Barnegat Light — We all think we know all there is to know about Barnegat Light: a lovely town on LBI with a beautiful lighthouse and Viking Village fishing dock. But there is so much more to know, and it’s contained in the Arcadia series “Images of America: Barnegat Light,” written and edited by Reilly Platten Sharp for the Barnegat Light Historical Society and Museum.
Sharp is vice president of the society and the curator of the museum. He is the fourth generation of his family to summer in Barnegat Light, at least some of the time on East 23rd Street. In 1937 one of his great-grandfathers bought two cottages “for a song,” and though one was sold by his father, the descendants all haggle over what summer weeks they can have. “We’d all love to stay year ’round, but it’s not insulated,” he said.
Sharp comes down regularly from his other home in Easton, Pa. “Barnegat Light feels like home.”
Being curator of the museum, established in 1954, has been a joy and a huge task, he admits.
“There is a mountain of info and stories in the Barnegat Light Museum. We are in the process of digitizing and organizing all the photos. We have between 3,000 to 4,000 photos – more than we thought we had when we first started.”
From that treasure trove, Sharp chose the stories and photos that best tell the history of the place he so loves.
For one thing, we know Barnegat Light was until recently (1948) called Barnegat City, but did you know that it was known locally as Brownsville after the prominent family that owned most of the land?
In 1880, a cadre of Camden financiers had a plan to develop Barnegat City into a seaside attraction mimicking Atlantic City. They laid out 30 acres in a grid pattern that was later followed by the town, but slower than the financiers would have liked, and the idea for the development died by 1910.
In 1948, the town fathers decided to capitalize on the Barnegat Lighthouse as a tourist draw, so the name was changed to Barnegat Light. “They thought, ‘What can we offer the world that would make us more attractive?’ and after a referendum the name was changed,” said Sharp.
Here are some more fascinating facts found in the book: The Barnegat Lighthouse that we all know and love is actually the second lighthouse built on the peninsula. The first was a 40-foot brick edifice built in 1834 that was not high enough for ships at sea to recognize as a warning. In fact, in 1856, it brought two ships to peril on the shoals of Barnegat Inlet when they mistook the light to be that of a pilot ship sent to guide them into New York Harbor.
One of the ships was a cargo ship, and the 18 seamen aboard were safely rescued . But the other was a packet ship, the New York, with 300 Irish immigrants aboard. The ship came ashore on Island Beach during a snowstorm and all were rescued, but Island Beach was a forlorn and lonely place with no shelter for the already traumatized people.
“For three days they were forced to walk 20 miles to Point Pleasant and then on to Freehold. A baby and an elderly passenger died on the walk. It was a scandal that made all the New York papers,” said Sharp.
The 40-foot lighthouse was replaced in 1859 by the 169-foot tower we know today, designed by the Army Corps of Engineers’ George Meade. But soon, shifting sands began to erode the beach and maritime forest that once surrounded it, and in 1927 it was shuttered and a floating lightship was anchored outside the inlet.
That tourist draw, however, spurred the town fathers into a fury to save the lighthouse. Wooden groins and rock jetties were installed without the government’s help. The entire story is told in photos and long captions written by Sharp.
Stories of the inhabitants of the sparsely populated town include daring rescues and the history of the Coast Guard station that developed out of the Lifesaving Service. The most famous Coast Guard serviceman had four legs and was named Sinbad. His story is in here, too.
Long days of summer pleasures were always part of the Barnegat Light story, but in April 1933, the world again came to the sleepy fishing village when the USS Akron dirigible crashed off Barnegat Light. The lighthouse was a navigational aid for the Navy’s fleet of airships known las blimps, as they made their way to their moorings at Lakehurst Naval Air Station. It was a wild spring thunderstorm that brought the 785-foot leviathan to ruin in the ocean off Barnegat Light.
“It was a national story,” said Sharp. “Rescuers and army surgeons were flown in to treat the survivors everyone thought would be coming ashore, but a lack of life-rings on the airship meant that only three of the 76 men survived.”
When the U.S. entered World War II, Barnegat Light citizens were on the lookout for German U-boats, and in 1942 three oil tankers were destroyed by U-boats off the beach, staining the sands with oil.
A more recent shipwreck was the Sea King, which broke apart in the surf off 11th Street in 1963. The entire 90-foot ship sleeps under the dunes; only its mast rises above the grasses.
Sharp has chosen the best photos in the Barnegat Light Museum’s archives to tell the story of the town he loves, and his captions elucidate the history beyond the usual three or four lines we are used to seeing in Arcadia’s Images of America Books. The book is available at the museum, at Fifth Street and Central Avenue, which will be open Oct. 19 and 20 during the Lighthouse Challenge from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sharp will be there in the afternoons to sign books. It’s also available at local stores and on Amazon Books.
Each of the 127 pages has at least one photo; most have two. It retails for $21.99 and is made in the USA.
— Pat Johnson