One of the New Jersey Shore’s many historic lighthouses, the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse is located on the south side of the Hereford Inlet in North Wildwood, New Jersey. The lighthouse was built on a dune area that can be easily seen at the mouth of the inlet. For ninety years, the Lighthouse saved countless lives by guiding ships through the often treacherous waters around the Hereford Inlet.
The history of the Hereford Inlet lighthouse begins with the history of the Inlet itself, a popular haven for 17th century mariners. The Inlet was especially attractive as a shelter for ships due to the fact that it was right in the middle of the shipping route between the Great Egg Harbor in the North, and the mouth of the Delaware Bay in the South.
Whalers were the first mariners to regularly frequent the Hereford Inlet, often using the Inlet as a place to butcher their catches. Shipping traffic continued to increase throughout the early 1800s and eventually lead to the formation of the fishing village of “Angelsea”, which was established along the banks of the Hereford Inlet in the mid 1800s.
The waters around the Inlet proved to be hazardous for ships seeking to enter however, primarily to frequently shifting sandbars and extremely strong currents around the Inlet. Groundings and shipwrecks were common, and, in 1849, it was decided by the United States Lifesaving Service that a small station be established along the southern bank of the Hereford Inlet.
This first station proved inadequate, as shipping traffic continued to increase, and a second, larger, station was built in 1871. This station also proved unable to stem the continued groundings and shipwrecks at the entrance to the Hereford Inlet, and it became clear that a lighthouse would be required to safely guide ships.
Construction of the fourth order Hereford Inlet lighthouse began in 1872, with legislation from Congress. The United States government purchases one and a half acres of land from Humphrey S. Cresse for $150 in 1873, and construction began shortly thereafter.
The Hereford Inlet Lighthouse was built under the supervision of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the unique, Victorian era, Swiss Gothic architecture of the lighthouse is credited to Paul J. Pelz, who was the Lighthouse Board’s Chief Draftsman.
The lighthouse had a wood frame, was designed in a beautiful residential style, and included five fireplaces. Besides having been very comfortable for the keeper and his family, this unique design makes the Hereford Inlet lighthouse once of the most elegant and sophisticated lighthouses constructed in that era.
The height of the finished tower was nearly 50 feet, and the light, visible for 14 nautical miles, first blazed to life on May 11, 1874.
A number of dedicated men tended the lighthouse, with the first being John Marche, whose tenure was tragically cut short by a boating accident that killed him three months after taking his post in 1874. John Nickerson took over as keeper of the lighthouse for 4 years after the accident, until a permanent keeper could arrive.
That keeper was Captain Freeling H. Hewitt, a veteran of the civil war, who would remain the keeper of the Hereford Inlet lighthouse for nearly 45 years, until 1918. Hewitt was also a religious man, and he conducted a Baptist ceremony that was the first formal religious service ever conducted on the Five Mile Beach Island. Many local families attended, and the lighthouse would remain a place of worship on the island until the first church was constructed.
The Hereford Inlet Lighthouse was severely damaged in 1913, after enduring nearly 40 years of extreme winds and tides. The foundation of the Lighthouse was damaged and irreparable, so it was decided that the lighthouse should be moved 150 feet to the west. The relocation of the lighthouse to its current location was completed in 1914.
The lighthouse continued operating in its new location for another 50 years, until, in 1964, it was boarded up and decommissioned – replaced by an automated marine beacon. The lighthouse and the surrounding property now fell under the jurisdiction of the New Jersey Marine police, and, with no one to maintain it, the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse fell into increasingly severe disrepair for the next 18 years.
In 1977, the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse was placed on the Department of Interior’s List of Historic Places, but nothing was immediately done to stop the deterioration of the building. Finally, in 1982, the City of North Wildwood signed a lease to gain stewardship of the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse. This had been due to the tireless efforts of North Wildwood’s Mayor Anthony Catanoso and his wife.
The restoration project began immediately, with the help of hundreds of local citizens, who donated time energy and funds to restore this historic landmark. Despite the fact that the Lighthouse was severely dilapidated from years of neglect, the dedicated and tireless work of these individuals meant that a portion of the Lighthouse was ready to be open to the public after only 10 months.
1986 marked a crowning moment for the restoration project, as the automated marine beacon that had been built behind the lighthouse was moved into the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse’s lantern. After 41 years, the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse was able to once again serve its primary purpose as a navigational aid to ships entering the Inlet.
The North Wildwood City Parks department also took on an ambitious project to transform the barren land around the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse into a park in 1986. The department landscaped the area into many beautiful garden areas meant to mirror the unplanned “cottage style” of early English gardens.
Today, the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse is maintained by the Hereford Lighthouse Commission, whose mandate is to generate funds to continue to restore and enhance this historic landmark. Each year, the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse operates a nautical museum, and is visited by thousands of tourists. The lighthouse is also home to a wide variety of local events, including the North Wildwood annual Christmas celebration, craft shows, art exhibits, and much more.