|Cape May, NJ|
Description: The present Cape May Lighthouse is the third to mark Cape May Point, New Jersey’s southernmost point, and the northern side of the entrance to Delaware Bay. As will be seen, the history of these three towers is closely tied to that of the surrounding area.
A lighthouse was built on Cape Henlopen, Delaware in 1767 to mark the southern extreme of the entrance to Delaware Bay, but remarkably a corresponding tower to mark the northern extreme was not built at Cape May Point until 1823. This first sentinel was built of brick and stood 70 feet tall atop a stone foundation. Its light was composed of fifteen lamps that rotated to produce a flashing pattern that distinguished it from the fixed light of Cape Henlopen. The first Cape May Lighthouse stood about 1,750 feet west of the present lighthouse, a site that today is underwater. This gives a clue to the demise of the original tower; it was discontinued on May 1, 1847 as the sea surrounded the tower at high tide.
The second Cape May Lighthouse was built on a parcel of land that was sold to the government for $1,150 by Alexander Whilden on April 9, 1847. Built by Samuel and Nathan Middleton, the tower was located six hundred feet south of the present Cape May lighthouse. The sea did not lead to the immediate undoing of the second tower, though it would later have a part in that. Rather, it was the height of the tower and its poor construction that contributed to its short life.
Thin plate-glass 20x28 in the lantern; no paint in dome or frame of lantern – painted black originally; astragals and sashes rusty, and greatly in want of paint; iron conductor; rough square box for leading weight of clock-work movement down; wood-work rough beyond anything seen before; supports to stairway not planed; everything rough and unfinished; tower damp, from base to lantern; a rough hole through the arch of the lantern floor for leading weight to clock-work; the whole thing rude in the extreme; tower wants whitewashing outside and in.The same report contained several unflattering phrases about the keeper’s dwelling as well: “leaks through the walls in a stream; rain drives in at the windows; plastering broken; windows loose.”
The poor condition of the lighthouse and dwelling was mainly attributable to their construction, but also reflected poorly on the keeper whose job it was to maintain the station. The inspector’s report gave the following description of the keeper: “Downes E. Foster, keeper, 44 years old; carpenter by trade; keeper took charge April, 1850; no training or experience before taking charge; no instructions as to the mode of doing the duty; trims lamps once every night; leaves the light at 9 o’clock and returns at midnight.” To the keeper’s credit, he was never supplied with paint, whitewash, brooms or brushes, all necessary to maintain the lighthouse, and after asking for and not receiving such, he became discouraged and did not apply for them again.
A deed dated April 8, 1858 records the sale of an additional two acres of land by Alexander Whilden to the government so a taller and proper beacon could be constructed at Cape May. The third Cape May Lighthouse would be very similar to New Jersey’s other tall towers, Absecon and Barnegat Lighthouses, which were respectively activated on January 15, 1857 and January 1, 1859. George Meade had overseen the completion of the other two towers, but Cape May was constructed under the direction of Captain Willam F. Raynolds, followed by Captain W. B. Franklin and Major Hartman Bache. While the other two coastal towers stood over 170 feet tall, Cape May was several feet shorter, but still a respectable 157’ 6”. Access to the tower was through a two-story vestibule, with an oil room on each side of the passageway on the first floor, and a storage room on its second floor.
The illuminating apparatus for the Cape May Lighthouse was a first-order Fresnel lens supplied by Henry-Lepaute. The lens had sixteen flash panels and revolved to produce a white flash every thirty seconds. The lantern atop the lighthouse was lit for the first time on Halloween, 1859. The following year, two keeper’s dwellings, positioned near the lighthouse, were completed. The one and a half story structures had three rooms and an entry in the first story, and four rooms upstairs. The 1847 lighthouse remained standing until 1862, when its top portion was dismantled and the remaining ten feet, or so, of the tower was capped and used for storage. The sea has since claimed the truncated tower.
For many years, netting was hung outside the lantern room of the Cape May Lighthouse. The lighthouse lies along one of the primary migratory paths for birds, and the nearby meadows serve as an important stopover for thousands of birds each fall. As noted in the following excerpt from Longfellow’s poem “The Lighthouse,” birds often fell victim to the blinding beacon exhibited by a lighthouse.
The sea-bird wheeling around it, with the dinIn 1905, a reporter, while touring the tower at night with one of the keepers serving as his guide, heard a loud “thud” as the two stood talking in the lantern room. The keeper stepped out on the balcony and returned with a dead mud hen in his hand. Showing the specimen to the reporter, the keeper explained: “Sometimes we get five or six in a night. Often we find robins and ducks dead on the balcony.”
Untrained Keeper Downes Foster of the second Cape May Lighthouse became the first keeper of the third Cape May Lighthouse. In January of 1876, after Foster had been serving for an amazing twenty-six years, he was reprimanded by the fourth district inspector “for giving away refuse oil and certain small quantities of alcohol.” Foster was saved from dismissal only by his many years of faithful and honest service. The following year, a Commander Brigman visited the station and after finding conditions unsatisfactory concluded that the seventy-year-old Foster was “too old and feeble to do the work which seems to have been left almost entirely to the two Assistants, neither of whom is very competent.” Foster was replaced a few months later by Samuel Stilwell.
Not all keepers of the Cape May Lighthouse were negligent in maintaining the station. In fact, Harry H. Palmer won the efficiency flag for the Fourth Lighthouse District in 1924 and 1925 for the manner in which he kept the Cape May Lighthouse. A few years later, he even received first place from the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce for having the best-kept lawn and second place for combined lawn and garden.
The Lighthouse Service decided to automate Cape May in June of 1933, and Palmer, who had spent forty years at the lighthouse, was allowed to retire with pension. Keeper Palmer remained at the station and looked after the property along with his wife and two adult daughters.
The Cape May Light fell dark during the World War II years, and in 1946 the Fresnel lens was dismantled, removed from the tower, and loaned to the Cape May County Historical Museum, where it can be seen by the public. A rotating aero beacon replaced the historic lens. In 1964, the lighthouse grounds were turned over to the State of New Jersey, which created the Cape May Point State Park. One of the keeper’s dwellings, which had been converted into a duplex in 1903, burned in an arson’s fire in 1968, but the second dwelling stills stands and houses park personnel. The Coast Guard, not wanting to maintain the lighthouse, leased the tower to the state in 1986, who in turn subleased the lighthouse to Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC).
MAC was successful in raising sufficient funds to restore the lighthouse to a condition that it could be opened to the public in 1988. The lighthouse was transferred to the state in 1992. Over the years, MAC has raised more than $2 million towards preserving and maintaining the lighthouse. In 1994, the lighthouse, which had been painted white in the 1940’s or 50’s, was returned to its historic coloring of a light beige tower with a red lantern.
Head Keepers: Harry Palmer (1924 - 1933).
Located in Cape May State Park near the southernmost point in New Jersey. The lighthouse is owned by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Division of Parks and Forestry and managed by Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. Grounds/tower open, dwelling closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Division of Parks and Forestry and managed by Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. Grounds/tower open, dwelling closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Besides the lighthouse, one of the keeper's dwelling and the 1893 oil house still stand. Inside the tower, you can observe the cylindrical tube, through which the weight used for turning the giant lens, was suspended.
See our List of Lighthouses in New Jersey
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.