Hike through history up N.J.’s lighthouses

From our cozy nests of chairs and towels on Jersey Shore beaches, we sometimes look past N.J.’s 11 historical lighthouses, which have watched over the coast for more than 100 years.

However, they’re much more than an outdated presence or a tourist attraction .

“They are one of the most visible elements of a very important heritage in New Jersey — its maritime history,” said Michael Zuckerman, director of Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities in Cape May (MAC), which manages the Cape May Lighthouse, built in 1859.

Beginning as American lookouts for British troops, N.J.’s lighthouses have been protecting the 144 miles of the Jersey coastline for generations. They served the state’s fishing industry, were part of the defense line in World War II, and were an intergral part of New Jersey’s shipping and commerce sectors.

“The maritime history of the U.S. is so tied to its commerce and growth as an international power and none of that would have happened without lighthouses,” said Mark Stewart, secretary of the Executive Board of Twin Lights Lighthouse, built in 1828.

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Besides learning about American history, New Jerseyans also hike lighthouse steps to get a stellar view of the Jersey Shore.

Jean Muchanic, executive director of the Absecon Lighthouse, built in 1857, said that comments in the Absecon Lighthouse guestbook are often, “amazing,” “fantastic,” and “had no idea how beautiful this would be.”

From the top of the Absecon Lighthouse’s 228 steps, there is a 360-degree view of Atlantic City. It is also the state’s tallest lighthouse and the third-tallest in the country.

At the summit of the 199 steps of the Cape May Lighthouse, visitors can see the Atlantic Ocean, Delaware Bay, Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal and up to the Wildwoods. Plus, Stewart said that “there is different view from every angle, which tells the stories of beach erosion, World War II and Cape May Point.”

The Twin Lights Lighthouse is one of the highest points of the Eastern seaboard at 200-feet above sea level, granting it views of New York City, the Atlantic Ocean and surrounding beaches.

About 2 million artifacts will be brought into the Twin Lights Lighthouse museum tentatively by the end of the summer.  (Courtesy of Twin Lights Historical Society)

About 2 million artifacts will be brought into the Twin Lights Lighthouse museum tentatively by the end of the summer. (Courtesy of Twin Lights Historical Society)

An influx of visitors

The interest in visiting lighthouses is a hobby that continues to grow, especially through television shows such as “Boardwalk Empire” and the annual lighthouse challenge.

Stewart said that since Twin Lights Lighthouse is free, visitors have continued to climb its stairs, particularly for the great view. But he said the board sees these visits as opportunities to educate visitors and help them make modern connections. About 80,000 to 90,000 people visit the lighthouse every year.

“People go up and they look at the boats coming into New York, realizing it’s where the pledge was said for the first time and they find these connections that they didn’t know before,” he said.

Although Twin Lights Lighthouse is free to climb, there are donation boxes, which Stewart said are “filled every day.” He said, “That’s how overwhelming the amount of stuff we have is and the quality of the displays.”

Since casinos Revel and Showboat have closed, Absecon Lighthouse has faced some challenges since they are now four blocks, rather than two blocks, to the closest casino, lessening the pedestrian traffic. About 25,000 to 29,000 people have visited the lighthouse annually for the last three years.

But Muchanic isn’t worried. “It’s just something that fascinates people and they do find them to be beautiful and be beacons of hope,” she said. “What’s neat is that there are some kids who are 3-, 4- or 5-years-old and are telling their parents that they want to see a lighthouse.”

The Cape May Lighthouse is MAC’S most popular attraction and one of the most visited historic sites in the state with 87,000 climbers in 2014 and just as many visiting the site at Cape May Point State Park.

Zuckerman said, “Some people view the Cape May Lighthouse as a spiritual experience since there is this notion that this structure was there to save lives. This tall tower of this beaming light has helped thousands.”

Cape May Lighthouse had a $2 million 15-year restoration.  (Courtesy of Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts in Cape May)

Cape May Lighthouse had a $2 million 15-year restoration. (Courtesy of Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts in Cape May)

Restoration and preservation

The preservation of lighthouses has been supported by substantial efforts of local boards and historical societies.

Cape May Lighthouse had a $2 million 15-year restoration to repaint the lighthouse, restore the windows and doors, the oil house, lantern roof and windows, interior walls and staircase, grounds and add safety improvements.

A 1999 multi-million dollar restoration of the Absecon Lighthouse included a replica of the Lightkeeper’s dwelling, an educational museum, Fresnel Lens exhibit in the original Oil House and expansive grounds.

About 2 million artifacts will be brought into the Twin Lights Lighthouse museum tentatively by the end of the summer, giving it the opportunity to constantly rotate exhibits. This way, visitors could be incentivized to return to the lighthouse just months later since new exhibits will constantly be on display.

With a complete enhancement of Twin Lights Lighthouse’s museum, Stewart said he hopes visitor numbers will be bumped up by about 30 percent.

“We see this as a way of helping the community,” Stewart said. “We are very tied in to the Highlands part of the Jersey Shore that got hit by Hurricane Sandy and the more people that spend in the local economy with us, the more we can give back.”

The Absecon Lighthouse is the state’s tallest lighthouse and the third-tallest in the country. (Photo: ~File photo)

The Absecon Lighthouse is the state’s tallest lighthouse and the third-tallest in the country.
(Photo: ~File photo)

N.J.’S LIGHTHOUSES

Absecon Lighthouse is at 31 S Rhode Island Ave. in Atlantic City and is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and until 8 p.m. on Thursdays during July and August. Admission ranges from $3 to $7. Visitabseconlighthouse.org or call 609-449-1360 for more information.

Cape May Lighthouse is at 215 Lighthouse Ave. in Cape May Point and is open everyday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for children 3-12. Visit capemaymac.org/attractions/capemaylighthouse.html or call 609-884-5404for more information.

Twin Lights Lighthouse is at Lighthouse Rd. in the Highlands and is closed Monday and Tuesday and open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Visit twinlightslighthouse.com or call 732-872-1814 for more information.

THE STATE’S OTHER LIGHTHOUSES

  • Barnegat Lighthouse
  • Sandy Hook Lighthouse
  • Sea Girt Lighthouse
  • Tucker’s Island Light
  • Hereford Inlet Lighthouse
  • East Point Lighthouse
  • Finn’s Point Rear Range Light
  • Tinicum Rear Range Lighthouse

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