Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ducks, Barnegat Lighthouse and the Civil War

"What are three things that have never been in my kitchen?" (Apologies to Alex Trebek and legions of Cheers fans. Sorry, couldn't help it.)

The cold weather brings duck season with it. No, I don't mean the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies kind of duck season, wabbit season, Elmer season. I mean the "Wow, did you ever know that so many kinds of ducks come to New Jersey?"

I first discovered this on a solo winter trip to Long Beach Island several years ago. Walking on the jetty by the lighthouse, I noticed some beautiful black, white, gray and rust-colored ducks congregating in the waters next to the rocks. Their colors seemed to be applied in blocks, much as one might work a paint-by-numbers portrait. I didn't know at the time, but harlequin ducks can often be found there in the winter, right along the rip-rap that protects the lighthouse property from eroding into the bay. They're a nice diversion from the mallards we're all familiar with.

Ivan and I visited Barnegat Light State Park last January to see these and other ducks, but before we got to the jetty, he wanted to stop and pay his respects to George Meade. Huh?

Turns out that the designer of the Barnegat Lighthouse is none other than the man who led the Army of the Potomac to victory at Gettysburg and several other Civil War campaigns. Meade was both an army officer and civil engineer who specialized in coastal construction. It was logical, then, that he was the one who designed the successor to the original 40-foot Barnegat light, which had been shoddily built in 1835.

Meade's replacement stands a majestic 172 feet, second in height to only Cape Hatteras light on the entire east coast. He used an innovative cylinder-inside-cone design that provides moisture-blocking insulation between the tower's inner and outer walls. While the construction has held strong since the light was first illuminated in 1859, the biggest threat to the tower is erosion to the north end of Long Beach Island, where it stands. That's why the rip rap is there, creating a harlequin-friendly environment not far away.

Meade also designed Cape May and Absecon Lights, both of which tower around the 170 foot mark. Depending on who you talk to, you'll hear differing opinions on which is tallest, or which should be considered most challenging in number of interior steps, but all have largely withstood the test of time. To my knowledge, Barnegat is the only light that commemorates Meade with a bust or plaque. Personally, I think the best homage to him is to climb to the top of his creation, look out to sea and imagine all of the mariners whom it guided safely to port.

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