By Lauren Wanko
At nearly 160 feet tall, the historic Cape May Lighthouse towers over the ocean and still serves as a navigational guide to mariners.
“This is one of the good parts of history. This is mankind helping mankind,” said Lighthouse Keeper Rich Chiemingo.
The lighthouse took a year and half to build. It was first lit in 1859 on Halloween night. Now it’s one of the oldest operating lighthouses in the nation. We made the journey up the lighthouse and climbed the original cast iron steps to the top.
After 199 steps, we made it here, to the watch room. This is where the keeper would tend his nightly vigil, maintaining a bright flame. The lighthouse keeper would typically go through about three and half gallons of oil a night, just to keep that flame burning brightly.
Back then the beacon was lit a half hour before sunset and extinguished a half hour before dawn. These days, at dusk a sensor illuminates twin beacons in the lantern room.
“The lamp today is electric light bulbs and with a parabolic mirror behind them, that will focus and magnify the light,” Chiemingo said.
There are 11 lighthouses in New Jersey, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. The state owns five of them, including the Cape May Lighthouse. The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities leases the lighthouse from the state. They’re charged with preserving it. The Coast Guard maintains the beacons. The light is visible 24 miles out to sea.
“Every lighthouse has its own distinct signal. Ours is a 15 second white flash,” Chiemingo said.
More than 2 million tourists have climbed the lighthouse since it opened to the public in 1988.
“Every year we have 80,000 people who come here and they climb and then there’s probably that same number — 80,000 more — who come to visit the Cape May Lighthouse,” said Sue Krysiak.
“Lighthouses are symbolic of many things — of a guide, of a help. We all need that in life,” said tourist Christopher Rogers.
“There’s a fascination, there’s a romance to them,” Chiemingo said. “They give you a sense of peace and serenity.”
And security, says Chiemingo.
“One hundred fifty years ago, after six weeks out in the North Atlantic, in your sailing boat, how good with this look, with this light flashing on the shore, so it gives you a sense of comfort,” he said.
Chiemingo hopes the Cape May Lighthouse will continue to provide that sense of comfort and shine brightly for years to come.