Last Visited: October, 2001
In 1821, Congress appropriated money of the construction of a lighthouse at Cape May. A site on Cape May Point was selceted, not far from the present lighthouse. Work began on it in 1822. Bricks were brought down the Delaware River from Philadelphia by barge. A stone foundation was constructed upon which the brick structure would rest. The first lighthouse at Cape May was completed in October, 1823.
As is frequently the case with such structures, the elements in general, and erosion in particular, are a constant enemy. The sea had eroded the beach so that by 1847, the tower was surrounded by water at high tide, and it continued existence was threatened. the lighthouse was discontinued as untenable on May 1, 1847.
A second lighthouse was built about a third of a mile inland from the old light, on a high bluff called Great Island. The firm of Samuel and Nathan Middleton were selected as the contractors. The new lighthouse was built 75 feet high to the base of the light, and 94 feet high to the dome, showing a light 14 feet higher than its predecessor. The light was produced by 15 concave reflectors mounted on a triangle making a full light every minute.
In 1859, the second lighthouse was razed and the present lighthouse was constructed, a thousand feet further inshore. Up until a few years ago, some of the foundation of the 1847 tower could be seen on the beach in front of the present lighthouse. The foundation of the 1847 tower remained for many years after the tower was razed abd was used as an icehouse in the 1860's, and as a stable at the turn of the century.
The third and present Cape May Lighthouse is 157.5 feet tall (170 feet to focal plane), has a base diameter of 27 feet. The tower has both and inner and outer wall with a space in between. The outer wall is 3' 10" at the base of the tower. The inner wall is 8.5" at thebase. The diameter at the top is 13'6" (15" to base of watch gallery). At the time of its construction the lanthorn was equipped with a first-order Fresnel Lens, and kerosene wick lamps. In 1910, the lamps were replaced with incandescent oil vapor apparatus. This too, was replaced in 1938 with a 250 watt electric bulb which cast a beam 19 miles.
In 1934, the Lighthouse Service notified mariners that the characteristic of the Cape May Lighthouse would be changed temporarily. On September 27th of that year, the light was changed to a sodium vapor light, which gave the beacon a yellowish cast. The flash was changed also to show for six seconds every thirty seconds, followed by an eclipse of 24 seconds.
The Fresnel lens was removed in 1945 by the Federal Government and placed on permanent loan at the Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Museum in Cape May Court House.
The lens was replaced by a 36-inch rotating aero-beacon lens, equipped with a 1,000 watt bulb. This arrangement produced 350,000 candle-power. The lens was elevated 1.25 degrees to help air traffic also. The lighthouse lens flashes once every fifteen seconds.
The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts is currently leasing the lighthouse from the state, and has restored and repainted the lighthouse to its former glory.
New Jersey Lighthouse Society
Hours of operation vary throughout the year. The tower is open daily, April through November, and on weekends most of the rest of the year. The grounds, ground floor, tower and watch room gallery are open to the public. All tours of the tower are self guided.
Nearest Address: 310 Light House Ave, Cape May, NJ
- Take Garden State Parkway south to the end.
- At the end of the parkway bear right onto Route 109 south.
- In 1 mile the road also becomes Lafayette St. Keep going straight.
- In 1.2 miles turn right onto Jackson St. then continue on W. Perry St, which then becomes Sunset Blvd.
- Stay on Sunset Blvd for 1.7 miles then take a left onto Lighthouse Ave. Follow to Cape May Point State Park.
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