Monday, July 6, 2015

Absecon Lighthouse: Atlantic City's First Landmark

Atlantic City, New Jersey has changed a lot since I was girl and drove there every few weeks in summer to swim, sun, and walk up and down its famous boardwalk. Back then, the big casinos and mega-hotels were yet to be built. The steel pier was known for Dick Clark and his "American Bandstand," and the Miss America Pageant was held in the city. Driving down Pacific Avenue, you could easily see Absecon Lighthouse, a landmark in the city since the 1850s.

Today, Atlantic City looks more like a mini-Las Vegas. You'll need a GPS to find the Absecon Lighthouse near the intersection of Pacific Avenue and Rhode Island Avenue, and it doesn't come into view until your car is almost upon it. But I'm glad to report the lighthouse looks much better than it did years ago, even in the 1960s when I first saw it. It's loved and protected today and venerated for its beauty and its long history as a beacon for the city.

Atlantic City as seen at night, by Ron Miguel for Wikimedia Commons. No wonder Absecon Lighthouse was deactivated! How would a mariner find it in this glare of lights?

The Atlantic City Coastal Museum opened the lighthouse as a museum in 1979, after it was deactivated. The Coast Guard was looking to close budget loopholes, and a lighthouse beacon upstaged by the bright lights of casinos and hotels was of little use to the mariner. Ships easily recognized Atlantic City from sea as first a loom and then a glare of light! Hidden in all the glitzy glare was Absecon Lighthouse.

So the light station was closed and given to the city. Volunteers got to work refurbishing the place. The tower was spruced up and painted, and a brand new replica of the keepers' quarters was almost ready to be opened as a museum when disaster struck. It happened on July 6, 1998--seventeen years ago today. A police officer patrolling the city in the early morning hours noticed flames coming from the new keepers' dwelling. He reacted immediately, but not before the fire raged through the dwelling and destroyed it.

An investigation pointed to arson. The Absecon Lighthouse Committee, in charge of the project, mourned the loss the new dwelling...but not for long. An insurance settlement allowed them to start over again, and the dwelling was rebuilt and finished in 2001. In the meantime, the tower (it escaped fire damage) was opened for tours. The grand opening of the rebuilt dwelling took place in October 2001.

A bit of history--
Absecon Lighthouse takes it name from the island hunting grounds of Absegami, as the present-day area around Atlantic City was called by the Lenni-Lenape when Henry Hudson passed by in 1609. The name means little water.

Absecon had a busy seaport by 1776. When Dr. Jonathan Pitney arrived and made his home on the island in the 1820s, he began touting the place as healthful and encouraged people to come for vacations and recuperation from illness. Tourists began flocking to Absecon. Pitney urged Congress to approve funding to build a lighthouse at Absecon, but it wasn't until the Camden-Atlantic Railroad connected the island with Philadelphia that the government got serious about a lighthouse.

Absecon Lighthouse was completed in 1856 and lighted on January 15, 1857. It was the first lighthouse completed by the new U.S. Lighthouse Board. Several noted engineers worked on the handsome brick lighthouse, including George G. Meade (he later led Union forces at Gettysburg). When inaugurated it was the tallest lighthouse in New Jersey. It still is.
At 178-feet tall, it's stately indeed, and certainly majestic for its time. Composed of over 500,000 bricks it has a 228-step spiral staircase and for all of its active career exhibited a first-order lens made in Paris. Two homes for the keepers stood beside the tower. They were later expanded to allow a third keeper to reside on the site and help with the work.

But nature, in the unpredictable way she works, soon began changing the shoreline. The tower stood 1,400-feet back from sea when it was built. Slowly, sand was stolen away by the waves until high tides encroached on the lighthouse property. To remedy the situation, several short jetties and one long jetty were constructed. These not only slowed the erosion, they eventually reversed it! Sand piled up and enlarged the island, leaving the lighthouse a considerable distance from the tideline.

In the meantime, the U.S. Lighthouse Board wavered on what the tower's daymark should be. Over the years, it has worn bands of yellow, orange, and blue. Today it sports a dark blue and white banded pattern.

As throngs of beachgoers invaded Atlantic City every summer, visitors began coming to the lighthouse asking for tours. In 1922, for example, 117 people climbed the tower in a single day. The lighthouse became somewhat of a showplace, with pretty gardens and everything kept shipshape by its three keepers. There was no fog signal to tend, but there was plenty of work to do maintaining the place for the public and guiding visitors up and down the tower. The lighthouse earned the nickname "Eiffel Tower of the Atlantic."

Absecon Lighthouse keeper Frank Adams on the lantern gallery with a guest, possibly the district inspector. The photo is dated September 1914 and is courtesy of Jim Claflin.

Today the lighthouse is owned by the New Jersey Dept. of Environmental Protection Division of Parks & Forestry. It is open to the public 10:00-5:00 daily in July and August (until 8:00 pm on Thursdays) and 11:00-4:00 Thursday through Monday the rest of the year.

Lots of fun events are held throughout the year, including weddings, full moon tours, and holiday fun. Check with for more information.

I especially love this part of the website: It honors all the hard workers who keep this lighthouse in good shape and open to the public!

Photo at the beginning is from Wikimedia Commons.

1 comment:

  1. Eleanor, this is a terrific article.
    Was there any procedure/common practice for USCG lighthouse keepers' dealings with tourists?
    I know the USLS handbook (1888) directed keepers to show visitors around between sun up and sun down.
    And I've read that in the 1980s, at New London ledge Lighthouse, the USCG posted a 'Visitors Welcome" sign.
    Was there a policy about this? thank you!


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