Lighthouse visitors and passersby were recently taken back in time more than a century to the earliest days of Sea Girt Lighthouse as members of the North Jersey Chapter of the Horseless Carriage Club of America parked their very early, classic cars by the lighthouse, their first stop on a four-day tour of the Shore.
Rolling relics of automotive history, built between 1902 and 1907 at the dawn of automobile era, parked on Ocean Avenue in front of the shore landmark of navigational history, which was activated only a few years before these hand-built cars began their long journeys over America’s expanding road network.
Two Seats, Two Cylinders, No Doors
Most of the vintage cars were two seaters and propelled by two-cylinder engines. The fleet included: a Buick, two examples of Henry Ford’s very first model car, the Ford Model A, also a Maxwell, a fire-engine red Reo and a maroon Reo, an Oldsmobile, a Yale and a four-seat Franklin touring car. Typical of the era, they were equipped with hand-crank ignitions, running boards, spoke wheels, kerosene-burning headlamps and rubber bulb brass air horns but no doors. Instead of steering wheels, a few of the automobiles had tillers. Top speeds averaged around 20 m.p.h. Windshields had two panes of framed glass, the top frame could be raised or lowered. Half of the cars were open touring cars, the others had canvas tops that could be manually raised or lowered. Some had wicker baskets and spare tires secured by leather straps to the running boards. None had storage trunks.
The majority of the cars were made in the Michigan, which in time would emerge as America’s Motor Capital. Ford’s Model A’s were built in the Mack Avenue plant in Detroit, which would become known worldwide as Motor City. But the early Michigan car makers, like Buick and Oldsmobile as well as Ford, did have some out-of-state rivals. The Maxwell was made by the Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Co., of Tarrytown, New York. The Kirk Manufacturing Company, of Toledo, Ohio, produced their Yale touring cars in Toledo, Ohio from 1901-05. The Franklin Automobile Company produced its high-end cars in Syracuse, New York. When these cars were new, their price tags ranged from $800 for a 1903 Ford Model A to $3,000 for the four-seat 1904 Franklin. The equivalent amounts, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator, in 2016 dollars would be $20,952.97 for the Model A and $78,573.64 for the Franklin.
Seen and Heard, While Seeing the Sights
This is the club’s 24th Annual North Jersey Region Shore Tour, which is an opportunity for members to see historic sites and for their historic horseless carriages to be seen. The drivers and their passengers, who doubled as a navigators and mechanics, met up that Thursday morning, parking their classic attention-grabbing machines along Ocean Pathway by the Great Auditorium in the beachfront town of Ocean Grove, eight miles north of Sea Girt. Several participants in the four-day tour trailered their cars to Ocean Grove to save on the wear and tear.
Around 1:45 p.m., they cranked up their engines and the caravan headed south along Ocean Avenue for the 20 minute drive to the lighthouse. Once they had parked their cars, they were greeted by lighthouse docents Conrad and Harriet Yauch and Jim Sandford, who gave the visitors guided tours that took them from the keeper’s office, through the house, and into the tower’s lantern room at the top.
The chance sightings of the vintage automobiles attracted pedestrians, including those walking the boardwalk, and motorists who pulled into the nearest available parking spaces and ambled over for a closer look. The event also attracted photographers and reporters. Covering the event for the lighthouse website was Henry Bossett, whose photographs accompany this article. Reporter MaryAnn Spoto’s news article, photographs and video can be seen at NJ.com (nj.com/monmouth/index.ssf/2016/05/history_meets_history_at_sea_girt_lighthouse.html). Reporter Matt Conte and photographer Ryan Welsh covered the event for The Coast Star.
The lighthouse tour had been requested and club arrangements made by John Rendemonti, of the local chapter of the Horseless Carriage Club and the man behind the wheel of the 1904 Franklin. After their hour-long lighthouse tour, John and other club members proudly stood by their cars and answered questions from those who had gathered around. Then it was time to motor off, back to Ocean Grove. In the coming days their annual tour would take them to Sandy Hook Lighthouse and Navesink Twin Lights and other historic sites, traveling 30-40 miles a day in Monmouth County.
Contacting Sea Girt Lighthouse
Sea Girt Lighthouse is maintained and operated by the all-volunteer Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, Inc. The building is in use some 180 days a year and visited by several thousand people annuallay. Several community groups meet there regularly. Recurring events include a summer art show, October’s Lighthouse Challenge and a twice-yearly night climb. Docents conduct Sunday tours, 2-4 p.m. mid-April through mid-November, except holiday weekends. Group tours are conducted year-round by prior arrangement. Volunteers and visitors are always welcome.
To volunteer, ask a question, offer a comment or inquire about arranging a group tour, call the lighthouse at 732-974-0514 and leave a message, or email from the lighthouse website’s Contact Us page (http://www.seagirtlighthouse.com/contact.aspx), or write us at Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, P.O. Box 83, Sea Girt, NJ 08750. For the latest news and photos of Sea Girt Lighthouse, visit our website.
Photographs by Henry Bossett