Tuesday, February 18, 2014

From exhibition to obscurity: Ship John Shoal Lighthouse

You've got to get into a boat to find the Ship John Shoal Lighthouse, making it one of our most remote and hardest-to-access Hidden New Jersey subjects. However, it was once so easy to find that thousands of people saw it every day.

No, nothing's really changed with the shipping lanes, and no, it's not that a beach has been closed down somewhere. It's the beacon that's moved. The Ship John Shoal Lighthouse holds the rare distinction of having been shown at an 1876 Philadelphia exhibition before settling down in Delaware Bay, beyond view off Cumberland County shores.

This lighthouse is among several in the middle of the bay, marking shoals within the shipping channel that are hazards to navigation. Starting in the mid 1800s, the United States Lighthouse Board erected several beacons of varying styles, all standing on platforms anchored to the bay's sandy bottom. The Ship John Shoal light was to be the first to use a circular base designed to protect its foundation from the blows of winter ice floes.

A few years ago, I took a bay cruise to get a closer look. Unfortunately, we weren't going to be able to land at any of the lighthouses, since they're still mostly Coast Guard aids to navigation. Nonetheless, we'd get close enough to imagine what it must have been like for lighthouse personnel to be stationed there, in the elements and prone to being crashed into by misplaced ships. Some crew members, we were told, slept in life jackets in case a nighttime collision dislodged their house from its base.

Most, if not all of the lights on Delaware Bay deserve a good Hidden New Jersey story, but when I found the Philadelphia connection to the Ship John Shoal, well, I couldn't resist telling it. It's not often you find a photo of an offshore, caisson-style lighthouse nicely landscaped with an access road, as in the stereoscope card I found illustrated in my online research.


The story goes like this:

Congress approved funding for the Ship John Shoal Lighthouse in 1873, allowing the U.S. Lighthouse Board to survey its proposed site and begin preparing it to accept the base of the light. A year later, the Board had constructed the caisson base and erected a temporary structure for the winter, expecting the permanent lighthouse to have been fabricated offsite in time for installation in 1875. It was to be one of two identical lights put into service that year, the first of which was sent to Connecticut as the Southwest Ledge when the foundation there was completed first.

Enter our nation's centennial, celebrated in Philadelphia through the first world's fair, known popularly as the Centennial International Exhibition. From the arm and torch of the yet-to-be-built Statue of Liberty to the telephone and even a working model of Morristown's Ford Mansion, exhibits demonstrated the best of what America offered to the world. The Lighthouse Board, wanting to impress with its own latest technology, sent a lighthouse: the one meant for Ship John Shoal.

Photo via lighthousefrields.com . The platform
to the left once held fuel and now hosts solar panels.
With sloped, octagonal mansard-style roof, dormer windows and lantern house surrounded by a widow's walk, the 45-foot high lighthouse must have looked like an odd Second-Empire style home, perched, as it was, on a circular platform. Every night, the resident keeper lit its light, seemingly providing a warning to any ships on the Schuylkill River that might otherwise make a wrong turn into Fairmount Park.

More than ten million people visited the Exhibition over six months in 1876, enjoying the offerings of a dozen nations. It's not clear how many might have visited the Ship John Shoal Light during its Philadelphia summer, but I think it's safe to say that in the nearly 140 years since, nowhere near that number of people have stopped by for a chat.

Moved to its final home a few months after the Exhibition closed, the lighthouse was lit for the first time on August 10, 1877. Crews kept it running until 1973 when an automated system was installed. It continues to operate as an aid to navigation today, though it was sold to private owners as excess government property in 2012.

As for Fairmount Park, it appears to be doing quite well without a lighthouse. Last I checked, vessels are navigating the Schuylkill just fine on their own.


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