Nestled on the northern most end of Long Beach Island, adjacent to what is now some of the last of New Jersey’s historical maritime forestry, there is a beacon of light that has deep meaning beyond any ordinary lighthouse. Celebrating its 160th year in existence, the Barnegat Lighthouse, or Ol’ Barney as it is affectionately referred to by locals, is a symbol of times gone by, built on generations of family legacies and representing much of the robust history this island has to offer. We explore some of the nostalgia that our island natives share with us about a whole other time period— an era when the Barnegat Lighthouse was one of the most crucial navigational aids of the east coast— not only safely guiding boats from Europe sailing west along the popular parallel 40° north course (which was the latitude followed by ships sailing to America), but it was particularly known as a significant “change of course point” for these boats, who would identify the light as the Barnegat Lighthouse and therefore would know to turn north towards New York Harbor. Moreover, it prevented countless deadly shipwrecks in the treacherous waters of the Barnegat Inlet and the Atlantic Ocean over the years.
Back in 1834, when talk of the necessity of a leading light was spurring, a 40-foot subpar lighthouse structure was built about 300 feet away from the waters of the Barnegat inlet as an attempt to navigate seafarers around the area’s most dangerous currents, hidden rocks and shoals. After a record number of tragic shipwrecks even after this $6,000 lighthouse was built, it wasn’t long before the building’s non-flashing, (low-grade) fifth-class light was considered gravely inadequate. The government commissioned Lieutenant George G. Meade, a United States Army Corps engineer (and later, a Union General hero during the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg), to design and build a new-and-improved lighthouse beginning in 1857 through 1858. The official Barnegat Lighthouse that still stands to this day was first lit on January 1, 1859. It cost $60,000 and required about 675,000 bricks to build. The new, élite first-order lens, designed by Augustine Fresnel and built in France by Henri LePaute, was 6 feet wide and 12 feet tall. It weighed five tons and was made up of 1,024 glass prisms which would help ensure the new light visible to sailors as far as a whopping 19 miles out to sea (more than double the distance of the last lighthouse). And since every lighthouse of the day had its own distinguishable light signal that helped sailors decipher which lighthouse and inlet or port they were approaching at night, and the Barnegat Lighthouse’s unique flash pattern was deemed one flash every 10 seconds. During the day lighthouses were identified by their daymarks, which were distinct patterns or colors that gave each one it’s unique qualities. Old Barney’s daymark was to be a red top half with a white bottom.
For anyone that has ever taken in the stunning aerial views from atop of Ol’ Barney, the first-hand experience of climbing 217 steps in a lighthouse that sits 172 feet above sea level yields the realization that this is no easy feat. One may imagine how difficult it must have been for a lightkeeper and his family to make the trek multiple times a day, while hauling gallons of lamp oil. “That was a part of the everyday shift work and the kids would all pitch in—my mother and her four siblings would take turns walking oil up to the top where the lamp was,” shares Dennis Flynn, Long Beach Island native whose Grandfather, Frank L. Thompson, was one of the last lighthouse keeper assistants Barnegat Light had seen by the end of his term in 1920. (Dennis owns the Haven Beach Motel with his brother Bill, which, interestingly enough, was built in 1959 by their father, who is accredited with having named and developed most of present-day Haven Beach.) Since there were always three keepers employed at a time, night watches were usually divided into three equal shifts—and, from sun down to sun up, it was each keeper’s job to ensure that light remained lit all night long while simultaneously keeping a close watch over the horizon. Overnight responsibilities included hauling oil buckets up the staircase to ensure it never ran out of fuel and winding the clockwork mechanism responsible for turning the lens every hour (and if that fine piece of machinery malfunctioned, which it often did, you can bet they had to hand crank that five-ton lens manually). Other factors in keeping it well-lit included trimming the lantern wicks and cleaning the lenses and lamp itself every single day, first dusting it with a feather brush, then wiping it with a soft linen cloth, and lastly polishing it with a buff-skin.
Perhaps one of the lesser known, yet equally important civic duties of a lighthouse keeper, was more that of an unofficial lifeguard, as it wasn’t uncommon for them to make water rescues regularly. In fact, one nightshift in 1918 it was the Flynns’ grandmother, Mrs. Edna Thompson, who had spotted an explosion and then a ship sinking out in the horizon and a small lifeboat struggling to make it ashore—so she waded waist-deep into the ocean and their lifeboat in singlehandedly. The keeper’s wife later learned that the ship, Chaparra, was actually a freighter making its way north from Cuba with a cargo full of raw sugar and accidentally detonated an underwater German mine left over from World War I— which consequentially ended up sinking the ship about 7 miles from the coast. Often referred to as the graveyard of the Atlantic, it was a commonality for the families who inhabited the three-family keepers’ home to encounter bodies that had washed up onshore from shipwrecks out at sea. A regular chore for the wives and children even included collecting the dead ducks around the perimeter of the lighthouse, as the Flynns’ grandmother used to do, since it was common for water fowl and shore birds to fly violently into portions of the lighthouse structure. More often than not, especially after a big storm, it meant they were having duck for dinner.
At the same time that the Flynns’ grandfather was stationed at the Barnegat Lighthouse, the head keeper for whom he worked was a man named Clarence H. Cranmer, arguably one of the most popular and longest-serving keepers in all of the lighthouse’s history (43 years in service). As his great-grandniece Kathy King shares, Cranmer was first owner of the Clarence House (which was a famous bar & restaurant, and later, hotel) in Barnegat before relocating to Long Beach Island and becoming a lighthouse keeper in Barnegat Light. (It would be Kathy’s great grandfather, Elmer King, Clarence’s brother-in-law, who would be responsible for building the wildly successful Beach Haven boardwalk in 1916.) Following Clarence was Andrew E. Applegate, the lighthouse’s last official head keeper and founder of Applegate’s General Store (formerly Butterworth’s), which later became the Inlet Deli in Barnegat Light.
The lighthouse was turned over to the State of New Jersey (and later deactivated) in April 1926 when a lightship was placed 8 miles offshore from the inlet and eliminated the need for the onshore light. The Fresnel lens was removed in 1927 and taken to district headquarters on Staten Island. By the time Applegate’s term was coming to an end, an electric lamp was being used in the now minor aid to navigation. He tragically drowned in 1928 during his term as the last keeper while fishing near the lighthouse with his son, Robert. Robert was later appointed as lamplighter to look after the light following his father’s death.
The battle to save the lighthouse from erosion had begun generations earlier when a number of short jetties were constructed perpendicular to the shoreline in 1869 and 1870. Newspaper records at the time even reported local residents dumping everything from “abandoned cars, to rusty bed springs, to kitchen stoves and other junk” along the coast in a desperate attempt to save the Barnegat Lighthouse from destruction. Over the years beach replenishment and jetties have helped to slow down the erosion and the area around the lighthouse was declared a state park and dedicated in 1957. Thanks to the Friends of Barnegat Lighthouse, the nonprofit group dedicated to preserving and promoting the park, funds were raised to purchase a new Coast Guard-approved lens and 150 years after its original lighting day, on January 1, 2009, the Barnegat Lighthouse was officially relit and is being used as a back-up, complimentary navigational aid to the mariners at sea.
The 32-acre park was created in 1957. The main attraction is the lighthouse, which you can climb to the top-most lookout point. From this lofty perch there are wonderful views of LBI, the Atlantic Ocean, Barnegat Bay, Barnegat Inlet and Island Beach State Park. In addition to visiting the lighthouse, people come to the park to walk, birdwatch, learn about maritime history and fish. There is a small remnant maritime forest in the park that is dominated by Black Cherry, Sassafras, Eastern Red Cedar, and American Holly. A short loop trail heads out from the interpretive center, and has walkways to guide you over some parts of the route. There are interpretive signs along the way that tell you about the birds and plants you may see during your walk. There is a long 1,000 ft. plus concrete walkway that extends from the lighthouse to a portion of the southern border of Barnegat Inlet. Here you can see boats coming and going from the bay and observe birds and sea life along the edge of the inlet jetty. The lighthouse dominates the landscape throughout this area and you will have a nice view of it as you stroll along the walkway. Be sure to visit the Interpretive Center before leaving the park in order to learn more details surrounding the Barnegat Lighthouse. Cheers to 160 more years, Old Barney!