Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2011-03-06.
Dr. Jonathan Pitney, widely known as the "Father of Atlantic City" came to the area in 1820 with the idea of settling the area. He began to lobby the government for a lighthouse in 1830, with his requests being ignored. At the time, most of the management and operation of lighthouses fell under the auspices of the U.S. Treasury Department, and an auditor named Stephan Pleasonton. Pleasonton was a bureaucrat, and unfamiliar with maritime affairs. He had a reputation for approving very few projects, and managing money as if it was coming out of his own pocket.
Finally, after more than 10 years of lobbying, the U.S. Navy sent a survey crew to the site in 1840, which concluded there was no need for a lighthouse. Even a resolution passed by the New Jersey Legislature in 1846 was ignored by the federal government with Auditor Pleasonton claiming there was no money available for a coastal lighthouse at Absecon.
Several things happened in the early 1850s which led to the approval of the Absecon Lighthouse. The first and most important was the creation of the U.S. Lighthouse Board in 1852. This removed oversight from the Treasury Department and put many maritime decisions into the hands of the naval officers. The second thing to bring about change was the sinking of the Powhattan off the coast of Absecon on April 16, 1854. This resulted in the loss of over 300 people, many of them being German immigrants.
In August of 1854, $35,000 was appropriated from Congress for the creation of the coastal lighthouse on Absecon Island. On December 5, 1854 land was purchased from the Camden and Atlantic Land Company in the amount of $520.00. Construction started in 1855, first under the direction of Major Hartman Bache, only to be replaced by Lieutenant George G. Meade, who was the tower's architect. Colonel William F. Raynolds took over the project in 1856, and saw it to completion in late 1856. The project would require an additional $17,000 to get it to completion, which would include the tower, two keeper's dwellings, and multiple outbuildings.
U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo
The first keeper, Daniel Scull lit the kerosene lamps for the first time on January 15, 1857. The light, which was focused through a first order Fresnel lens was visible for 19.5 miles out to sea. For his duty, he was paid a yearly salary of $600.00. Several times each night, Mr. Scull, and all subsequent keepers would climb the 228 steps to get to the top. On June 6, 1910, the lighting apparatus was changed over to incandescent oil vapor, and finally to electricity on July 1, 1925.
The area around the lighthouse experienced severe erosion in the 1870s. So much so, that the ocean was within 75 feet of the tower by 1876. Jetties of stone and wood were built around the lighthouse. They were so successful in capturing sand that many homes are now built north of the tower, the area that filled in, due to the jetties.
The tower, when initially completed, retained its brick appearance. However, it would change many times over the years. In 1871, the tower was painted white, bisected with a red band. 1895 saw the tower painted orange with a black band, which it kept until 1907, when the orange sections were changed to yellow. In 1948, the tower again changed colors to white with a bisecting blue band, which lasted until sometime in 1963 when the blue band was changed back to red. 1998 saw its return to the white color with the bisecting black band, which it retains to this day.
With the rapid development that took place in Atlantic City, the usefulness of the lighthouse was diminished. Many mariners complained that it wasn't visible with the multi-story hotels, with that; it was extinguished on July 11, 1933. The Federal Government leased the property to the City of Atlantic City for use as a park, asking only $1.00 per year. It formally transferred the deeds over to Atlantic City in 1946. The two keeper's dwellings were demolished at that time; however, I am unsure whether the Federal Government or the Atlantic City Government had them demolished. Atlantic City retained ownership until 1966 when the city turned the property over to the State of New Jersey, being unable to afford the maintenance costs.
In 1988, the Inlet Public / Private Association was formed to take responsibility of the lighthouse, and ensure it for future generations. The association was able to secure many grant to help pay for the restoration. Restoration of the tower started in May of 1997, followed shortly thereafter with the rebuilding of the keeper's dwelling. However, on July 6, 1998, just a few weeks away from completion, the rebuilt keeper's dwelling was completely destroyed by a fire. Lighthouse Digest reported on this story here. After a few years of litigation, the keeper's dwelling was rebuilt and opened to the public in October of 2001.
List of lighthouse keepers
- Daniel Scull - 1856-1861
- William Bartlett - 1861-1865
- John Nixon - 1865-1873
- Abraham Wolf - 1873-1896
- Thomas Bills - 1896-1914
- Knud Hanson - 1914-1933
- Northeast Lights - Lighthouses and Lightships, Robert G. Bachand, 1989.
- America's Lighthouses - An Illustrated History, Francis Ross Holland, Jr., 1972.
- America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses (6th edition), Jeremy D'Entremont, 2005.
- Mid-Atlantic Lighthouses - Hudson River to Chesapeake Bay (2nd edition), Bruce Roberts and Ray Jones, 2006.
- "Fire Sweeps Absecon Lighthouse," Rich and Elinor Veit, Lighthouse Digest, August 1998.
- "Absecon Keepers House to be Rebuilt," Rich Veit, Lighthouse Digest, February 2001.
- Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
- Absecon Lighthouse website.
Directions:The lighthouse is located at 31 S. Rhode Island Ave. in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The phone number is 1-609-449-1360.
Access: Lighthouse grounds and tower open.
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