The date July 27, 1920, is seldom mentioned in local history books or found on any historic sign, but on that date the battle of the Sunset Hotel would determine the fate of Long Beach Island and its beloved Old Barney, the Barnegat Lighthouse.
The attack came from the U.S. Lighthouse Bureau, whose head had determined that the lighthouse should be abandoned and allowed to topple into the water, which had eroded to within feet of its base. In defense of the tower, local citizens had raised money and convinced politicians to rally to their cause.
Pressure from around the nation caused the government to agree to a meeting at the Sunset Hotel, near the base of the tower in Barnegat City, now Barnegat Light.
The Tuckerton Beacon of July 29 reported, “G.R. Putnam, head of the United States Lighthouse Bureau, on Tuesday inspected the encroachments made by the ocean on the beach to within a few feet of the Barnegat Lighthouse.
“United States Senator Frelinghuysen, who heads the movement to save the historic lighthouse, invited Mr. Putnam to see what the residents of Long Beach have accomplished by an expenditure of $4000 in preventing the lighthouse from falling into the ocean.”
There had been a long-brewing battle between local citizens and the Washington experts. The year before, “The engineers of the lighthouse bureau at that time declined to act on the advice of the residents along Barnegat bay, who knew its currents, and decided on a stone jetty. They worked out their plans on paper with the help of charts, and the stone jetty served to cause a new current that did more damage than good. Then it sank out of sight into the sand.”
Locals were not ready to give up on the lighthouse.
“Frelinghuysen told Mr. Putnam how Barnegat City had doubled its tax rate to save government property and had already built up the beach more than twenty feet, he insisted that the lighthouse bureau chief see the work for himself.
“Accompanying Senator Frelinghuysen Tuesday [was] Lewis M. Haupt, the famous engineer who has many times conquered the sea and who designed the jetties now doing the good at Barnegat City.”
This would be a fact-finding mission.
“Mr. Putnam and his deputy, J.S. Conway, next inspected the wooden jetties built by residents of Barnegat City, and the latter were pleased to hear him admit these jetties were causing new beach to form, and would save the lighthouse if they were extended.
“Then the party assembled at the Sunset Hotel, where F. Morse Archer spoke on behalf of the citizens of Barnegat City resort. James Barber, who has taken an active part in saving the lighthouse, said the last dollar raised by citizens has been expended, and it was now up to the government to finish the job and save its own property.”
All seemed to be going well. But “Chief Putnam was then called on and startled the assemblage by acknowledging that while he was spending $40,000 on a stone jetty to save Barnegat Light, he apparently had no hopes of saving it, for he had given out a contract to build a steel structure to place a light at the mouth of the inlet and this had been built.
“He said he proposed to spend $500,000 for a lightship off shore. This would have three large crews, who would buy their supplies in Barnegat. The lighthouse merely required a keeper and a couple assistants.”
Putnam ended the meeting, leaving a small window of hope.
“He said he would confer soon as he returned to Washington with the Secretary of Commerce, but would not promise to recommend an appropriation but would give the matter careful consideration.”
Unfortunately, his own words revealed his intentions.
“The earliest chart shows that in 1810 the shore line was about 3,000 feet north of the present tower. There is every indication that there is a strong natural tendency for this inlet to move bodily southward, the northern point building outward and the southern point cutting away.
“This tendency is quite marked and it was noted recently that the conditions at Barnegat Inlet do not indicate any change to the northward. In view of the natural damage caused by the seas in the vicinity of the station, the uncertainty as to the cessation of the forces now acting southward at the inlet and the preparations already made to provide a sufficient light tower in the neighborhood in case of need, the bureau does not feel justified in expending further amounts for the protection of the light house reservation.”
The Philadelphia North American of Aug. 2 declared this was a battle.
“If Barnegat lighthouse is saved, the entire shore will rejoice. The chief of the lighthouse bureau did not give much encouragement at the gathering at Barnegat City last Tuesday, but Senator Frelinghuysen, who wants the light kept, is a fighter when he goes after anything and he is in earnest in this. His secretary, Fran Willing Leach, is a resident of Tuckerton, and to him and William Fischer of Toms River, is due the gratitude of every lover of this historic beacon that it has not been abandoned to its fate.
“The citizens of Barnegat City have shown what kind of stuff Jersey shoremen are made of. They took the money out of their own pockets to save the lighthouse when the government was indifferent to the saving of its own property or showed worse than indifference.”
The paper also explained why the government was in such a hurry to let the tower fall.
“Chief Putnam of the lighthouse bureau, naturally is jealous of the reputation of his department and does not feel good over his waste of $45,000 last spring in the building of a stone jetty that did more harm than good. To make this a very bitter pill for him to swallow is the fact that the citizens of Barnegat City with an expenditure of a few thousand dollars have shown what they can do in the building up of the beach front of the lighthouse.”
The same day, the Philadelphia Bulletin reported that Putnam “said the Government has not deviated from its intention to place a lightship seven miles off Barnegat Light.”
“‘There need be no apprehension the Government will abolish light at Barnegat City,’ said Mr. Putnam, ‘even if a lightship is placed as planned. The lightship will not do away with the necessity of a lighthouse at Barnegat City Inlet, although it will reduce it to serving the needs of Barnegat Bay.’”
William Fisher, editor of the New Jersey Courier, explained to his readers the battle wasn’t over yet.
“[T]he Courier has had the powerful aid of the daily papers of Philadelphia, New York and Newark, which have printed column after column about Barnegat Light and the government neglect that would let it go to ruin, after its long years of saving life and property.”
As you drive around the Jersey Shore and see all the images of Barnegat Lighthouse, you might wonder what it would be like today if people 100 years ago had not opposed the wisdom of the government experts.
This story appeared in the
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