A “Notice to Mariners” announced the activation of the light on May 11, 1874, stating: “The tower height is 49 ½ feet with the light elevation rising to 57 feet above sea level. The light is visible at a distance of at least 13 nautical miles.”
The lighthouse’s “Carpenter Gothic” or “Stick-Style” design was the work of Paul J. Pelz, the Lighthouse Board’s Chief Draftsman, who was also responsible for St. Augustine Lighthouse and the impressive Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Hereford Inlet Lighthouse is quite similar to California’s Point Fermin Lighthouse and East Brother Lighthouse, also designed by Pelz, and boasting five fireplaces, provided comfortable accommodations for the keeper and his family.
The first keeper to move into the livable lighthouse was John Marche, but after having served only three months, he drowned on August 9, 1874 when his boat capsized on a return trip from the mainland. John Nickerson filled in as keeper for a few weeks until Captain Freeling H. Hewitt, a veteran of the Civil War and former merchant seaman, could arrive to take charge of the light on September 28, 1874. Captain Hewitt invited the local fishermen and their families to the lighthouse for Baptist services, the first formal religious services held on Five Mile Beach Island, and the Sunday gatherings continued until a church was built on the island.
Besides affecting the nerves of island residents, the powerful storms were also affecting the land around the lighthouse. A severe storm in August 1913 brought the sea right up to the lighthouse. A photograph taken at the time shows that mere inches separated the lighthouse from the water. In fact, the foundation of the lighthouse was undermined, and the entire structure was moved roughly 150 feet westward in 1914.
Keeper Hewitt and his wife Abiline had two daughters while living at the lighthouse: Lena was born on the mainland in 1883, while Brooxxe was born at the lighthouse in 1886. Lena taught school near the lighthouse, and when she married the school’s principal in 1906, the wedding was held at the lighthouse.
Captain Hewitt was forced to retire in 1919 at the age of seventy-five, and when he passed away four years later, he was interred at First Baptist Cemetery in Cape May Court House.
Several changes and improvements were made to Hereford Inlet Lighthouse through the years. On November 3, 1885, the light’s characteristic was changed from fixed red to fixed white, with a dark panel covering shoals of Townsend’s Inlet. A detached brick oil house was built in 1897, and in 1899, the station received a new flagstaff, a telephone, and a set of signal code flags. In 1924, the original fourth-order fixed Fresnel lens used in Hereford Inlet Lighthouse was replaced by a revolving lens of the same order that produced a distinctive “group flash” signal of two flashes every fifteen seconds.
Water wasn’t the only element that threatened the lighthouse over the years. Being constructed of wood, the keepers had to always be vigilant for fire. Keeper Ferdinand Heizman was busy painting the exterior of the lighthouse in 1938 when his task was interrupted by calls of “Fire!” from his wife Anna. A coastguardsman, likely from the station next door, noticed thick smoke emanating from one of the upstairs windows, called the fire department, and then alerted the occupants of the lighthouse to the imminent danger. Heizman grabbed an extinguisher and rushed upstairs to the burning bedroom only to be driven back by the extreme heat and thick smoke. Undaunted, he procured a ladder and equipped with a garden hose climbed to the second story and fought the fire through a window.
Except for a three-year period during World War II when the light was deactivated due to activities of German submarines offshore, Hereford Inlet Lighthouse had a resident keeper until 1961, when responsibility for the light was transferred to the adjacent Coast Guard station. In 1964, the Coast Guard erected a skeletal metal tower seaward of the lighthouse to display a navigational beacon, and the lighthouse and Coast Guard station were turned over to the New Jersey Marine Police. The Coast Guard buildings were used by the Marine Police, but the lighthouse was boarded up and remained vacant for almost two decades.
The City of North Wildwood, which is still called Anglesea by some locals, signed a lease for the lighthouse on September 2, 1982 and immediately began restoring the building. The following summer, a portion of the lighthouse opened as the North Wildwood Tourist Information Center. The modern beacon was transferred from the metal tower to the lighthouse’s lantern room in 1986, and Hereford Inlet Lighthouse was once again performing its intended function.
The Hereford Inlet Lighthouse Commission, composed of volunteers appointed by the mayor and town council, now operates the lighthouse as a museum and gift shop. The second fourth-order Fresnel lens used at the station is on display in the lighthouse. In 2003, the lighthouse, which had previously been white with a reddish-brown trim, was painted a buff color. Some lighthouse enthusiasts were a bit appalled at the change, but when they learn that the color is historically accurate, they are usually appeased.
Thanks to the efforts of Steve Murray, Superintendent of Parks for North Wildwood, beautiful English cottage style gardens surround the lighthouse. The gardens, which have won awards and been featured in numerous publications, provide a tranquil setting for the historic lighthouse.
The Lighthouse Commission has ambitious plans for the area. They would like to lease the adjacent Coast Guard Station and develop a Historic Maritime Village. Given the wonderful job they have done with the lighthouse, one hopes the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, who owns the property, will have the foresight to support the plans.
Head Keepers: John Marche (1874), John Nickerson (1874), Freeling H. Hewitt (1874 – 1919), William H. Hedges (1919 – 1925), Laura Hedges (1925 – 1926), Ferdinand Heizman (1926 – 1939), Robert L. O’Neal (1939 – 1942), George L. Baker (1945 – 1955), Newman S. Bowden (1955 – 1959), Bruce R. Bolon (1960 – 1961).
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