It's high tide again in fortunes of an old South Jersey lighthouse
An ambitious $850,000 project, completed remarkably in only one year, may finally bring what is New Jersey's second oldest lighthouse into a new era of historic preservation.
MAURICE RIVER TOWNSHIP, N.J. — At the end of a windswept road that meanders through miles of marshland and emerges near where the Delaware Bay marries the Maurice River in a swirl of currents, East Point Lighthouse has stood guard for nearly 170 years, guiding mariners away from harm for much of that time.
The historic Cumberland County brick structure, built in 1849, has endured a tidal wave of struggles itself — storms, floods, eventual decommissioning, vandals, neglect, fire, and a series of incomplete restoration attempts.
Now an ambitious $850,000 project, completed remarkably in only one year, promises to bring what is New Jersey's second-oldest lighthouse into a new era of historic preservation.
Of New Jersey's 11 lighthouses, only Sandy Hook Lighthouse, built in 1764, is older.
A rededication celebration is scheduled for Sept. 10, when it will reopen to the public, exactly 168 years to the day it was first opened as an aid to navigation.
The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 helps the government preserve and maintain lighthouses that the Coast Guard no longer commissions. Of the 400 lighthouses existing in the U.S., more than a third have become public tourist sites or have been sold to private entities, according to the American Lighthouse Foundation.
"It's a beautiful thing to watch the figurative tides turn on this lighthouse," said Nancy Patterson, president of the Maurice River Historical Society, who has led the restoration effort along with the Cumberland County Improvement Authority and the New Jersey Historic Trust. "But like the tides that come in and go back out slowly, things like this take time. But I think we've turned the corner on this place again creating a sense of pride for this community."
Though money was raised over the years — the original grassroots group that evolved into the historical society began by holding bake sales to pay to restore the 40-foot tower — never before has East Point Lighthouse undergone such a complete renovation, according to Michael Calafati, a Cape May-based historic preservation architect who worked on the project.
Problems the historical society had with fulfilling the extensive paperwork requirements of a federal Department of Transportation grant led to the eventual involvement of the county improvement authority. It helped put the project back on track after it was on hold for about 15 years. Luckily the money remained earmarked and the restoration effort picked up steam again in 2016, Calafati said.
This latest effort has brought the lighthouse back to what is believed to be its original look. Five interior rooms have been outfitted with period antiques to depict a time when a lighthouse keeper and his family would have lived on the premises — while for the first time adding modern-day amenities such as heating and air-conditioning.
A ventilation and pump system was installed in the basement, which floods with about six inches of water during high tide twice a day.
But it's the exterior of the lighthouse that may offer visitors the most dramatically different view of the place: While many old-timers living in the area may insist that the structure was always a simple redbrick facade, historical evidence indicates that the original color was bright white, with wood shutters painted a deep, almost black, green.
The red brick that "everyone thought was original" was simply what was exposed over time, Calafati said.
Research also found that without the protective coating of the original limestone whitewash — not white paint — the exposure of the bricks was damaging the structure over time.
Visitors will be allowed to climb to the tower room, which is about four stories up, to get sweeping views of the intersection of the bay and the river as well as the surrounding wetlands. East Point was originally fitted with a fifth-order Fresnel lens — a smaller version of the type found in the Cape May or Absecon lights — and served as a guide for ships and boats operating out of the bay region's busy fisheries and shipping towns up until World War II.
Blackouts along the coast during the war led to the light going dark, and after the war it was determined that the light was no longer needed and it was officially decommissioned by the Coast Guard.
In the ensuing years, the building fell to near ruin. And just as the first primitive restoration efforts began in the 1970s, a fire set by vandals destroyed the tower and the original metal roof and charred the third and fourth floors.
In 1980, the sentinel was relit by preservationists with a six-bulb rotating electric light. Although most maritime travel now depends on global positioning satellite (GPS) navigation systems, lighthouses such as East Point are still considered viable navigation aids by the Coast Guard.
"The early efforts by the Maurice River Historical Society really paved the way for us to finally complete this project now and we are really indebted to them for all the years they worked to maintain this building," Patterson said.
Patterson said the historical society hopes that the restoration of the lighthouse will spur economic development in the area in the form of restaurants and boutiques, as such landmarks have done elsewhere.
"I think there is a certain pride that is instilled in a region when they can look back on their rich cultural and historic traditions, like this lighthouse," Patterson said.