Mid-Atlantic Lighthouses

a photgrapher’s perspective

The Mid-Atlantic Coast is unusual for its lighthouses. It has one of the highest concentrations of lights in an area characterized more by great bays, important harbors, and major riverheads than a long coast. With early population centers came greater opportunity over time for evolution in the basic function of signaling to adapt to local conditions with a diversity in style. As a photographer visiting all the many vantage points these lights provided, I came to better appreciate how all the pieces connected, and just how important safe navigation was to the integration of what were once the settlements of separate colonies with the access to an immense interior.

I came to understand the elaborate styles of Hudson River lights better once I visited Cleremont, an estate already thriving at the nation’s founding on the river’s east bank.The lights are mini-versions of the mansions that came to be built on shore. But back then, New York City was a 2 day sail and the wealth was agricultural. It's not surprising that some of these styles are repeated along Long Island Sound close to the city. The island, once a nautical crossroads, has quite the mishmash. While the towns are often mindful of New England, and so some lights, others are like the Hudson lights, while some are more like those of Delaware Bay, and even a few are the tall “broomsticks” common to more southern beaches. But it was here, near the Hamptons, that one day I walked out the long sand spit that now connects Cedar Island to land, and peering through a hole in that light’s quoined granite shell, found a cavernous morass of burnt and broken timber.

The lights of New York Harbor are a tribute to its history. Ancient Sandy Hook, the sentinel marker of the entrance from the sea, still shines and has the feel of its age. To me it was matched by the Elm Tree light. I thought I was finding the New Dorp light on Staten Island, but actually the non-discript square concrete tower next to a vintage WWII airstrip quonset hut is a successor to the earliest indicator of the way to the city - a lantern hung in a large elm tree. To remember that the Statue of Liberty began as a lighthouse eventually brought to mind what I believe was an old Harper's illustration I've seen that emphasizes the rays of light emanating from the torch. When did it become the present gilded flame?

The Jersey Shore with its long north/south orientation has a more significant coast and lighthouse presence than I think most realize. The annual Lighthouse Challenge encourages a weekend visit to eleven that are open. But this coast seems less cohesive in its lighthouse styles, and also in the status and kinds of preservation efforts. Maybe each light has some distance to the next and its own constituency. Some have the status of Montauk and Fire Island on Long Island. Here, tall Barnegat, Absecon, and especially Cape May are signature lights. But Hereford Inlet’s Carpenter Gothic is the more unique and homey, its rescue seemingly an affectionate story. Basically, Betty and Steve are there now and they appreciate the help. My favorite though, was plain East Point and the fit within its still remote location. The recent attention it has received is another example of welcome change after longer neglect. Again, it seems some lights were cared for while others disappeared.

To focus on the offshore caissons of the Delaware and their keepers is useful. So close and yet so far, they lead the way up the bay to important rivers and ports where iron skeletal range towers take over. I couldn't relate at first to these utilitarian structures, but once I saw Camden Yards from the top of Tinicum, I appreciated their difference and importance to this day for large ships following the narrow channels. For Paulsboro, its central to its identity and the site of its Home Days. But I worry that the bay caissons face a very tentative fate. Along with their lack of accessibility, out of sight, out of mind, they also lack a large boating community like that of the Chesapeake. A trip with the Coast Guard ANT Team shows just how they've got their hands full, and the houses themselves are an unnecessarily "elaborate" stand for modern light technology. There’s over 200 buoys to tend. Preservationist Bob Trepani's commitment is as strong as any I’ve met. And certainly the former keepers share his affection. The long ago loss of Cape Henlopen light to the shifting sandy shore at the head of the bay was still lamented by many.

Everywhere I talked to people for whom their local light was very important.

The Chesapeake took the longest to comprehend, and perhaps the most effort to photograph. Any vantage point gives you only a small piece and putting those together in your mind is still not enough. What am I really looking at? The bay's so vast, yet so shallow that the unique screwpile lighthouses typify it. I needed to go into the depths of the Blackwater NWR where all I could see was miles of grassy marsh, spend some time on Tilghman's Island to appreciate the watermen’s story, and then ride its waters with Buddy Norris, as well as enjoy his old family pictures at the then unrelocated, but abandoned, Drum Point light. Also important were the history and naval presence in the Hampton Roads, and the forts at Old Point Comfort and Cape Henry lights. So many boats - it's not just the bay, it's all the important rivers: James, York, Rappahannock, Potomac, Patuxent, Nanticoke, the Choptank. The Susquehanna provides 50% of the fresh water to the Chesapeake. The spring ice floe is a threat to lighthouses, if no longer to the people who lived on them. There’s old plantations to visit. The oyster catch is 10% of historic levels.

I spent so much of my time on major highways with magnificent bridges. We love to live by the sea, and I could see where summer places had been torn down for more stylish, substantial homes on the same lots. Twenty story hotel "cottages" lining the beaches were sometimes quite shocking. But the overdevelopment of barrier beaches is well known, occasionally there was little left beyond the multi-lane road on which I was driving. Behind the beaches are such amazingly extensive marshes throughout the region, if less loved. A newspaper article I've seen raises alarm over rapid marsh loss of unknown cause at Gateway NRA on Long Island. Hundreds of acres at Blackwater have been lost to rising sea level, salinization, and other causes. Yet, I’ve tried to imagine the migratory scenes along the Atlantic Flyway in Audubon’s time.

So is there meaning for these lights today? To me, it may be that they’re an outpost, a place to feel our history, meet the elements, understand better where we are, what we face. I hope we visit them not as if to enjoy some simpler life, some wished-for reality, to get away. Rather that when we look out they also provide a vantage point to better see what came before, what we've left behind, and what to keep.