While the Jersey Shore has been made famous by shows such as “Jersey Shore”, “Boardwalk Empire” and “MTV’s TRL”, the New Jersey coastline used to be infamous among sailors. Over a thousand shipwrecks litter the coast, sunk there by mariners who underestimated the dangers of the shoreline. New Jersey has two major port cities near it, New York City and Philadelphia. This led to a high volume of ship traffic around some of the most dangerous areas. The historic lighthouses along the New Jersey coast played a vital role in preventing shipwrecks.
As a result of the many deaths and shipwrecks, New Jersey had a high number of lighthouses. At the height of the lighthouse era, 38 were operating along the Jersey coast, with 6 additional lightships. These warned ships of dangerous areas and guided them safely onto the correct course.
Of the 38 lighthouses that once operated, 18 still remain. Not all of these are open for visits. But those that are open to the public are a great place to visit for a glimpse into the past. The historic lighthouses, all located in New Jersey, are well worth a visit.
Sandy Hook Lighthouse (Highlands, NJ 07732)
The Sandy Hook lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse in the US! It was first lit on June 11, 1764. Isaac Conro designed and built the lighthouse about 500 feet from the shore. Today it stands about a mile and a half from the coastline. The lighthouse has been in continuous operation ever since. The only times it went dark were during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and both World Wars. It stands at 103 feet tall. Originally, the light was provided by 48 oil blazes. Now it uses a 3rd order Fresnel lens, installed in 1857. TOn October 15, 1966, the National Register of Historic Places added the Sandy Hook Lighthouse to its list.
Sandy Hook Lighthouse is on the grounds of Fort Hancock, which has a bunch of other interesting history on display. A lovely self-guided tour is available of the whole base. I highly recommend it, as it is almost completely flat and has about 40 stops that encompass the history of the base and the area around it.
The light still operates today. The National Park Service administers the lighthouse and offers tours on the weekends.
Cape May Lighthouse (Cape May, NJ 08204)
The Cape May Lighthouse is one of the most popular historic lighthouses in New Jersey, and certainly one of the most iconic. Built in 1859, this lighthouse overlooks both the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware River. This is actually the third lighthouse on this site. The ocean destroyed the first lighthouse when it flooded. The second lighthouse, poorly built, succumbed to erosion. The current lighthouse stands at 157 feet tall and is still in use today. Cape May’s lighthouse originally used a first-order Fresnel Lens, the largest available. Today it uses a rotating aerobeacon. National Register of Historic Places added the Cape May Lighthouse on November 12, 1973.
The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts currently is leasing the lighthouse and opened it to the public in 1988. You can visit the lighthouse and keepers station Friday through Saturday, 12-3 PM
Navesink Twin Lights (Highlands, NJ 07732)
The Navesink Twin Lights are the only lighthouses built in a fortress style within the United States. This alone makes these historic lighthouses well worth a trip. The original Twin Lights were built in 1828. Joseph Lederle built the second Twin Lights that stands today in 1868. The Twin Lights hold the honor of being the first US lighthouse to have a Fresnel lens installed. Fresnel lenses were much more effective at magnifying light and are still used in some places today. Fort Monmouth was involved with the Twin Lights, conducting secret experiments with radar. Keeping with this tradition, the Twin Lights was also a site for some of the earliest radio navigation experiments.
The Twin Lights ceased operations in 1954. Other navigational aids replaced the lights. The lights were converted into a museum after being rendered obsolete and deactivated. The National Register of Historic Places added the Twin Lights on December 2, 1970. The historic lighthouses are still imposing and an amazing landmark.
The grounds are always open to visitors. However, the museum is only open from Wednesday to Sunday, 10-4 PM. Tours are available from Wednesday to Saturday.
Hereford Inlet Lighthouse (North Wildwood, NJ 08260)
Lieutenant Colonial William Reynolds built the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse in 1873. Congress approved the building of the lighthouse mainly for smaller vessels and the steamers traveling around the mouth of the Delaware River.
On May 11, 1874, the light activated for the first time. The tower stands at 49 and 1/2 feet tall. Mariners can see the light for 13 miles. The lighthouse held church services in its early days. The first keeper, John Marche, died only three months into his service. He drowned when his boat capsized as he returned to the island. Due to some intense storms that actually moved the lighthouse off of its foundations, the structure was moved about 150 feet to the west, away from the waters that threatened it.
Like all other historic lighthouses in NJ, the Hereford Inlet light went dark during World War II when the Germans were operating off the Jersey Coast. It returned to service but was decommissioned in 1964, replaced by a metal skeletal structure. By 1982, the local lighthouse society petitioned for control of the lighthouse. They restored both the lighthouse and the amazing gardens that surround it. 1986 saw the light returned from the skeletal structure that housed it, back into the lighthouse proper. It’s been operating there ever since.
Originally equipped with a fourth-order Fresnel lens, the light is now a VRB-25 beacon, installed by the Coast Guard in 2018. The National Register of Historic Places added it on September 20, 1977
The Hereford Inlet Lighthouse grounds are open year-round for visits. The gardens are impressive and well worth the trip in spring and summer. The tour of the lighthouse is self-guided. You can visit the lighthouse between May and October between 9 to 5 PM
Sea Girt Lighthouse (Sea Girt, NJ 08750)
The Sea Girt Lighthouse is quite possibly my favorite lighthouse on this list. The funds for the Sea Girt Lighthouse were planned for 1889, but the lighthouse wasn’t built until 1896. As you can see from the photo above, it’s one of the few lighthouses that has the tower integrated into the keeper’s quarters. Sea Girt was the last lighthouse built in this style on the East coast. The light was first lit on December 10, 1896. The light was a fourth-order Fresnel lens, capable of being seen for 15 miles out to sea.
A radio beacon was installed in 1921. This allowed ships to navigate in poor conditions and heavy fog. Despite the success of the radio beacon, the transmitters were moved to the Barnegat Lightship and the Sea Girt radio beacon was decommissioned.
The Sea Girt Lighthouse played a role in the famous SS Morro Castle disaster. When the ship caught fire on September 8, 1936, it used the lighthouse to fix its position. It also helped the survivors find the shore as they tried to survive the rough seas. As rescuers braved the storm to find survivors, the lighthouse served as a first aid station.
The light went dark with the outbreak of WWII. After the war was over, the lighthouse returned to operation for roughly a decade. 1955 saw the light decommissioned. The Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee saved and restored the lighthouse in 1981.
Tours are available every Sunday from 2 – 4 PM, from mid-April to Thanksgiving.
Want to Learn More?
Below are some of the awesome sources I used to help put this list together. (Note, the book links are affiliate links, so if you purchase the books I will get a small percentage of the sale. I will never link a book I haven’t purchased and read myself first.)
The National Park Service keeps up the Sandy Hook Lighthouse informational site- See the site here!
The Twin Lights Museum was an excellent resource- check them out here!
The Cape May Lighthouse website doesn’t have a lot of information about the lighthouse but has a lot of cool events listed throughout the year. Check out the calendar!
Hereford Inlet Lighthouse’s website is full of information. Definitely check this one out!
Sea Girt has a wonderful website as well! See it here!
Want some more cool New Jersey History? Did you know that NJ had the first canned beer?
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