Local legend has it that someone once drove a car across the ice to Ship John Shoal Lighthouse on the Delaware Bay during a particularly cold spell in the 1920s. Despite this rare instance, the ice was usually more enemy than friend. In 1941, Keeper W. H. Wells said, “In winters, when the ice is bad, we are sometimes marooned here for 30 to 60 days before getting on shore.” Ship John Shoal Lighthouse was a rugged assignment for keepers, as well as being one of America’s most interesting lighthouses architecturally.
Ship John Shoal, almost three miles from shore near the mouth of the Cohansey River, is named for the wreck of the ship John on Christmas Eve, 1797. The vessel was built in Newburyport, Massachusetts, but was carrying freight and passengers from Hamburg, Germany to Philadelphia when it was wrecked. The ship was stranded on Middle Grounds Shoal and cut through by ice. The cargo of gin, linen, iron, copper sheets, sail cloth and German toys was mostly salvaged, and all 50 passengers were unloaded safely. Heavy ice eventually broke the vessel apart and it was lost. Its underwater bulk served to build up the shoal over the years, adding to the navigational danger. The figurehead and related documents are now at the Gibbon House, headquarters of the Cumberland County Historical Society in Greenwich, New Jersey. The ship’s rudder was retrieved by an oyster dredge and presented to the museum in 1930.
The Lighthouse Board originally planned to build a screwpile light that would have been secured deep in the bay’s bottom at Ship John Shoal. In fact, detailed cost estimates were prepared by Lieutenant George Meade, who would later gain fame at the Battle of Gettysburg as the Union general. Construction started in 1855 on a screwpile light at Cross Ledge in the Delaware Bay, but ice floes destroyed the foundation during the next year. After this loss, the Lighthouse Board announced, “Since the destruction of the foundation work at Cross Ledge, in Delaware Bay, by the ice, no further attempts have been made to erect a light-house at that place. It is very doubtful as to the practicability of erecting screw-pile light-house structures at that locality and on Ship John Shoal which would resist the ice, and, unless Congress should direct otherwise (the funds available being insufficient for completing the works) they will not be commenced.” For the time being, the life of Ship John Shoal Light was ended before it started.
In 1872 the following petition was received by Congress: “The necessity for a light on Ship John Shoal is to guide vessels up the channel and prevent them from getting ashore on Ship John Shoal and the one opposite, the tide being such as to drift them at times on either shoal. This drifting is frequently experienced in this part of the channel.” Funding of $50,000 was soon appropriated to begin work on the lighthouse. Construction was initially delayed because the federal government had difficulty getting title to the site. Today it is still debated whether Ship John Shoal is in New Jersey or Delaware waters.
Work on the lighthouse finally began in August of 1874. By the following October a massive iron caisson, 24 feet in diameter, was sunk to a level of 22 feet below high tide and filled with concrete. A temporary light and living quarters were added on top of the caisson, and work halted for the winter. The keepers living in the temporary quarters reported that the vibrations from ice striking the structure were so great that they felt unsafe, and they finally had to abandon their post on January 18, 1875. The severe conditions made it impossible to reach the shoal again until the middle of March. The structure had survived the winter relatively unscathed, and the light was exhibited again.
After two years of use, the temporary dwelling and light were removed. A new iron superstructure was created for Ship John Shoal. It was one of two identical superstructures built by the firm of Ramsey and Carter; the other was meant for Southwest Ledge off New Haven, Connecticut. The Connecticut site was ready first, so one superstructure went there while the other was displayed at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, with an actual lighthouse keeper maintaining a light in the tower during the exposition. At Ship John Shoal a lightship, the Relief Light Vessel for the Fourth Lighthouse District (LV 24), was put in service beginning on May 15, 1877. The vessel, which was built in New Bedford, Massachusetts, was moored in midchannel near the station.
The work of erecting the superstructure was completed during 1877, and the light was first exhibited from the new lighthouse on August 10 of that year. Equipped with a fourth order Fresnel lens, the lighthouse’s characteristic was originally fixed red. It was later changed to an occulting light. A 1,200-pound fog bell was attached to the roof, just outside the watch room. Automatic striking machinery produced a triple blow to the bell every 45 seconds when needed.
The cast-iron, wood-lined superstructure has distinctive Second Empire detail and a mansard roof. Other than its sister light in Connecticut, there are no American lighthouses that resemble Ship John Shoal. Now painted bright red, it presents a unique appearance.
Over the years, hundreds of tons of riprap stone were placed around the lighthouse to protect it from potentially dangerous ice. In 1893-94, 1669 cubic yards of blocks — between two and six tons each — were piled about 60 feet from the caisson, surrounding the tower. Two channels were left open to allow access.
Male keepers only lived at Ship John Shoal while their families lived onshore. In 1903 the head keeper’s wife, against regulations, was brought to the station for a visit. The sharp-eyed assistant keeper spotted an inspector’s vessel approaching. Hoping to avoid reprimand, the two keepers frantically tried to hide the visiting woman.
They came up with an ingenious plan. After blackening the woman’s face and hands with coal, they helped her hide in the coal bin, where she managed to stay all during the inspection. The inspector didn’t suspect a thing until he saw some knitting in the living quarters. The head keeper insisted that he had taken up knitting to pass the time between working periods. The increasingly suspicious inspector eventually made his way to the basement and even looked in the coal bin, but he didn’t see the well-hidden woman. He left and everyone breathed easier — a little prematurely as it turned out. The inspector came back later for a second surprise visit. This time nobody spotted him ahead of time and the ruse was exposed. The head keeper was reprimanded and suspended for a short time.
Despite being isolated often in winter, the lighthouse was accessible to boaters in good weather. In 1941, Keeper W. H. Wells told the magazine We Women, “We have 200 to 300 visitors here in a year from many states. Many times there are visitors who come many times in one year.” Keeper Wells described life at the station. “There are three men here, and one is mostly on shore leave, as we have 22 days at the light and eight days each ashore. When on duty we stand 12-hour watch in which one is from midnight to noon and the other is from noon to midnight.”
In the 1940s an assistant keeper was trying to return to the lighthouse in zero-degree weather. He was unable to land due to rough seas, and his boat was swamped in icy water. The man drifted until morning, when he was picked up. He soon recovered from his ordeal.
In 1949 Keeper George Richter reported more than 200 people visiting the lighthouse. One of 21 children, Keeper Richter had left home at 11 to work as a cabin boy for the White Star Line. At Ship John Shoal Light, Keeper Richter said, many ducks would fly right into the lantern, often breaking the glass. He sometimes had to pick up as much as a bushel basket full of unlucky ducks.
The Coast Guard keepers were removed from Ship John Shoal Lighthouse after its 1973 automation. The Fresnel lens was removed in 1988 and is now on display at the Coast Guard Air Station at Ponoma, New Jersey. The tower underwent some repairs to its metalwork in 1989-90, performed by Frazer Construction of Bridgeton, New Jersey.
The solar-powered light continues as an active aid to navigation, now flashing white every five seconds with a red sector. It is maintained by the Cape May, New Jersey Aids to Navigation Team. The windows of the hardy old tower are boarded up, but the unique structure has held up well over a century and a quarter.
Occasional lighthouse cruises leaving Cape May, New Jersey, pass Ship John Shoal Light. The cruises are cosponsored by the Cape May Whale Watcher and the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. For more information call (609) 884-5404.
Hornet Charters also offers tours of the area’s lighthouses; call 856-467-2006 or 609-504-6057 for information.
Special thanks to Bob Trapani of the Delaware River and Bay Lighthouse Foundation, Inc. for his assistance with this article.
This story appeared in the
June 2001 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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