THE LIGHTHOUSES ALONG NEW JERSEY'S shore are so much more than photographs on souvenir postcards, subjects for paintings and models for light-catchers in kitchen windows. Although often overshadowed at vacation time by beaches, sun and seashells, they have stories to tell to all who are willing to listen.
Just as surely as waves roll in and rake sand and shells into their swirling grasp for an instant, exploring the state's lighthouses is like breezing into history at full sail.
"The lighthouses represent the maritime history of the nation, when wooden ships were sailed by iron men," says Brett Franks, spokesman for the 1,000-member New Jersey Lighthouse Society.
A volunteer at the Absecon Lighthouse in Atlantic City, Franks says, "We tell people what life was like for the keepers whose job it was to keep the lights blazing from sunset to sunrise and spend the rest of their waking hours maintaining the buildings and equipment."
The lights were never designed for their keepers' comfort, he adds. "When the keeper was at his post in the watch room, it could be as cold indoors as it was outdoors in winter. There was just enough heat to keep the lamp oil from freezing. In summer, it could be very hot, particularly since the men wore wool uniforms.
"In winter, they also had to keep the windows from freezing over with ice by washing them down with salt water. Hanging off hand- and footholds on the outside of the light, with snow falling and a good wind blowing, was very dangerous. These men had to have plenty of guts to do their jobs," Franks says.
But the importance of what they did to protect shipping isn't open to any debate. Author David Veasey, who wrote Guarding New Jersey's Shore: Lighthouses and Life-Saving Stations (Arcadia Publishing, $19.99), explains their role.
"New Jersey's flat, low-lying coast, without harbors of refuge, was especially treacherous. Danger lurked in the shoals several hundred yards offshore, running along most of the coast's 127 miles and in its arms jutting into the sea at Sandy Hook and Cape May.
"A glance at the navigational charts shows why: As ships followed a coastal route north or south in the Age of Sail, winds blowing toward the land could easily drive vessels onto those shoals."
Although Cape Hatteras, N.C., has the reputation for being the Graveyard of the Atlantic, Veasey writes, "The truer graveyard of the Atlantic is New Jersey's coast. More shipwrecks have been documented here than at Cape Hatteras, according to shipwreck data in the Life-Saving Service's annual reports for the 25 years between 1887 and 1911. During that period, New Jersey recorded 1,257 shipwrecks, while North Carolina had 916."
But many of the lighthouses have become victims, too, of time, neglect and the elements. Some have rusted away. Others, of bricks, stone or rubble, have crumbled slowly and dropped into the sea.
According to the list maintained on the New Jersey Lighthouse Society Web site, njlhs.org, a total of 18 lighthouses, lightships and beacons have faded from existence. Of those that remain, only 11 are open to the public.
Visiting the grounds, climbing the towers and checking out historic exhibits and museums truly is a time to see the light and appreciate the role these structures have played, and in some cases, continue to play, in saving lives.
There are tall lighthouses. Short, stubby ones. A lighthouse that looks like a Victorian home (Sea Girt). A Swiss Gothic-style summer cottage with a tower jutting from its roof (Hereford Inlet). And the rare twin brownstone lighthouses at Navesink in the Atlantic Highlands that resemble the front of a military fort.
Travel the coastline and see conical towers, round and rectangular ones, too. Although less appealing to the eye, there also are skeletal towers (with black tubes housing the stairs to the top and an open-to-view web of metal poles and cables supporting them).
Check out their day marks (outdoor paint schemes) that readily identify the various lighthouses by day. Absecon's tower sports yellow-and-black bands, while Cape May has a white tower with a red top. Barnegat is half-red (on top) and half-white (on bottom), while Finn's Point and Tinicum Island, the skeletal towers, are solid black.
See them at night and the lighthouses' night marks (light patterns) provide different identifying features. When the sun sets, their guiding beams are the keys to their identities. Sandy Hook has a fixed white beam. Hereford Inlet releases a white flash of light every 10 seconds. East Point's signal is a red flash on for three seconds and then off for three seconds.
If you're a fit-as-a-fiddle, cardio type, climb their stairs for stunning views of the seashore as you've never seen it before. Incidentally, climbing all stairs in the 11 lighthouses open to the public would be the start to a good fitness program. Count them yourself, but the figure should be close to 1,303 steps.
Need a more specific goal? Climb the 228 stairs at Absecon in Atlantic City, which is the tallest lighthouse in New Jersey and third-tallest freestanding masonry lighthouse in the country. Go for the 199 at Cape May without having to stop to catch your breath. Or at least tackle the 45 steps at East Point in Heislerville.
But which lighthouses should you see if there isn't time to see them all? "That's a tough question for a lighthouse guy to answer," Franks says. "Each light has its own claim to fame."
There are ways to make choices, however. Absecon, for example, is celebrating its 150th anniversary with assorted special programs as well as regular programs about the lighthouse provided by Franks and other volunteers. On the 15th of each month for the rest of the year (commemorating the first lighting of the lighthouse on Jan. 15, 1857) there will be a special event.
Cape May has one of the most extensive collections of programs, including its free Story Telling at the Lighthouse (readings from lighthouse, seashore and maritime literature for younger children) and the Keepers on Duty presentation about what it was like to tend the light. The other program, Spirits of the Light, includes a trolley tour and visit to the lighthouse with narration focusing on ghosts and spirits. The group is met by a costumed Keeper who leads them into the lighthouse, where he tells a ghostly tale. Offered in summer and the shoulder seasons, the cost is $20 for adults and $10 for children.
The Twin Lights at Navesink, a showplace during the golden era of the lights, was the first to have a first-order light fueled by kerosene in 1883 and the first electrically-powered lighthouse in 1898. At the time, the south tower became the most powerful lighthouse in the country with a beam that could be seen 22 miles out to sea. It also was used by Marconi to test wireless communications between ship and shore. Its accompanying lighthouse museum also features the Life-Saving Service.
When it comes to history, Sandy Hook is the nation's oldest original operating lighthouse. It went into service in 1764 and even was a bone of contention between the colonists and invading British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. The light's keeper, who lived in a stone dwelling beside the tower, had a "contract of service" that allowed him to keep and pasture two cows but also dictated that he was not to use the lighthouse tower as a "public-house for selling strong liquors."
Sea Girt's lighthouse, in the style of a Victorian home, is beautifully restored. Hereford Inlet, the only Swiss Gothic-style lighthouse on the East Coast, boasts the grandest keepers' quarters, which are warmed by five fireplaces. Grounds are covered with flower gardens in summer.
Absecon, Barnegat and Cape May all have ties to one of the Civil War's most famous generals. Surveying and constructing them was done under the direction of Maj. Gen. George Meade in the years before he commanded the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Gettysburg.
East Point, a Cape Cod-style lighthouse in the marshes on the shore of the Delaware Bay and at the mouth of the Maurice River, shows how isolated even shore lighthouses could be -- although those out at sea were much worse.
Franks' reluctance to single out certain lighthouses as worth a visit becomes understandable. The more you learn about the lighthouses, the more difficult it is to decide which to visit or skip during a shore getaway.
That's also one of the reasons why the Lighthouse Society has developed the annual Lighthouse Challenge. It's a two-day immersion plan that gives participants the chance to visit all 11 lighthouses.
During the rest of the year, Franks explains, "It's a little harder to get to all of lights because some, like East Point, Finn's Point and Tinicum Rear Range Light, aren't open all that often. But this is the one weekend a year (always the third weekend in October), when you can get into every one of them.
"Our Lighthouse Challenge is like a road rally for lighthouse enthusiasts. It's also intended to encourage more people to learn about lighthouses and begin exploring them for the first time. In the long run, that's what will help us preserve them for future generations, rather than standing by while still more of them crumble into the sea," Franks says.
Diane Stoneback writes for The (Allentown, Pa.) Morning Call
ONLINE To see more photos of New Jersey and Maryland lighthouses, go to baltimoresun.com / lighthouses
Take Maryland's Lighthouse Challenge, then head north for another
Ready for a challenge?
Maryland and New Jersey each host a Lighthouse Challenge.
The Maryland challenge takes place Saturday and Sept. 16.
Participants will have two days to visit the lighthouses at Turkey Point, Concord Point, the Lightship Chesapeake, Seven Foot Knoll, Hooper Strait, Drum Point, Cove Point, Point Lookout, Piney Point and Fort Washington.
Participants will receive tokens upon visiting the lighthouses. They will also get a complimentary commemorative souvenir at each lighthouse; a special souvenir will be given to those that visit all the lighthouses.
Those who complete both the Maryland and New Jersey challenges should take their tokens to the New Jersey Lighthouse Society volunteers at the last lighthouse they visit in New Jersey to receive a Dual Challenge souvenir.
For more information on the Maryland challenge, which is in its fifth year, go to cheslights.org.
The New Jersey challenge is Oct. 20 and 21. The event lets participants experience some "night climbs," which generally are not offered at other times.
Climbing at night, according to New Jersey Lighthouse Society spokesman Brett Franks, gives visitors an entirely different view of the shore and offers the chance to see the glow cast by the lights dotting the state's shoreline.
For more information on the New Jersey challenge, go to njlhs.org.
No sign-ups or advance registrations are required for the challenges. All participants need to do is choose their best route to get to all of the lighthouses within the appointed time.
The challenges do not require climbing to the top of each lighthouse. Participants just need to visit each property and check in with volunteers there.
The (Allentown, Pa.) Morning Call and Sun staff
NEW JERSEY LIGHTHOUSES
For more information about lighthouses, go to the Web site of the New Jersey Lighthouse Society, njlhs.org. The society's members hold quarterly meetings and publish a newsletter called The Beam four times a year. Annual dues are $20 per individual and $25 per family.
Also available at njlhs.org are links for New Jersey lighthouses that have their own Web sites, national and international organizations working to preserve lighthouses, and additional resources.