. “Join the fun. Meet people who come here from down the block, across the country and around the world. And you’ll have the rewarding experience of helping to preserve history.”
Tours are free of charge. Donations are encouraged, appreciated and help the volunteers maintain the lighthouse and keep it open to the public. Please note there will be no tours on these Sundays: May 10 (Mother’s Day), May 24 (Memorial Day weekend), June 21 (Father’s Day), July 5 (Independence Day weekend), September 6 (Labor Day weekend) and October 11 (Columbus Day weekend).
What’s Old That’s New
Trustees are always on the lookout for historic artifacts to add to the collection and put on display to help tell the Sea Girt Lighthouse story. Among the recent acquisitions, to be seen in northeast cabinet of the first-floor community room, is a Harden Star Hand Grenade Fire Extinguisher, circa 1890, which were commonplace in all U.S. lighthouses, to be used in the event of fire.
The displayed fire grenade, a reminder of the constant risk of fire at lighthouses because of the fuel used to light the tower lens as well as the oil lamps in the living quarters, is a thin glass globe, 7-inches in diameter, filled with brine water, and having a long stem. Every lighthouse would have numerous fire grenades stored throughout the building. If a fire occurred, the keeper would start throwing the grenades at the flames, hoping to extinguish them as the globes shattered on impact, spilling the brine water.
Another emergency item added to the display in the same case is a first-aid kit, circa 1910, issued by the U.S. Lighthouse Service to a San Francisco lighthouse. It was acquired by Mr. Meehan, who donated it to the collection.
On the 2nd floor is a display of navigational maps and flags added last fall, now being expanded, that relates to the lighthouse role as a signal station and weather station. The centerpiece of the exhibit is an 1898 color map, published by the U.S. Light-House Board. It is one of the earliest maps to identify Sea Girt Light.
Beside the notation Sea Girt Light is a small red flag, indicating the station was also a coast signal station. In 1898, Sea Girt and other coast signal stations were equipped with telephones to maintain contact with each other and headquarters. The phones were also used by keepers to give their weather reports to the U.S. Weather Bureau that would issue weather forecasts based on their analysis of the keepers’ local reports.
That same year, the Light-House Board issued Sea Girt and other stations signal code flags, based on the International Code of Signals system, developed decades before by the British Board of Trade and adopted by the U.S. and most other seafaring nations for enhanced ship-to-ship as well as ship-to-shore communications. The issuance of flags sets to light keepers was intended to improve communications with passing ships generally and specifically to assist U.S. Navy ships in the Spanish-American War that year, as the U.S. was allied with Cuba in its War of Independence against Spain.
A flag set included flags for each letter, pennants for 0-9, and weather pennants and flags. Letter flags can be arranged to spell out a word, or flown alone or in combinations up to three to relay a complete message. Signal flags were used to answer ship queries and relay a station’s identity, location, storm warnings, etc. At Sea Girt the keeper ran the flags up a yardarm flagpole on the east lawn. Signal flags are still used today by the commercial and naval ships of many nations.
An 1894 copy of the International Code of Signals handbook is included in the display. There are also a few signal code flags, issued by the U.S. Navy circa 1944, hanging in tower’s supply room and watch room, with more to be added.
New to the first-floor Morro Castle exhibit is a full-color reproduction of a Morro Castle menu, which is in English on one side and Spanish on the other. Henry Olsen, of Brick, contacted lighthouse trustees last fall to alert them that he had the menu in his collection of maritime artifacts which he made available to be scanned.
In what had been the keeper’s bedroom, and then the commanding officer’s quarters during the Coast Guard years, is now the jewel of the lighthouse collection, an authentic fourth order Fresnel lens.
Also in the room is the Keepers’ Photo Gallery where the photo portraits of Sea Girt’s keepers hang, along with the photo and the official 1911 Lighthouse Service obituary of the Ida Lewis, the legendary keeper of the offshore Lime Rock Light in Newport Harbor in Rhode Island. A powerful swimmer and rower, the fearless Lewis was credited by the Lighthouse Service – successor of the Light-House Board – with saving the lives of 13 fishermen and boaters who got in trouble in the harbor. Other sources credit Ida with saving three times that number during her long career. She was known as “the bravest woman in America.”
A new exhibit soon to be unveiled in the same room will include exact replicas of the Lighthouse Service regulation dress blue keeper uniform and fatigue uniform, vintage 1910. The tailor, making the uniforms, is a history buff from Burlington County who participates in historic re-enactments of Revolutionary War and Civil War battles. He began making his own uniforms, which are so accurate in their detail, he has had many requests from individuals, museums and Hollywood film productions to make uniforms for them.
He has made a lighthouse keeper’s uniform for the museum at Montauk Point Lighthouse and British, French and colonial uniforms for the 1992 movie Last of the Mohicans, among others. The keeper uniforms for Sea Girt Lighthouse are being made in size 40 regular, which is Mr. Meehan’s size. He served as the fitting model.
The dress uniform to be displayed will include a double breasted jacket with four rows of brass buttons and matching vest over over a white shirt and black silk tie, with matching navy blue trousers. The dress uniform was worn when the inspector or other dignitary was visiting the lighthouse and when the keeper was away from the station on official business. When on routine duty, the keeper wore the fatigue uniform of coveralls or overalls. Whether in the dress blues or fatigues, the keeper always wore the distinctive visored, oval cap. Similar in style to a train conductor’s cap, it was distinguished by the embroidered Lighthouse Service emblem of a lighthouse in silver thread in a circle of laurel in gold thread.
Added to the first-floor Morro Castle exhibit is a full-color reproduction of a Morro Castle menu, which is in English on one side and Spanish on the other. Henry Olsen, of Brick, contacted lighthouse trustees last fall to alert them that he had the menu in his collection of maritime artifacts which he made available to be scanned.
The tour explores the changing missions and commands of the lighthouse from its years under the command of the U.S. Light-House Board and then the U.S. Lighthouse Service, through the Coast Guard era that extended from mid-1939 to mid-1956, followed by the years it was the Borough library and recreation center. And since 1981, the volunteers of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee have maintained it as the community beacon, preserving its rich history through tours and special programs, and making it available to community groups who meet there. The lighthouse is in use some 180 days a year.
Sea Girt was activated December 10, 1896 to illuminate a dark space mariners encountered midway between Navesink Twin Lights and Barnegat Lighthouse. In 1920 Sea Girt became the first land-based station in the world equipped with a radio-fog beacon transmitter. On September 8, 1934, the lighthouse beacon offered a guiding light to the crew of burning cruise ship Morro Castle and the rescue ships and gave hope to those who abandoned the Morro Castle.
During World War II, the beacon was extinguished so as not to give navigational aid to enemy ships known to be in local waters. Coast Guardsmen stood watch in the tower and patrolled the beaches. No matter the mission, Sea Girt Lighthouse has met the challenges, thanks to the hard work and skills of a colorful assortment of keepers and family members and Coast Guardsmen, many of whom can be seen in the photo exhibits.
For the latest lighthouse news, visit the lighthouse website (www.seagirtlighthouse.org). Anyone interested in volunteering for Sunday tours as a docent or to staff the merchandise table of lighthouse souvenirs, to donate artifacts or to help in other ways is asked to send an email to email@example.com, or call the lighthouse at 732-974-0514 and leave a message on the answering machine. All emails and messages are promptly answered by a trustee.
Volunteers of all ages are welcome. For students, volunteering as a docent qualifies as community service, which many schools now require students to do. It also is an opportunity for young people to develop confidence and poise as well as public speaking ability. Scripts are provided to all docent recruits who are teamed with an experienced docent in the beginning.