Monday, December 19, 2011

East Point Lighthouse: at the end of New Jersey

To many people, the 'end' of New Jersey is Cape May Point, punctuated by the lighthouse.

To me, it's East Point, in Heislerville, also punctuated by a lighthouse.

Cape May is nice and all, but there are way too many people for it to be the 'end.' The end, to me, is a place where everything stops, and it's just you, nature and a broad expanse of water with no indication of land on the other side.

I first found East Point during a New Jersey Lighthouse Society Lighthouse Challenge Weekend. Held every October, these events encourage people to visit all of the open lighthouses in the state. The year I did it, that meant 11 structures that ring the coast starting at Paulsboro at the Delaware River and curving around the lower contours of the state and upward till you get to Sandy Hook at the mouth of the Raritan Bay. Starting on the river side, I visited two sites and was debating the third, which was a good 90 minute drive away near the mouth of the Maurice River.

That third lighthouse was East Point, a bit of coastal New England on the shores of Delaware Bay.

I was absolutely transfixed on that first visit, even with dozens of people present. East Point is the true middle of nowhere, and it's very easy to stand among the surrounding reeds and the wind, and consider this the edge of the earth. Imagine being the lighthouse keeper there, back in the day when Down Jersey was even more remote than it is today.

East Point began service in 1849 and is the second only to Sandy Hook in age among New Jersey lighthouses. Unlike most of the state's navigational beacons, it's a true house with a light on top, rather than a tower and lantern. It operated until the start of World War II, when it was extinguished for defensive purposes. Rather than relighting after the war, the Coast Guard deeded the building to the state, whose neglect doomed East Point to damage from the elements and vandalism.

Fast forward to the early 1970s, and a group of local residents banded together to save and restore the lighthouse. The Maurice River Historical Society has been working to bring East Point back to life, slowly but surely, first replacing the roof and lantern room and then successfully petitioning the Coast Guard to reinstate it as an active navigational aid.

I've visited the lantern room a handful of times during open houses, which generally are held on the third Saturday of each month during the spring, summer and early fall. It's been a while so I'm not certain how far the interior restoration has gotten, but on my most recent visit I was happy to see they'd gotten matching grants to continue their work.

In a way, though, it doesn't matter that much to me. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for bringing East Point back to its former glory. I just don't go there to see a perfect lighthouse. I go there for the atmosphere. It's the perfect place to contemplate life.

The more populated places in New Jersey don't offer a lot of opportunity for introspection. Before you can even start an interior dialogue, you have to block out all of the distractions, and that can be a mammoth challenge. At East Point, you're left with your thoughts, or perhaps with a close friend if you'd like. There's nothing getting in the way, except maybe a fisherman who's just as intent on solitude as you are. I didn't check, but I wouldn't be surprised if cellular service didn't reach that far.

Sunsets are beautiful there, as I'm sure sunrises are, too. Horseshoe crabs clamor next to the small boat launch in the spring to lay their eggs, and Monarch butterflies stop by for sustenance and a rest in the fall. The phragmites turn with the season, and the tide goes in and out. The rhythms of the natural world take over, and bring you with them.

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