It’s the third tallest lighthouse in the United States, with 225 cast iron steps leading up a spiral staircase in its interior to the top, 171 feet above sea level. And there is no lighthouse taller in New Jersey. Yet it’s tough to spot the historic Absecon Lighthouse when you scan the skyline of Atlantic City, which also includes New Jersey’s tallest building, Revel, at 99 stories. Absecon gets lost in the clutter of high-rises along the shore. But as one of the oldest structures in the region, built from brick in 1857 – before there was an Atlantic City, or a Boardwalk – it’s also one of the most fascinating to visit. Especially since you can climb to the top.
Living near the second tallest lighthouse in the United States at Ponce Inlet, and having climbed many lighthouses over the years, I had to take the challenge. Yes, it takes a while to get up those 225 steps. But unlike many lighthouses, the landings and stairs are broad enough that you don’t feel cramped on the climb.
The views from the top? Worth it. Overlooking Absecon Inlet, it’s a reminder that before a city sprouted along the shore, this was the glory of Absecon Island, a windswept, dune-topped barrier island. The light, fired by a Funck’s mineral oil lamp and reflected through the beautiful first-order Fresnel Lens, reached almost 20 miles out to sea.
Absecon Lighthouse was the first of nine first-order lighthouses built by the Army Corps of Engineers during the 1850s. It wasn’t an easy one to build, thanks to the marshes near the inlet. General George Meade oversaw the construction. Groundwater kept filling the foundation, so a steam engine was brought in to run pumps around the clock to keep the hole dry for the masonry to be completed, not an easy task in those times.
When the tower was completed, Absecon was the tallest lighthouse in the United States, and remained so until 1873, when the present-day Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was completed. General Meade would go on to oversee the completion of numerous lighthouses in similarly tricky locations, including ones in Florida at Sombrero Key, Carysfort Reef, Sand Key, and Rebecca Shoal.
In 1876, Absecon Lighthouse was in peril from encroaching seas coming within 75 feet of the base of the lighthouse. Jetties were built around it, which eventually filled in with sand. Standing at the base of the lighthouse today and looking out towards the Boardwalk, it’s a little unnerving to realize that all of the land you see is fill, with all those high rises on it.
Hiding in Plain Sight
By the 1920s, despite its distinctive striped daymark pattern and its strong beacon, mariners couldn’t see the lighthouse for all of the buildings rising along the shoreline of Atlantic City, on that fill. From sea, the all-importnt light had vanished in the visual clutter. The Coast Guard set up a new light on a steel tower along the Boardwalk at New Hampshire Avenue, and decommissioned Absecon Lighthouse on June 9, 1933. Abandoned, it was almost demolished in 1946 until residents rallied to keep the tower and the city took possession of it.
As happens to many historic structures, Absecon sat abandoned and vandalized, which is why I never climbed it as a kid visiting the Jersey Shore. In 1966, the state bought the lighthouse from the city. But it wasn’t until the 1990s when a grassroots effort started a majestic transformation of the lighthouse and its surroundings back to its original glory.
The tower and its original first-order Fresnel Lens were renovated. Since the original was demolished in the 1940s, the lightkeeper’s dwelling had to be reconstructed, with the period of 1925-1933 selected as the “look.” It houses a museum explaining the significance of this and other lighthouses to the maritime history of New Jersey. A reconstructed passageway connects the home and the base of the tower.
Visit Absecon Lighthouse
At the corner of Pacific and Rhode Island Avenues in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Absecon Lighthouse is open Thu-Mon 11-4 Sep-Jun, and daily 10-5 (Thu until 8) in July and August, except major holidays. Admission ranges from free for active military and kids to $8, with a coupon on the website. Leashed dogs are welcome on the grounds, and parking is free.