Sea Girt Lighthouse: The Community Beacon, the definitive history of the shore landmark, has just been published by The History Press. The lively narrative captures the engaging stories of the keepers and Coast Guardsmen who operated the important station and the preservationists who saved it for all to enjoy.
The book breaks new ground and expands the history of the lighthouse that has for more than a century not just survived but actually thrived and met the challenges of changing missions through the ingenuity, determination and hard work of the many dedicated people who have served there.
Bill Dunn, a Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee trustee and the lighthouse historian, spent more than a year researching and writing the book and gathering historic photos. “This was an exciting assignment and a labor of love,” he said, noting his association with the lighthouse goes back to his childhood when it was the recreation center. Fellow trustees suggested the project to Bill, who has written several previous books and was a reporter at The Detroit News and later USA Today.
Research for the book began in the lighthouse archives, which contains historic documents and artifacts gathered by the founding trustees and others, as well as many hundreds of pages of official documents and correspondence left behind by the U.S. Lighthouse Service and the Coast Guard related to Sea Girt operations. He also went to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where he read the light station journals of the keepers and the Coast Guard war logs.
Dan Herzog, an SGLCC member who is experienced in genealogical research from having done his own family tree, assisted, exploring census and other genealogical records of Sea Girt’s keepers. He uncovered important facts and leads that were pursued. Several descendants of keepers and Coasties were identified and contacted for photos and details of their forebears while at Sea Girt Light.
“Sea Girt Lighthouse had some interesting and colorful characters assigned here as keepers,” Bill noted. Their ranks included a Civil War veteran who rose to junior lieutenant in the Union Army but was known as “the major” in the Lighthouse Service, the son of a light keeper, a courageous woman who took charge under difficult circumstances, an inventor who spent the previous three decades at sea on lightships, and a 37-year-old keeper who started his tour by vowing to outlast his predecessors, two of whom died on the job. And he did by a wide margin, retiring at age 52, and going on to have a second career in real estate.
Then there was the last keeper at Sea Girt, who previously was a locomotive engineer and survived a derailment, who proved resourceful in emergencies including the time at Fire Island Light Station when he helped rescue aviators whose plane crashed into South Bay. He would win a commendation then and later in his years at Sea Girt.
“While a diverse group, Sea Girt’s keepers shared a sense of commitment to keeping the light shining bright. They well knew that the lives of mariners and their passengers depended on the keepers’ faithful execution of duties,” observed Bill. And the keepers were helped by their families. Everyone pitched in, including the 20-year-old daughter of Sea Girt’s last keeper, who substituted for her dad for 24 hours while he was away from the station. That young lady would go on to a distinguished career as an Army nurse in World War II.
During the war, the U.S. Coast Guard was in charge of all U.S. lighthouses, including Sea Girt. Instead of a keeper and family occupying and operating Sea Girt Lighthouse, there were as many as two dozen Coast Guardsmen posted there, conducting beach patrols and standing watch in the tower, on the alert for enemy ships which were known to be in local waters.
The 192-page book is illustrated with 110 photos, some never before published, many of them compelling and dramatic. Included are photos of the keepers and their families, the Coast Guardsmen, and the lighthouse down through the years, which changed in appearance with the addition of new technology and modifications to the building. There are starling photos from 1915 when the lighthouse was threatened by beach erosion that prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take remedial action to save it.
Among the photos are 25 in color. Contemporary photos, including candid shots of lighthouse tours, parties and special events, like the first-ever night climb and the annual Lighthouse Challenge that attract people to the lighthouse from around the world, were taken by several local photographers. The color cover photos are by Robert S. Varcoe, an SGLCC trustee.
Lighting the Dark Space
Sea Girt Lighthouse is dwarfed by its lighthouse neighbors. To the north are America’s oldest lighthouse, Sandy Hook, built in 1764, which survived bombardment in the American Revolution, and the brownstone fortress of Navesink Twin Lights, built in 1862, as a replacement to the original station there.
To the south is Barnegat Lighthouse, built in 1857, to replace two earlier Barnegat lights undermined by storms and beach erosion, common threats to lighthouses everywhere, as documented in Sea Girt Lighthouse: The Community Beacon.
Despite Sea Girt Light’s comparatively small size, only 42 steps from the keeper’s office to the lantern room at the top, its role was vital. It was built in 1896 to illuminate what was described as a “dark space” that mariners in the days of sail often encountered, especially in bad weather, around the midpoint between Twin Lights and Barnegat when they could see neither beacon.
Sea Girt, equipped with a 4th order Fresnel lens, flashed its first beacon December 10, 1896, projecting its light 15 miles to sea, more than enough distance to guide mariners to the next light, along the shipping lanes, where shifting sandbars, hidden rocks, and quickly changing depths make the passage challenging.
Just as mariners needed the light to navigate New Jersey’s surprisingly treacherous waters, the lighthouse itself was being threatened by beach erosion, almost from the beginning, caused by ocean storms and Sea Girt Inlet and Wreck Pond overflowing their banks in the worst hurricanes and Nor’easters. A wooden bulkhead was installed, which proved inadequate. Then in 1915, 30-foot-long interlocking steel plates were pounded in the ground along the property line. Other projects followed which in combination stabilized the property and protected the foundation.
First in Technology
In 1921 Sea Girt became the first land-based station equipped with a radio fog transmitter. Transmitters were also installed at Fire Island Lightship and Ambrose Lightship, each sending out a distinct signal, which enabled vessels approaching or leaving New York to fix their position in fog by cross bearing. “These were the first successful radiobeacons in the world,” wrote U.S. Lighthouse Commissioner George Putnam in his book Radiobeacons and Radiobeacon Navigation.
Despite its varied contributions, Sea Girt was put under review in 1932, after a report by a committee of the American Steamship Owners Association concluded the station could be discontinued without serious detriment to navigation. The assessment was rejected, however, at the highest levels of the Lighthouse Service after District Lighthouse Superintendent J.T. Yates asserted: “Sea Girt Light is the only light on the Jersey coast between Highlands and Barnegat. … This light is extremely important.”
Two years later, the importance of the lighthouse beacon as a guiding light and source of hope was demonstrated yet again. While Instructions To Employees of the United States Lighthouse Service states beacons were to be extinguished at sunrise, it also ordered keepers 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.”
On September 8, 1934, as an out-of-control fire raced through the cruise ship Morro Castle several miles offshore, the acting captain gave the order to abandon ship. The keeper then at Sea Girt is believes to have kept the beacon flashing past the sunrise shutdown to provide a guiding beacon to rescue ships and to give people overboard direction and hope. One survivor credits the lighthouse beacon with saving her life by encouraging her to fight on.
During World War II, America’s lighthouses were under Coast Guard command. And the order came down to extinguish the beacons, so as not to give navigational aid to enemy ships, which were in local waters.
At Sea Girt, the Fresnel lens was extinguished and removed. Coasties stood watch in the lantern room around the clock and patrolled the beach from sunset to sunrise. Troop strength increased rapidly after the Standard Oil tanker R.P. Resor was torpedoed by a German U-boat February 26, 1942 some 7 miles off Sea Girt, an explosion recorded in the Sea Girt war log.
While U.S. lighthouses extinguished or dimmed their lights, Allied ships were able to navigate by LORAN (long-range navigation) and RACON (radar beacon), systems developed by the Allies. A rare World War II photo of Sea Girt shows an antenna strung between two poles taller than the lighthouse. The installation is believed to have been a RACON transponder. When hit with a radar beam from a ship, a RACON transponder sends back a distinct signal of dots and dashes that shows up on the ship’s radar screen that can be plotted to fix the ship’s position.
By October 1942, there were 21 Coast Guardsmen at Sea Girt Lighthouse. The number rose to 28 by June 1943. Four soldiers arrived in August on temporary assignment. They camped on the lawn. The troops patrolled the one-mile stretch from Pier Beach to the north edge of the Army Camp. Coast Guard stations in towns north and south patrolled their local beaches. National Guardsmen patrolled the beach in front of Camp Sea Girt.
By late fall 1943, the number of troops at Sea Girt Lighthouse began to decline, as the tide of war shifted in the favor of the Allies, who by then controlled the North Atlantic. Some of the men at Sea Girt were reassigned to sea duty or other stations. In September 1944, the blackout order was lifted. An automatic light was activated atop the lighthouse tower.
When the war was over, the building was closed and left empty, except for a brief period in 1954 when Coasties oversaw the building of a taller metal truss tower on the northeast corner of the property, to which the automatic light was moved and operated until 1977 when it was shut off and the truss tower dismantled.
Sea Girt Borough bought the lighthouse in 1956 and used it for the recreation program and as the community center. And the parlor became the town library. Since 1981, the volunteers of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee have been responsible for maintaining and operating the lighthouse, keeping it alive with community activity and preserving its history through tours, special events and now the book.
A memorial tower light was installed in 1983, not as a navigational aid, but rather to recreate for visitors and passersby the bygone atmosphere when the tower was illuminated and projected a guiding beacon to mariners. It continues to shine, a beacon to the community and all who visit.
The book concludes with a room-by-room tour from the keeper’s office through the living quarters and on up to the top of the tower. There are photos of many of the rare artifacts on display, including a 1903 keeper’s logbook, a keeper’s lantern used before the living quarters were electrified in 1932, signal lamps, a 4th order Fresnel lens (not the original lens, but the same size), and official communiques from the Lighthouse Service superintendent and the Coast Guard commandant.
“Sea Girt Lighthouse, a lighthouse of distinction with a rich history here thoroughly explored, is a beloved landmark and the symbol of Sea Girt,” notes Virginia Zientek, president of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee.
How to Get The Book
“Your purchase of the book will help maintain this treasure and affirm your commitment to preserving its history,” she adds. All royalties from the sale of the book go to maintenance and operation of the lighthouse.
Copies are available for purchase, $21.99 each, at the lighthouse during Sunday tours, which resume April 27. To order by mail, please send a check for $26.99 for purchase and handling, to Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, P.O. Box 83, Sea Girt, NJ 08750. The book can also be purchased from the publisher’s website (https://historypress.net) or at online bookshops such as Amazon.com.