Thursday, July 3, 2014

Stranded real estate: Delaware Bay's water-based lighthouses

A few months ago, we made a virtual visit to one of New Jersey's most obscure historic sites, the Ship John Shoal Lighthouse in Delaware Bay. This time, the imaginary cruise takes us to two other locations out of sight along the coast of Cumberland County, the Ship John Shoal's neighbors, the Miah Maull Shoal Light and the Cross Ledge Light. Together, they've helped guide vessels around the shoals, or submerged sandbanks, that create moguls of sorts, where ships could go aground if not for some skillful maneuvering and clear warning.

Starting in the mid 1800s, the United States Lighthouse Board erected several lighthouses on shoals in the bay, using the screwpile method first and then the more advanced caisson style in later construction. Aside from their isolation, what made them fascinating to me, when I saw photos of them, was their diversity. Unlike the Great Beds Light in Raritan Bay, which is shaped more like a spark plug, the Delaware Bay lights were built in many different styles. Some even looked like houses of their day, albeit swept to sea and landed on firm platforms.

Miah Maull Shoal Lighthouse.
Photo courtesy US Coast Guard.
The squat red Miah Maull Shoal Light gets its somewhat unusual name from a tragic event in the rich Down Jersey nautical history. Nehemiah Maull was a second-generation Delaware River pilot, son of an Englishman who'd immigrated to the New World in 1725. Despite his presumed navigational skills, Maull perished in a 1780 shipwreck in Delaware Bay, not due to his own miscalculations but someone else's. As the story goes, he was a passenger on his way to Great Britain to gather his share of family wealth when the ship went aground on the shoal that became known by his name.

It took more than 120 years before the Federal government saw fit to mark the shoal with an aid to navigation. At the recommendation of the Lighthouse Board, Congress allocated funding in 1906 and 1907 for the construction of the circular, three-story caisson-style light, topped with a lantern room and anchored in a 400-foot diameter plot of submerged land on the New Jersey side of Delaware Bay. Foundation work was stalled by the original contractor's financial issues but was finished in time to host a temporary light by September 1909. Meanwhile, the cast-iron body of the lighthouse itself was being completed in Pennsylvania, finally being installed on the foundation, fitted out and entered into service in 1913. Oddly, the structure was painted brown at the start, which doesn't seem like the best choice for a lighthouse day mark, though it might contrast well enough in foggy weather.

The Miah Maull's service history seems to have been rather mundane -- no big collisions, a lens upgrade, and the exterior paint change to red. After automating the light in 1973, the Coast Guard transferred the three-man crew to other duties, finally declaring the lighthouse as surplus in 2011. Like several other lights, including the Ship John Shoal and Great Beds, Miah Maull was first offered to non-profits for historic preservation, and then transferred to the General Services Administration for auction. It appears that despite two auctions, it's still hanging out there, claimed by no one but the cormorants and gulls that congregate there.

As Miah Maull awaits its fate, it's still been faring better than one of its former neighbors. The stone platform of the Cross Ledge Lighthouse off Fortescue was once the foundation for a two-story wood-frame house topped with a lantern room. Built in 1875, its light was extinguished in 1907 with the opening of the Elbow of Cross Ledge Lighthouse. During World War II, pilots on bombing practice from NAS Wildwood used the retired light for target practice, dropping flour sacks on it to hone their aim. The house met its sad destiny in 1962 with a fire intentionally set by the Coast Guard, presumably to avoid vandalism to the abandoned building. Ironically, the replacement Elbow of Cross Ledge light had already been virtually destroyed during a 1951 hurricane and succeeded by an unstaffed beacon atop a skeleton tower.

Getting out to the Delaware Bay lights is possible, but not an everyday opportunity unless you have a friend with a boat. A couple of boat operators run the occasional scheduled tour to a variety of the lighthouses, but if you're going to take that option, be sure to ask which locations they'll take you to. Not all will stop at the Miah Maull, Cross Ledge or Ship John Shoal, and there are others out there, some in Delaware waters.

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