While most people associate lighthouses with New England, New Jersey is home to over 20 of the structures, which have guided ships up and down the shoreline since as early as the 1800’s. In the early 1900’s, the 130 mile coastline of the state boasted 40 lighthouses. Of the 20 that remain, only 11 are open to the public. The lighthouses hold key points of New Jersey history, and are symbols of the state’s long maritime history.
According to the United States Lighthouse Society, evidence of lighthouses along populated coastlines go back as far as the Ancient Egyptians, who set bonfires on the beach to help ships navigate at night and avoid rocky shores.
The first British lighthouse on the shores of the US was lit in 1716 in Boston, and remains the only manned lighthouse station in the US. While it was the first one built, it was destroyed by the British shortly thereafter and was rebuilt in 1784, making New Jersey’s very own Sandy Hook lighthouse, built in 1764, the oldest operating lighthouse in the US.
The earliest lighthouses were illuminated by fires, candles or oil lamps, and often used mirrors or glass lenses to make the light more visible to ships at sea. According to the National Park Service, a major upgrade in lighthouse technology took place in 1822, when Augustine Fresnel developed the Fresnel lens.
This lens used hundreds of pieces of rippled “bullseye” shaped glass to magnify the beam of light even further out to sea. Fresnel lenses also revolved around the light source, enabling lighthouses to develop unique flashing patterns or “characteristics” that helped mariners determine which lighthouse they were passing by.
Not only do lighthouses use flashing or rotating lights to alert sailors at night, but they are also painted with bold daymarks. Daymarks are the colorful patterns that grace the sides of lighthouses – whether it’s stripes, vertical checks, diamonds or thick bands of color.
Lighthouses still play a critical role in maritime safety and serve to warn sailors about hidden shoals, underwater rock formations, or hard-to-see points of land. In Monmouth County, many of the lighthouses helped guide ships into the New York Harbor, providing markers along the coast to let mariners know they were headed safely into the port. In Ocean County, lighthouses served to safely steer ships around the shifting sandbars and shoals of the barrier islands.
Until recently, these outposts were manned by a lighthouse keeper, who would live on the property with their families and make the daily – and sometimes treacherous – climb up hundreds of stairs to ensure that the light stayed lit, even in the wildest coastal storms.
Additionally, lightkeepers were tasked with polishing the glass panes and lenses to keep the light shining brightly. Lighthouse keeping was one of the first non-clerical US government jobs open to women, starting in the 19th century. Today, New Jersey’s working lighthouses are electric.
TAKE A TOUR
Many of New Jersey’s lighthouses are open to the public and feature small museums, tours and nearby attractions. Whether you’re planning to take a ramble down the coastline and visit them all in one day or check them off your list over the course of a summer, be sure to visit each location’s website for the most up-to-date information on hours, tickets and other need-to-know details.
We’ve listed below an overview of the history of the lighthouses in Monmouth and Ocean Counties, along with what you can expect to find at each one.
The Sandy Hook Lighthouse
The New Jersey lighthouse tour starts at The Hook – creating one side of the entrance to New York Harbor, the northern end of the Sandy Hook Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area features the country’s oldest operating lighthouse. The lighthouse was built in 1764 by the Colony of New York to help guide ships in from the Atlantic Ocean. It was captured by the British during the Revolutionary War and survived heavy cannon fire.
Today, it is owned by the National Park Service and sits on the grounds of Fort Hancock. Visitors can climb the tower and tour the historic Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters. Visit the National Park Service’s Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area page for more information on touring this lighthouse.
Twin Lights of Navesink
This lighthouse sits on one of the highest points along the coast, towering 250 feet over the Sandy Hook Bay in Highlands, where it originally served to warn New York City of approaching French warships. It has two towers, first built in 1828, and is home to the first Fresnel lens in the US. This type of lens is still in use today and helps give lighthouses their powerful beam. The site is also the first lighthouse in the US to generate its own electricity, beginning in 1898. While they were officially decommissioned in 1949, the lighthouses are still kept lit to help ships navigate along the New Jersey coast.
Today, the site is maintained by The Twin Lights Historical Society and is open to the public. Visitors can explore the museum or schedule a tour with one of the volunteer historians onsite. Visit the Historical Society website for more information at twinlightslighthouse.org.
Sea Girt Lighthouse
Further down the coast, you’ll find the Sea Girt lighthouse. This structure was built in 1896 and served to close the 38.5 mile gap in navigational aid between the Twin Lights of Navesink and the Barnegat Light. It also served as a landmark for the Sea Girt Inlet and Wreck pond. It sits atop a large Victorian-era building and has a powerful beam that can be seen for 15 miles. According to the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee’s website, In 1921, Sea Girt became the first land-based light station to be equipped with a radio beacon navigation system, allowing keepers and Coast Guard members at the station to help mariners navigate into New York Harbor through local waters during times of heavy fog or bad conditions. The tower was officially decommissioned in 1945, but has been restored and maintained by a local group of volunteers.
The lighthouse is currently owned by the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee and is open for tours and educational opportunities. Visitors can go to seagirtlighthouse.com for more information.
Also known as “Old Barney”, this lighthouse is situated on the northern tip of Long Beach Island in Barnegat Light. It helped ships navigate around a crucial “change of course” point as they traversed the New Jersey coastline towards New York Harbor. The lighthouse helped them avoid swift currents, shifting sandbars and shoals extending from the shoreline. The lighthouse was originally lit in 1859. The original lens was removed in 1927, when the lighthouse was replaced with a light ship anchored off the coast.
In 2009, the Friends of Barengat Lighthouse State Park raised funds to install a new Coast Guard approved lens, and lit Old Barney’s 22 foot beam of light once again. The lighthouse is located within one of New Jersey’s last maritime forests. Visitors can explore the Maritime Forest Trail as well as learn more about the history of the building at the lighthouse’s interpretive center. Visit The New Jersey State Park Service’s page on Barnegat Lighthouse State Park for more information on tickets and tours.
Tucker’s Island Lighthouse
The original lighthouse on Tucker’s Island was built in 1848, and fell into the sea in 1927. Its story is just about as disastrous as its ending, with the lighthouse being called useless in reports filed by mariners at the time. The original lighthouse was decommissioned in 1859, before Congress provided the funds to repair the building and enhance visibility of the light and lighthouse itself in 1866. It was re-lit in 1867 and remained so until it was washed away, with the rest of Tucker’s Island in the 1920’s.
In the 1980’s, a replica of the lighthouse was built at Tuckerton Seaport, offering visitors a glimpse into the history of New Jersey’s barrier island communities. Visitors to the Seaport can explore the inner workings of the lighthouse, visit a sawmill, boatworks, and more. Head over to tuckertonseaport.org for more information and to plan your visit.
Located in Atlantic City, the Absecon Lighthouse is New Jersey’s tallest lighthouse. It stands 171 feet tall, and is the “sister” lighthouse of the Barnegat Light. The Absecon Lighthouse was built in 1857 to alert sailors to the dangerous shoals around Absecon and Brigantine. It served in this capacity until it was decommissioned in 1933. It didn’t stay out for long though, and was relit in 1963 as part of a celebration of New Jersey’s 300th anniversary. Today, the lighthouse is the only one in the US to have its original Fresnel lens, and the light is maintained by a volunteer society. Visitors can explore a small museum on site, visit the replica Lightkeeper’s house and climb the whopping 228 step staircase for stunning views of the surrounding area. More information can be found at abseconlighthouse.org.
Hereford Inlet Lighthouse
This lighthouse was built in 1874 in North Wildwood. The Hereford Inlet has been an important landmark for sailors since the 17th Century, when it served as a port for whalers to butcher their catch. In 1913, the lighthouse was moved 150 feet from its original location to the spot it rests today. The lighthouse, nestled in a well-appointed Victorinan home, marks the mouth of the inlet, and still plays an important role in guiding sailors safely through. It stands at 57 feet tall with a beam that reaches almost 15 miles to sea. The structure is preserved as a historical landmark by the City of North Wildwood’s Historical Commission and visitors can stroll the gardens, explore the lightkeeper’s quarters, featuring a small museum. For more information, visit herefordinletlighthouse.com.
Cape May Lighthouse
The Cape May Lighthouse was built in 1859 to guide sailors around the southernmost tip of New Jersey. It rises 157 feet tall and has a beam that flashes once every 15 seconds, visible for up to 24 miles out to sea. The original lens for the lighthouse was so big that the keeper had to stand inside of it to refuel the light. The lighthouse is still lit and serves as a navigational point for modern day sailors. Visitors can see the original lens in the Cape May Court House Museum and climb the original 199 cast iron stairs. The lighthouse also features an interpretive center and is currently located within the Cape May Point State Park. The park features 250 acres of nature for visitors to explore, including four miles of hiking trails, surf fishing, picnic areas, and plenty of wildlife watching. It also includes a World War II bunker for visitors to explore. Visit capemaymac.org/ for more information.
East Point Lighthouse
This lighthouse stands on the shore of the Delaware Bay and marks the mouth of the Maurice River. It is the second oldest lighthouse in New Jersey, built in 1849 to guide private boats and commercial fishermen through the river, and remains the only active land based Delaware Bay lighthouse in New Jersey today. The Coast Guard maintains the site as a navigational point and the Maurice River Historical Society is responsible for the full restoration of the property. The historical society offers tours and climbs of the lighthouse year round. Additionally, the society maintains a gift shop on site. More information can be found at eastpointlight.com.
Finns Point Rear Range Light
The Finns Point Rear Range Light was built in 1876 as part of a pair of ligthhouses to help guide boat traffic move through the Delaware River between Reedy Island and Baker Shoal. It is a uniquely shaped lighthouse, standing 115 feet tall and built out of wrought-iron. The lighthouse was manufactured in Buffalo, New York, and brought to New Jersey via train and mule-wagon. In its hey-day the light emitted a 150,000 candlepower light. The light was officially deactivated in 1950, and restored in 1984 as a historical site. Today, visitors can explore the lighthouse grounds, as well as nearby Fort Mott State Park. The park is home to historic buildings and gun batteries as well as waterfront grounds. For more information on the lighthouse and the park visit the New Jersey State Park Services page.
Tinicum Front Range Light
This lighthouse can be found along the Delaware River, guiding ships towards the ports of Philadelphia and Camden. The Tinicum Front Range Light was first lit in 1880 on New Year’s Eve and guides sailors with a fixed red light that shines a beam for almost 9 miles from atop an 85 foot tall tower. The lighthouse still serves as a navigational beacon, supported the US Coast Guard. Visitors can explore the steel structure on the third Saturday of each month through October. The official website, tinicumrearrangelighthouse.org, provides additional information on visiting the structure.
THE OTHER KIND OF LIGHTHOUSE
New Jersey’s rich maritime history has been preserved and kept alive by hard working volunteer groups, nonprofits and the state and national park services. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to explore and learn about the historic lighthouses that safely guided vessels up and down the Jersey shore.
However, there is another kind of lighthouse that everyone in New Jersey knows and loves – Strollo’s Lighthouse Italian Ice, a great place to stop in either Long Branch or Belmar for a treat on your tour of the Lights of the Jersey shore.