Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Old Barnegat Light: What's in a Name?

I had a wonderful time yesterday--August 12, 2014--speaking to a group of women on Bainbridge Island, Washington. They call themselves SWERV--Savvy Women Exchanging Relevant Views. We talked about women lightkeepers. They were a fantastic audience for my "Keepers in Skirts: Women of the U.S. Lighthouse Service."

During Q&A time, one of them asked me if I'd ever been to Barnegat Lighthouse on the New Jersey shore. I have...many times!

This snapshot was taken by my husband on a trip to Long Beach Island and Barnegat Lighthouse in the late 1990s. It was a warm summer day, perfect for the beach.

We also visited the Coast Guard Station in Barnegat and saw the grave of Sinbad, the famous Coast Guard mascot. There's a fun article about him here: (Photo of Sinbad's grave at the Barnegat Coast Guard Station is by Jerry Lentz)

Back to Barnegat Light:
I've heard many explanations for the name Barnegat. The one that makes the most sense and is historically accepted is that Barnegat was named by the Dutch settlers of the area. They called it Barendegat, meaning "inlet of the surf." Apparently, they thought the water here was turbulent, and it is. Hence, there's a lighthouse! Barendegat soon got slurred and compressed on non-Dutch-speaking tongues until it became Barnegat.
A more amusing and fun explanation for the name Barnegat comes from the lore of the area. Lore, of course, often provides a much more colorful interpretation of fact. See for yourself! Here's a poem that explains the origin of the name:
The Light-Keeper’s Daughter
A Naughty Gal Ballad
By Adam Clark
In the bay of Barnegat sailed a jolly, jolly tar,
And he watched like a cat o’er the water,
‘Til he spied from the main-top-gallant-forward-mizzen spar
The pretty little light-keeper’s daughter.
Then he landed on the land, did this jolly, jolly tar,
And he chased her o’er the sand ‘til he caught her.
Says he, “My pretty miss, I’ve got to have a kiss
From the pretty little light-keeper’s daughter.”
But she squealed a little squeal at the jolly, jolly tar,
And said she didn’t feel as if she ought to;
Then she scooted up the bar and hollered for her ma, —
Oh, the pretty little light-keeper’s daughter!
“Sure my name is Barney Flynn,” said the jolly, jolly tar,
And at drinkin’ Holland gin I’m a snorter.”
Then a tub of washing-blue, soap she suddenly threw—
Did the mother of the light-keeper’s daughter.
“Now, Barney, git!” she spat, at the jolly, jolly tar;
And you bet that Barney gat for the water.
Thus the place from near and far was named by the ma
Of the pretty little light-keeper’s daughter!
Barnegat Light is well worth a visit, especially this time of year when the beach is breezy, the lighthouse is open for tours, and there are plenty of good food stands nearby selling fried clams and ice cream! (If memory serves me right, Jon and I had fried clams, fries, and ice cream sundaes after visiting the lighthouse!)
The lighthouse went into service January 1, 1859, replacing an earlier tower built in 1835, one much too short and feeble to aid mariners. This sort of learning curve was common in the early days of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. There were many lighthouses built too small, too close to the erosive beach, or not bright enough to do the job needed. Barnegat's first lighthouse was among them. It's second one was much better!
The 1859 tower was tall and strong! It was built by Lt. George G. Meade, an engineer for the U.S. Army. Meade built a number of lighthouses early in his army career, and he was innovative at times. He designed a special lamp for lighthouses and he also designed and built several of the amazing screwpile lighthouses that stand on the Florida Reef. Then, as a General during the Civil War, he became famous for leading Union troops to victory at Gettysburg. Meade, it seems, could fight a battle on land and sea!
The photo above shows Meade's lighthouse and its dwelling for two keepers and their families, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The 163-foot-tall lighthouse had a first-order flashing Fresnel lens purchased from the firm of Henry Le Paute of Paris. This was a great expense and was a quarter of the total budget for the lighthouse. The beacon served admirably for more than 60 years.
The lighthouse was downgraded to a small gas lamp in 1924 in favor of a lightship anchored offshore closer to the perils of this part of the coast. The shoreline had changed, and lightships were a popular solution to the problem of getting the light out to sea over the shallows that could so easily snag ships.
The  Barnegat light tower with its small gas lamp was given to the State of New Jersey that same year, and the opulent Fresnel lens was removed, stored in New York City for a time, and then taken to a museum in Chicago, far from its home.
Erosion plagued the lighthouse, but local citizens rallied and did all they could to halt the march of the sea toward their beloved sentinel. In the early 1930s they created a makeshift jetty out of junk cars and other materials that were sunk around the lighthouse to protect it. In 1934 the federal government funded a series of steel rings to girdle the base of the tower and steel pilings near the water's edge.
In 1944 the light in the tower was decommissioned, no longer needed. Local residents were relentless in assuring their lighthouse wasn't destroyed, a fate that was dealt to many excess light towers in these years. In 1955 they managed to get back the lens from Chicago's Museum of Science & Industry and place it on display in the Barnegat Historical Museum. A bust of George G. Meade was erected at the base of the lighthouse.
Photo of the lens on display at the Barnegat Historical Museum is courtesy of Kraig Anderson of Lighthouse Friends.
For several decades, the public visited and climbed the tower for a bird-eye view of the barrier beach and ocean. In the late 1980s, after a piece of the tower broke loose and fell to the ground, funds were secured to give the lighthouse a complete overall. It was opened again for public tours in 1991 and a new jetty was built to protect it. Then, in 2008, money raised by the Friends of Barnegat Light, resulted in a beacon being returned to the lantern, a modern optic from Vega Industries of New Zealand. The lighthouse was ceremoniously relighted on New Year's Day 2009, exactly 150 years after it was originally placed in service.
Old Barney, as the lighthouse is nicknamed, may be a ornery as Barney Flynn, the jolly, jolly tar. It's definitely more persistent...and still on watch 160 years later!


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