On October 29, 2012, in what has been called one of the worst storms of the past 100 years that caused havoc and destruction along the eastern part of the United States, the Old Orchard Shoal Lighthouse was literally wiped out of existence. Other than a small amount of rubble and part of the dock, nothing was left of the nearly 120 year old lighthouse.
The conical steel enforced tower was built in 1893 and originally served as a Front Range light to the skeletal Waackaack Rear Range Light in Keansburg, New Jersey. The lighthouse, which was automated in 1955, once housed a 4th order Fresnel lens, and over the years it was once manned by some interesting lighthouse keepers, some who became very notable in lighthouse history.
Speculation abounds as to why the lighthouse, which had survived many previous storms over the past 119 years, did not survive Superstorm Sandy. However, the answer may be with the original construction of the lighthouse in which the lower portion of the foundation of the lighthouse was filled with concrete, but water cisterns and a basement were located above that, with the three story, brick-lined tower centered atop the circular foundation that was encased in steel and it all rested on top of the sandy clay underneath Old Orchard Shoal.
The story behind the story can be found in an 1882 newspaper article about the construction of the lighthouse. I. H. Hathaway & Co., the builders of the lighthouse, reported that they had discovered the hulk of a ship sunk many years ago that was imbedded at a point starting at 240 feet under the bed of sandy clay on Orchard Shoals.
“In order to secure fresh drinking water for the workmen, a driven well was sunk into the bed of the ocean. At a depth of 240 feet the pipe struck the deck of a buried ship. The sharp cutting lower edged passed through her deck and hold and through the hull and again and into the sand. Pieces of oak decking in good preservation first came to the surface. Then came handfuls of resin, which it is supposed composed the ship’s cargo. It is estimated that the ship lies 260 feet below the surface of the sand mountain.
“How long the vessel has lain in its present position can only be conjectured. The shoals at this point have been filling up rapidly for many years. It is possible that it took fully 100 years to put such a load of sand over the vessel.
“A map in possession of the Maritime Exchange shows that since 1779 the shore of Sandy Hook has shifted to the northwest 2,800 feet. In 1779 the general direction of the extreme point [was]north; now it is west. It is likely that the sand which has been cut off from the Hook has gone to make the shoals. The sunken vessel may have been the nucleus of the present shoals. The current and the tides are so swift at the shoals that some permanent obstacle must have first caught and held the sand.
“The sand is of extraordinary hardness. The lighthouse builders calculated that the foundation would settle considerably, but it has not gone down more than three inches. Fully 100 tons of the iron work at the lighthouse is now in position and yet the sand-bed supports it as though it were rock.”
Perhaps because it did not have the romance of other more picturesque lighthouses, very little has been saved about the memories of the life of the keepers who once lived at Old Orchard Shoal Lighthouse, and photos of most of the keepers who once served here are apparently waiting to be rediscovered - or they may have been lost forever.
The first keeper of the lighthouse was veteran Lighthouse Service employee Andrew L. Carlow. After being stationed at the lonely lighthouse for nearly nine years, Carlow broke down, suffering from what was called nervous exhaustion, and he reportedly left the Lighthouse Service for good after a stint at the United States Marine Hospital in New York.
Although Ed Burge, who served as a keeper at Old Orchard Shoal Lighthouse for 2 ½ years, gave an extensive interview with a reporter for American Magazine in 1924, most of the story dealt with the other lighthouses where he had been stationed at.
One of the most noteable people to have served as a keeper at Old Orchard Shoal Lighthouse was the somewhat famous Frank Schubert (1915-2003) who spent 43 years as a lighthouse keeper and caretaker at the Coney Island Lighthouse on Staten Island, New York. Schubert, who died in 2003, joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1937 and served as a civilian keeper for three years at Old Orchard Shoal when the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service. During his time at Old Orchard Shoal Lighthouse, Schubert took up marquetry, which became his life-long hobby. As others who served in the Lighthouse Service passed on, Schubert’s notoriety gained, and in 1989 he was invited to the White House by President George H. W. Bush, who Schubert said was “nuts about lighthouses.” But most of the stories associated with Schubert center around the Coney Island Lighthouse.
As well as the fact that the lighthouse was built upon a base of hard sand, the winter of 1918 might also have played a role in its demise during Hurricane Sandy, which became Superstorm Sandy. During the winter of 1918, ice floes severely damaged the foundation of the lighthouse and cracks were evident everywhere. As a result, the government placed about 7,000 tons of additional riprap around the tower.
Interestingly, the additional riprap that was installed prevented the lighthouse keeper’s boat from being raised and lowered for launch from the davits on the lighthouse. So the government built a concrete landing area, which, for the most part, is now all that remains of the light station. Old Orchard Shoal Lighthouse now joins its counterpart, the Waackaack Rear Range Light, as another lighthouse that is gone forever, one destroyed by man and the other destroyed by nature.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2013 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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