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The List: Taking the Measure of New Jersey’s Ten Tallest Lighthouses

The lonely job of lighthouse keeper has been eliminated by automation, but visiting one of the state’s historic lighthouses — and in some cases climbing to the top — is a great summer outing

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There are still a few weeks of summer left, which means there’s still time to go to the Shore, catch some rays, ride the waves, and visit a lighthouse.

While New Jersey is a relatively small state, it has a number of lighthouses — both along the Atlantic coast and in the Delaware Bay. The Lighthouse Friends website lists 20 lighthouses, although one is a replica, as well as two lightships in the state. Two others were destroyed. Most of the structures are historic. Nine are open to the public.

These structures, which were usually tall towers, date back to colonial days and served as navigational aids. Every lighthouse had a distinctive coloring and unique pattern of flashing lights, to enable vessels to know where they were. Until the early 1900s, a keeper tended the lights and lived in the structure or in an adjacent home — sometimes with his family. Automation made the keeper’s job unnecessary. The U.S. Coast Guard was given responsibility for the lights and continues to operate several in New Jersey, although boats rely more on modern equipment for navigation.

Every lighthouse tells a story

Each of New Jersey’s lighthouses has its own story, but most were preserved after the federal government leased or gave the structures to local officials or the state, while maintaining the right to operate some of the lights. Many of New Jersey’s lighthouses have been preserved through partnerships between the state and nonprofits.

While several of the state’s lighthouses are known for their beauty or history, two are especially noteworthy. New Jersey is home to the nation’s oldest lighthouse, at Sandy Hook, which dates back to 1764. And the original two towers of the Navesink Twin Lights were the first in America to use the Fresnel lens, a ridged lens invented in the early 1800s that became the standard for lighthouses because it reflected light much further.

These are New Jersey’s tallest lighthouses:

1. Absecon Lighthouse — 171 feet

Located in northern Atlantic City two blocks from the beach, the Absecon Lighthouse is the third tallest in the nation. Built in 1857, it still contains its original Fresnel lens, a first-order lens that was among the largest made at that time. It operated until 1933, when it was replaced by a taller light placed on top a steel tower on the boardwalk. The lighthouse was opened to the public in 2001; the climb to the top takes 228 steps.

2. Barnegat Lighthouse — 169 feet

Affectionately known as Old Barney, the lighthouse sits very close to the water in a state park at the northern tip of Long Beach Island. Built in 1859, it was replaced by a lightship anchored off the coast in 1927. The Friends of Barnegat Lighthouse purchased a new Coast Guard-approved lens and it began shining again nine years ago. Both the park and the lighthouse are open to the public.

3. Cape May Lighthouse — 157.5 feet

Located in Cape May Point State Park at the southern tip of the state, the 1859 lighthouse is the third structure in the area; the first two were swallowed by the ever-encroaching ocean. The Coast Guard continues to operate the light, and the state leases the building to the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, which restored the structure and reopened it to the public in 1988.

4. Finns Point Range Lighthouse — 115 feet

Located in Pennsville along the Delaware River, this wrought-iron tower was built in 1876 to help vessels move up river between Reedy Island and Baker Shoal. It was the rear of two lights on the property. The front light atop a frame structure closer to the river was razed in 1977. The lights were deactivated in 1950.

5. Sandy Hook Lighthouse — 103 feet

Part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, this lighthouse was built after several shipwrecks in the area and remained in British hands during most of the Revolutionary War. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964 to commemorate its 200th birthday. With the currents depositing sand along the beach here, the lighthouse is almost 1.5 miles farther from the shore today than when it was built. It is open to the public.

6. Tinicum Rear Range Lighthouse — 85 feet

This steel tower in Paulsboro began operating in 1880 and is in continuous use today. An original front lighthouse was torn down in the 1970s after falling into disrepair. Closed for repairs for two years, Tinicum is set to reopen to the public in September.

7. Navesink Twin Lights — 73 feet

While the structure is only 73 feet tall, its location on a hill 200 feet high in Highlands makes it seem taller. The unique brownstone building that replaced two original towers on the site looks like a castle, with an octagonal tower on the north end and a square tower 228 feet away on the south end, with the keeper’s quarters, workshops, and oil rooms in between. The lighthouse is open to visitors.

8. Great Beds Lighthouse — 61 feet

Located in the water off the coast of South Amboy, this steel conical-caisson lighthouse is accessible only by boat. It was built in 1880 to protect the oyster beds off the coast of Staten Island, where the Raritan River and Arthur Kill meet. A dispute over which state had jurisdiction over the land underneath it led to a two-year delay in its construction, until New York agreed to cede the land to New Jersey. In 2011, the Coast Guard auctioned it off and an individual bought the lighthouse.

9. Brandywine Shoal Lighthouse — 60 feet

A 1914 circular light made of reinforced concrete off the coast of Cape May in the Delaware Bay is the third lighthouse in this location. The first dated to 1828 and the second, which it replaces, was the first screw-pile lighthouse (anchored directly to the shoal it stands on) in the country, completed in 1850. In 2013, the National Park Service transferred ownership of the lighthouse to Brandywine Shoal Lighthouse Inc., which hopes to open it to the public someday. It is still in use as a lighthouse.

10. Miah Maull Lighthouse—59 feet

Located in the Delaware Bay five miles southwest of Egg Island Point, this was the last lighthouse to be built in the Delaware. Construction began in 1906 and was completed seven years later when all necessary funds were approved. This cast iron caisson is still in use as a lighthouse. Miah Maull was sold at auction to an individual for $90,000 in 2015.

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