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Bizarre History of Cape May: Cape May Lighthouse continues to shine despite past troubles

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 “And God said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

The people who built the first lighthouse in colonial America may or may not have been inspired by that Biblical quotation, but the words have appropriately lived on in the story telling of the lighthouses of Cape May County, especially the one in Lower Township which is called the Cape May Lighthouse.

“Let there be light,” said someone of lesser authority than the originator in Boston in 1716, and soon there on the island of Little Brewster there was light for the ships at sea in the form of the first lighthouse in the new nation-to-be.

But it was not until more than a century later in 1823 that someone saw the light locally and built the first of three lighthouses in this area, the final one serving today as a museum for the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities.

History apparently has had a frustrating time giving Cape May Point a consistent name. At the time the first lighthouse was built the area was called Stites Beach. In 1876 that was changed to Sea Grove, which two years later was officially incorporated from sections of Lower Township after its voters endorsed the move in a referendum. But in 1896 it became known as Lower Township again and in 1908 still another referendum was held and from that emerged the name Cape May Point.

Even today they are playing the “what’s my name?” game in that area. While the lighthouse is situated in Lower Township on the fringe of Cape May Point it bears the name of Cape May in its title.

John Stites, who was part of a well-known family in Cape May County history, set the stage for the building of the first official lighthouse at the then-budding resort. He and his wife were to sell one acre of land for $300 to the government for use as a site for the lighthouse.

It was a soft deal in more ways than one, not only in the size of the price but in the fact that it was built on soft sand which is not always conducive to supporting big buildings. It stretched 156 feet into the sky, its lantern sending out the light from its highest perch.

But while their mission was to help protect the ships at sea, planners and builders were to find that there was no mission to protect the lighthouse from erosion, the enemy born of hurricanes and northeasters. The sandy foundation, not all that firm to start off with, began washing away, and it became apparent that the first lighthouse was a washout and a new one was needed.

It was to happen in 1847 at a place 400 yards away, the handiwork of local contractors Samuel and Nathan Middleton. Changes were happening then in the world of the sea and there were signs that the new lighthouse was not keeping up to date with those changes. More ships were sailing the waters and as a result more shipwrecks were occurring. Criticism was leveled at the lighthouse service organization that it was not meeting the new challenges.

So Congress ordered an investigation of the 1847 lighthouse as well as others that were under fire. Inspectors did not come up with good grades in 1852 for some of the lighthouses, putting much of the blame on a top man of the Treasury Department which was in charge of the lighthouse group.

The probe also found the building badly in need of repair, some of its keepers in need of better training and education, its main purpose light revolving irregularly and the building without the necessary supplies and equipment.

What’s more, modern technology of that time had arrived and the lighthouse had not kept up with it. The end result was that the investigating team recommended improvements at nine lighthouses. Among them was the one at the southernmost point of New Jersey.

Congress, alerted about the dilemma, set the stage for the third lighthouse when it came up with $40,000, no paltry sum in those days, on March 3, 1857 for the new building that still stands today at 212 Lighthouse Avenue some 200 yards from the site of the second one.

History is somewhat foggy about whether Civil War General George Gordon Meade was one of the Army engineers who helped build it before the war. Meade, who vacationed in Cape May during peaceful times, is generally credited with having played a role in designing the structure, not building it.

But whoever was the catalyst, the lighthouse, standing 157 feet and 6 inches tall, a little higher than the original, came to pass on the Halloween of October 31, 1859. Some of the bricks in the construction were used from the 1847 lighthouse which was later demolished.

Except for a period during World War II when it was darkened because of fear of German submarines prowling nearby waters, there was light at the lighthouse under government and Coast Guard direction until 1986. It was then that the Mid-Atlantic Center For The Arts and Humanities subleased it from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection which had leased it from the Coast Guard. MAC set out to create a viable museum there which still exists today, attracting more than 2 million visitors since its inception as a tourist attraction.

The Coast Guard, meanwhile, still follows the Biblical quotation. It is responsible for maintaining the light at the top of the 199-step lighthouse. But really it gets plenty of help from a higher commander as it climbs closer to the sky.

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