The Cape May Lighthouse is located in Cape May Point State Park, Lower Township, on the Jersey Shore. It is one of New Jersey’s many historic lighthouses, and has been one of the most visited lighthouses in the State since the late 1800s.
The current Cape May Lighthouse is actually the third tower to be constructed on Cape May Point, with the first known Cape May Lighthouse being constructed in 1823. This tower stood until 1847, when it was finally destroyed by erosion.
The second tower was built shortly after. It was a 78 foot tower, and it was located directly in front of the location where the present tower now stands. Because it was poorly constructed, the second tower was soon abandoned in favor of a larger, third lighthouse.
Construction of a new lighthouse to replace the second tower began in 1857, headed by The Army Corps of Engineers. The estimated cost for the new tower was $40,000. $15,000 more was spent on the lantern’s first-order classical lens, which can now be seen in the Cape May Country Museum.
The third Cape May Lighthouse was first lit on October 31, 1859. The new tower was 157 feet, six inches tall, with a staircase consisting of 218 steps from the ground floor to the stop of the structure. Two keeper’s houses were also built that year. One of the dwellings still stands today, and is currently used by the State Park Service.
The exact locations of the first two Cape May Lighthouses can no longer be seen, as they are now underwater due to beach erosion.
Some of the earliest tours of the Cape May Lighthouse occurred in 1882. The Cape May Ocean Wave, a local newspaper, reported that the superintendent in charge of the lighthouse,
Mr. Samuel Stillwell, takes pleasure in showing visitors who have the nerve and strength of limb to the top, the interior of the lantern, and explaining the interesting operations of the light. A very picturesque view of the sea, bay, and country may also be obtained from the giddy heights of the edifice. (Cape May Ocean 1882)
No further significant construction occurred around the lighthouse until 1893, when the oil house was built.
More renovations of the Cape May Lighthouse took place in 1902, when one of the two keeper’s houses was enlarged to provide more living space. At this time three keepers, along with their families, lived at the Cape May Lighthouse.
In 1910, the Funck multiple wick first-order hydraulic float lamp that had been in use since 1878 was replaced by an incandescent oil vapor lamp, which would remain in service until 1938, when the light apparatus was electrified. With the electrification of the lamp, permanent keepers were no longer required at the site.
The U.S. Coast Guard assumed jurisdiction of the Cape May Lighthouse – along with other facilities, personnel and equipment – in 1939, after the United States Lighthouse Service discontinued operation.
From 1941-1945 the lighthouse was darkened because of the Second World War. The presence of enemy submarines along the Atlantic coast meant that the entire coastline be in blackout for security reasons.
After the war, the lighthouse was re-lighted and was outfitted with a rotation optical lens that replaced the original first-order classical lens, which was donated to the Cape May Country Museum.
The lighthouse then stood, essentially undisturbed until 1986, when the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts subleased the structure from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Parks and Forestry, who was currently leasing the lighthouse from the United States Coast Guard,. The MAC’s primary goal was the restoration and enhancement of the Cape May Lighthouse.
The restoration of the Cape May Lighthouse began in 1988, as the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts began initiatives to improve the safety of the tower, so that the public could climb to the top.
1989 saw funding arrive from the Bicentennial Lighthouse Fund in the form of a grant that helped to pay for the restoration of the Cape May Lighthouse’s windows and doors.
The oil house was restored in 1990 with more funding from the Bicentennial Lighthouse Fund, as well as the New Jersey Historic Trust. The restored oil house became the orientation center and museum shop for the lighthouse.
1992 was a significant year for the Cape May Lighthouse in that, after over 50 years of being owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, the ownership of the lighthouse was transferred to the State of New Jersey. The fact that the lighthouse was now owned by the state meant that the restoration project was now eligible for state historic preservation funding
More funding arrived for the restoration of the Cape May Lighthouse in 1994, in the form of more grants from the NJ Historic Trust, and a grant from the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. These grants helped to fund the repainting of the tower to its original color scheme, as well as the restoration of the roof, and the lantern.
The NJ Historic Trust and the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act came through with more funding again in 1998, providing enough to complete all of the remaining restorations on the Cape May Lighthouse.
In total, more than $2 million has been spent on the restoration of the Cape May Lighthouse since 1988.
Today, the Cape May Lighthouse receives over 100,000 visitors per year. The lighthouse also offers an orientation center and a Museum Shop, where tourists can by unique souvenirs and memorabilia.
The Cape May Lighthouse is also still active today. The United States Coast Guard continues to operate the light to aid ships in navigation around the Cape May Area. The light of the current lighthouse is visible for 24 nautical mils and flashes at an interval of every 15 seconds.
Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts continues its efforts to restore the Cape May Lighthouse, with the current project being the restoration of the lighthouse grounds and the surrounding pathways.