Lighthouse still telling the tales of Sea Girt

Sea Girt Lighthouse. Its first keeper, Abraham Wolf, married a Pittsburgh widow after the Civil War, and they built a house around the beacon. He worked into his 70s.
Sea Girt Lighthouse. Its first keeper, Abraham Wolf, married a Pittsburgh widow after the Civil War, and they built a house around the beacon. He worked into his 70s.
Posted: August 08, 2013

SEA GIRT, N.J. - The fire broke out about 3 a.m. that Saturday in a closet aboard the big luxury liner as it plowed through a nor'easter several miles off Long Beach Island.

Within 30 minutes, the flames spread across the Morro Castle, and passengers and crew alike abandoned the doomed vessel - some in lifeboats, others with only life preservers.

One hundred and thirty-seven never made it. But hundreds of others spotted the bright beacon of the Sea Girt Lighthouse on Sept. 8, 1934, and fought their way through heavy swells toward rescuers and the safety of the New Jersey shoreline.

The story of the dramatic rescue lives on at the lighthouse through tour guides and the display of documents, photos, and artifacts, including a lifeboat oar, life jackets, and a copy of a U.S. Senate bill recognizing the heroism of local people.

One of them was Elvin "Toots" Lake, son of the lighthouse keeper and one of six Sea Girt lifeguards who saved some of the struggling passengers. "He told me they brought in 12 survivors - but more bodies than people," said Lake's grandson Bill Mountford, vice president and trustee of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, which leases and maintains the site.

Though retired from service after World War II, the 1896 lighthouse remains a guiding light in the Jersey Shore town, where it is a beloved historic landmark and gathering place for local groups and community events.

It preserves the story of colorful keepers - from a former Union spy during the Civil War to a pioneering woman who kept the light burning while raising her children at the lighthouse.

It also tells a tale of the site's service in World War II, when Coast Guard members were stationed there and patrolled the beach with carbines and side arms. It was the time, too, when the brick building's appearance was changed with a coat of brown paint to confuse German submarine crews, who used chart-book descriptions of lighthouses to check their position.

"We attract thousands of visitors a year from across America - with a strong representation of Pennsylvanians and a surprising number from abroad," said Bill Dunn, a tour guide and trustee of the citizens committee. "They're drawn by the intriguing history of the lighthouse."

One of the most memorable events was the Morro Castle disaster, said Mountford, a commodities trader who lives in Wall Township. "It's the family history that brings me back here," he said. "My grandfather lived here as a little boy and was later a lifeguard and fire chief."

On the morning of the Morro Castle fire, "he was awakened and told, 'Toots, get up, we have to get down to the beach,' " Mountford said.

The story of the lighthouse began when the singer Lillie Langtry visited Long Branch, where Philadelphia and New York society went for gambling, theater, boating, dining, and horse racing.

In Sea Girt, the most prominent building was Beach House, a hotel created in 1875. Twenty-one years later, a redbrick building - the last live-in lighthouse on the East Coast - was constructed to help guide mariners. The Sea Girt Lighthouse was intended to illuminate a dark spot midway in the 44-mile stretch between the Navesink and Barnegat Lighthouses.

The first keeper was Abraham Wolf. During the Civil War, he affected a convincing Southern accent to extract information from Confederate prisoners at Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River, Dunn said. He later married a wealthy widow from Pittsburgh, and the two built a house that still stands around the lighthouse. Wolf was in his early 70s when he retired, making him the oldest working keeper.

The duty at Sea Girt was light, since the climb to the tower - on an elevation overlooking the beach - was only 42 steps.

Wolf was followed by Abram Yates, whose wife, Harriet, briefly took over after his death. Lighthouses did not usually have women as keepers. Yates was followed by John Hawkey, who had spent most of his career aboard the Five Fathom Lightship, anchored in the Delaware Bay off Cape May.

Bill Lake, Mountford's great-grandfather, was the next keeper and oversaw the installation in 1921 of the first land-based radio-beacon navigation system. The last keeper was George Thomas, who served until 1941, when the Coast Guard took over the lighthouse, which was sold in 1956 to the Borough of Sea Girt for $11,000.

"It became a library, recreation department, and community center," said Dunn. "But by 1980, it needed some work."

The Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee agreed to lease the building for $1 in 1981, and restore and maintain it for the use of the community.

"Our mission is to be a historic site and community house where different groups and clubs can meet," said Virginia Zientek, president of the volunteer group and a Sea Girt resident. "The restoration and repairs are ongoing.

"We're putting up new exhibits all the time," she said. "It's a challenge" and "labor of love."

Among the youngest lighthouse docents telling the site's story are Harlan Meehan, 14, and his brother Julian, 9, of nearby Brielle.

"I like going up into the tower and looking at all the ships," said Harlan Meehan.

"I like how old it is here, the history of it," added Julian.

Up to 3,000 people have visited the lighthouse during special events such as the Lighthouse Challenge, when people try to visit 11 New Jersey lighthouses over one October weekend. This year's event is scheduled for Oct. 19 and 20.

The site was a hit Tuesday with a Newtown, Conn., family touring the area. "It was a great treat going up into the tower," said Joe Anesi, who came with his wife, Beth; son Christopher, 14; and daughter Elizabeth, 7.

"The view is great," said Beth Anesi. "It's definitely worth it."


Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

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