Located in Atlantic City New Jersey, the Absecon Lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse in New Jersey, and the third tallest in the United States.The story of the Absecon Lighthouse begins nearly a decade before its actual construction.
Dr. Jonathan Pitney, a man who is widely considered to be the father of Atlantic City, became concerned in the late 1840s about the number of ships that were being lost along Absecon Beach.
In 1846, the New Jersey Legislature passed a resolution requesting that a lighthouse be built on Absecon beach. This initial request was ignored by the Federal Government.
Pitney was determined that a lighthouse was vital to protecting the ships and their crews from the treacherous waters around Absecon Beach.
Indeed, the waters around the beach had proven so hazardous to incoming ships, that the area had earned the nickname “the Graveyard Inlet.” Many ships, including, the Scottish ship Ayrshire, the Louisa, the Ann, the Nile, the George Cannon, and the Frankfort – to name only a few – were lost in the area.
The tragic loss of the Immigrant ship Powhattan, a six hundred ton vessel, proved to be a significant factor in the construction of the Absecon lighthouse. The ship, transporting over 300 immigrants from Europe, sunk just off of the New Jersey Coast. The bodies of many of the victims washed ashore along the New Jersey coast, demonstrating in a dramatic and gruesome fashion why a lighthouse was necessary on Absecon Beach.
Pitney continued to lobby the United States Lighthouse Service to have a lighthouse built on Absecon Island until the Service at last requested and received $35,000 from Congress. The land for the lighthouse was purchased for the sum of $520 from The Camdem and Atlantic Land Co on December 5, 1854.
Construction of the Absecon Lighthouse began in 1855, initially under the direction of Major Hartman Bache.
Major Bache was replaced later that year by Lieutenant George Meade, who would later become a General, and go on to command the Union army at the Battle of Gettysburg. Lt Col. William Reynolds took over supervision of the project in 1856, and the construction was completed after the appropriation of an additional $17,000.
The total cost for the construction of the lighthouse was $52,187.
The Absecon Lighthouse was first lit on January 15, 1876. The light shone 19.5 nautical miles, and was created by focusing a kerosene flame through a 36-plate, first-order Fresnel lens. This lens had been created in Paris, specifically for the Absecon Lighthouse, and can still be found in the lighthouse today. In fact, the Absecon Lighthouse is the only New Jersey lighthouse to still have its original first-order lens.
The lighthouse proved to be immediately successful in saving both ships and lives, and there were no shipwrecks in its first 10 months of operation.
Daniel Skull assumed his post as the lighthouse’s first keeper in 1856. His tenure would last until 1861, at which time Scull was replaced by William Bartlett. Barlett would serve as keeper until John S. Nixon took over in 1865. Abraham G. Wolf would take over eight years later, in 1873.
Wind and rain proved to be the greatest enemy of the Absecon Lighthouse in these early years, however. Beach erosion caused the sea level around the dune upon which the lighthouse had been constructed, to rise dramatically. By 1876 the water was within 75 feet of the lighthouse, and something would need to be done to stop it.
Construction of seven wood and stone jetties was begun at the base of the tower to try to halt the erosion, and to build the beach back up. These jetties were built at 150 foot intervals around the lighthouse. The construction of the jetties was not completed until 1880, but they were successful in returning the beach to its original state.
Thomas Bills replaced Abraham Wolf as lighthouse keeper in 1896. He would serve as keeper until October 22, 1914.
The lighthouse continued operation without any significant changes until 1910, when the kerosene flame of the lighthouse light was replaced with an incandescent oil vapor lamp. This lamp was used until 1925, when the first electric light was installed.
Absecon Lighthouse was one of the most visited lighthouses in the United States during the early 20th century, logging over 10,000 visitors in 1912.
In 1933, after 76 years of service the Absecon Lighthouse was decommissioned, and the light was extinguished. It would stay that way until 1954, when the light was briefly lit for Atlantic City’s centennial.
1962 saw a small visitors center constructed at the base of the lighthouse, and, on December 31, 1963, the lighthouse was lit again for New Jersey’s Tercentenary year.
1970 proved to be significant year in the history of the Absecon lighthouse, as the New Jersey Register of Historic Places officially recognized the structure. A few months later, on January 25, 1971, National Register of Historic Places officially recognized the lighthouse as well.
Restoration of the Absecon Lighthouse began in 1994, as the Inlet Public/Private Association adopted the lighthouse and began to raise money to have the structure of the lighthouse analyzed.
The architectural firm of Watson & Henry Associates completed the Historic Structure Report for the Absecon Lighthouse in December 1995. This firm was very experienced in designing restorations for historic lighthouses, having done so for other Jersey Shore lighthouses in Cape May and Barnegate.
Upon completion of the HSR, the IPPA began to receive funding for the restoration process, including $100,000 in grants from the City of Atlantic City, and a $500,000 grant from the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.
Watson & Henry Associates prepared designs to restore the lighthouse as more funding arrived in 1996: $970,000 coming from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, and another $1,000,922 coming from the New Jersey Historic Trust.
Restoration of the Absecon Lighthouse officially began in May, 1997. The restoration project included both the refurbishing of the tower, as well as the restoration of the keepers quarters.
The restoration was nearly complete when, on July 6th 1998, a mysterious fire destroyed the newly constructed keeper’s house. The police ruled that the blaze was suspicious, given that they could find no structural cause for the fire.
Thankfully, the tower portion of the lighthouse was unharmed. The metal door that separated the keeper’s house from the lighthouse was closed, and the wind was coming from the north – away from the tower.
Despite the loss of the keeper’s quarters, the newly restored Absecon Lighthouse was opened to the public in 1999. The construction of a new keeper’s house, which houses a museum and gift shop, was completed in 2001.
Today, the tower has become a popular tourist destination for those visiting Atlantic City looking to get away from the city and the casinos for awhile, and take in some of the local history.