Enjoy this feature originally written for the Newark Daily Call, the text of which was reprinted in the February 16th, 1923 edition of the New Jersey Courier, the weekly newspaper of Toms River.
The original Daily Call photos appear lost to time, but the reprinted text depicts as much the lighthouse and its surrounding winter community as it gives an unintentionally humorous example of an enterprising city reporter trying to pry colorful tales from reluctant locals.
A sea gull dipped gracefully to the level of the ocean, and winged again into the blue sky. The faint, even rumble of the surf below was the only sound. Clarence Cranmer, who has kept the famous light at Barnegat for the last thirty-five years, paused for a moment from his morning work of rubbing the lighthouse window with glycerine to look without.
Never had he seen Barnegat City more subdued. It might have been a community of the dead, if tiny telltale wisps of smoke from cottages were not discernible above the aged firs. The trees themselves were bent, as if weary of forever battling the cruel gales that sweep across the inlet.
Perched atop Barnegat Light, with land and sea below, the sky above, one recalled all the stories he had heard and read about the lighthouse—the storms and wrecks and rescues. Over this same railing leaned F. Hopkinson Smith [author of the novel, Tides of Barnegat, from 1906], and saw “the coast, glistening like a scimitar, and the strip of yellow beach which divided the narrow bay from the open sea; to the right, thrust out into the sheen of silver, lay the spit of sand narrowing the inlet, its edges scalloped with lace foam, its extreme point dominated by the grim tower of Barnegat Light aloft, high into the blue, soared the gulls, flashing like jewels as they lifted their breasts to the sun, while away and beyond the sails of the fishing boats, gray or silver in their shifting tacks, crawled over the wrinkled sea.”
It was on this “strip of yellow Beach” that Lucy Cobden loved Bart Holt too well and “The Tides of Barnegat” was conceived. It was here that hundreds of sailor men were dragged from their grounded vessels, some to breathe their last, even as Bart Holt and Archie Cobden; others to live and bear for the rest of their lives the harrowing memory of the Barnegat shoals. On this beach the Barnegat pirates used to thrive, according to the yarns they spin in Applegate's general store, on the safe side of the sand dunes. On this beach there have been murders and romance and robberies, and over it laps the incessant surf, sometimes meek and purring, sometimes enraged and white, tumbling over the sand in fiendish froth, undermining whatever buildings have dared to stand in its path.
That Ol' Devil Sea”
Perhaps Cranmer was thinking of the drama that has been unfolded before his eyes as he stopped the glycerine-soaked cloth in its course across the window pane. Perhaps he, like the weary mariner in Eugene O'Neill's “Anna Christie,” was pondering on “that ol' Devil sea.” Perhaps he was, but he didn't show it. He only turned to Andy Applegate, his assistant, and asked if the second half of the night had produced anything out of the ordinary. Cranmer had watched the light until midnight. Applegate had then relieved him and watched it until daybreak.
Applegate shook his head and resumed his work of polishing the already glistening prisms. More talkative than his partner, he told the visitor of the yarns passed down from generation to generation, tales of the Barnegat pirates, who, according to tradition, looted ships unfortunate enough to scrape on the treacherous shoals. He told of a German passenger ship in the middle of the last century that grounded at Barnegat, with the loss of every life, save one. What happened to the survivor he did not know, but the booty aboard! Ah, what a day of rejoicing for the doughty Barnegat pirates, who, like “Captain Applejack,” drank plenty and feared no man. Their deeds are described in low tones as the men of the town gather about the pot-stove in Applegate's general store o' nights. With each telling some new conquest of the pirate is unfolded, and there is a new chorus of incredulous murmurs.
As the biting wind from the sea whistles around the sand dunes, and the omniprescent beam from the lighthouse is reflected on the white face of the coast guard station, these hardy men of Barnegat huddle in the tiny building that serves as general store, post office and club. The gale without sings an accompaniment to their harrowing yarns of the Barnegat that used to be. No wonder these men instinctively look toward the sea as they file out of the store. Their awe increases with every fanning-bee. No wonder the mothers of Barnegat manage to make their children behave with a warning that the pirates'll get them if they don't watch out.
A genial fellow, Applegate. He has mixed with men of the world. He used to live in Newark, and he knows the ways of a city. Even in his Barnegat existence there come these meetings with men who get about. But Cranmer, he is different. One can picture him when alone, standing atop the lighthouse he has tended so many years, viewing the wreck of his home below, the spars and bottles and driftwood cast up by the waves. One can picture him with his face to the east, shaking his fist at the water that sweeps on without end, crying, “You ol' devil sea!” even as Eugene O'Neill's Chris Christopherson.
Served Thirty-five Years
For Cranmer has plenty of reason to shake his fist. Thirty-five years of his life he has given up to Barnegat Light. For thirty-five years he has climbed those two hundred and twenty-five steps to the top of the Light, heavy oil can in hand. His cozy home at the foot of the Light is gone, destroyed by the very waves he has warned others against. His wife has passed on. And now he is alone, still trudging up the ever-winding steps with his heavy oil can, still carefully tending the light, which, as ruthless as the moaning sea without, has almost ruined his eyesight.
And now he is spent and weary, but he cannot retire. For there is no retiring until he is 65. He sits alone atop the tower at night, caring for the light, reading his newspaper, dreaming of the days when things were different in Barnegat City.
For they were different. The grim sea that sweeps over the sands spasmodically cannot be quelled. Even as it has killed those who ventured upon it, it has destroyed whatever it has come in contact with. The gay Barnegat City of the nineteenth century, the community described in “The Tides of Barnegat” is only a memory. Little by little the sea has encroached upon the town like an untamed monster, now sweeping away an entire building, now, like a deadly disease, insidiously undermining a structure until it finally topples and falls.
Seven miles across the bay, but twenty miles away by the picturesque land route, is the town of Barnegat. The writer, driven to Barnegat City by a weather-beaten taxi-driver who knew the Barnegat City of a generation ago, found his journey through the main street of the hamlet impeded by a house-moving crew. Like most of the other dwellings in the district, it badly needed a fresh coat of paint. Under the work of the half-dozen men and a panting donkey engine, the house was being slowly moved down the road.
The newspaper man left the automobile and walked.
“Moving day!” he asked one of the workers.
The grizzled native spat and smiled.
“It's moving day, one way or t'other,” he said. “If we don't move the old house, the ocean will. It got right under it and was fair to taking the shack out to sea for a trip when we started to move it. They all go like that.”
Then he spat again and grasped the heavy rope.
Colony of Fishermen
A city man feels out of place in Barnegat City, especially in the middle of winter, when even the fishing enthusiasts from beyond the marshes are few. They are virile and their strength is reflected in their bronzed faces, these men of Barnegat City. They swing along with a healthy tread, their necks open to the wind, their hands uncovered from the cold. Down on the bay side wharf, where the fishing fleet pulls in every afternoon, the visitor may see these hardy men cleaning their codfish haul, packing the catch in barrels, unmindful of the cold. They are occupied by the work at hand, pausing only occasionally to relate some unusual development of the day at sea, or, perhaps to discuss a proposed duck-hunting trip in the marshes that stretch out to Manahawkin and Barnegat. Some of them are Yankees, some are Swedes and typical of their race. Their cheeks crimrosed by life in the open, their clear blue eyes laughing when their lips don't, these men are right at home in a nasty squall. Daily their open boats venture out to sea, beyond sight of land and most times they return. Sometimes, however, they are caught in a sudden storm, and the little power-boats caught in the great troughs of the open sea, refuse to head in the right direction.
Then it is a case of luck. A steamer may pick them up. The coast guard may come to their assistance. At any rate, they usually get back to the home port. If not, there is a brief period of mourning in Barnegat City for the sailormen who didn't return, and another tragedy is chalked against “that ol' devil sea.”
Mrs. Ernest Johnson, who runs the Social Hotel in Barnegat City, is a typical example of the feminine stock—sturdy and solemn.
“Ay bane tank ah have room for you,” she said, and she did. There was an oil stove to make room cozy, and a kettle of water to heat in the morning.
“You bane going to write about lighthouse?” she asked and she cast a furtive glance at the grim sentinel through the dining room window. She had seen some of the tragedies of Barnegat City, and the sombre lighthouse was always there to remind her.
The few people left in the town during the winter months go about their work quietly, almost reverently. There is an air of mystery over the community that one can ascribe only to the awe-inspiring effect of the ocean.
Little wonder that old Cranmer doesn't care to talk.
Coal Supply Stopped
The guardian of Barnegat Light lives in a cottage a few hundred yards from the tower itself, just over the edge of the sand dunes and in hearing of the waves pounding on the beach. He didn't talk much as he escorted a reporter and a photographer over the dunes to the tower, swishing their way through the loose sand. He said less as he started the long climb to the top of the tower, just as the sun was calling it a day's work, for Cranmer is no longer a young man, and he had to carry his heavy can of oil. At each landing he paused to rest, to peep out the window at the scene he knew so well.
Perhaps if there had been a cozy fire in his little room at the top of the tower, the keeper of the lighthouse might have opened up. But there was not. The government had stopped his supply of coal, he explained, and an oil stove sure could eat up fuel. He showed his visitors the light itself, with the intricate system of prisms, twenty-four of them, which revolved throughout the night. It requires four minutes to make a complete revolution, so that the seafarer, anxiously watching for Barnegat Light, has a ten-second beam. Lights along the Atlantic coast are timed differently—some eight seconds, others eleven—that the sailor may identify the tower.
He showed his visitors how a weighted wire cable timed to run three hours without stopping, kept the light moving, and he explained how kerosene vapor furnished the light itself. The work of preparing the light for the night's work over, Cranmer turned to his pipe and newspaper. He allowed that there had been plenty of wrecks on the shoals before the lighthouse, when questioned. When pressed to be more explicit, he told of the wreck of the transport Sumner, just before the World War. There were memories of the breeches buoy, lifeless bodies on the beach, the coast guard in frenzied efforts to save lives.
A Birds' Graveyard
Down at the foot of the tower the writer had noticed the bodies of several birds. Cranmer explained that they were unfortunate gulls which, attracted by the light, had plunged headlong against the protecting wire netting. They were there every morning, he said, and after an unusually heavy storm there often were as many as thirty or forty. One night, he said, a flock of birds headed for the lighthouse and the next morning there were fifty bodies—enough for a month of duck dinners.
“A foolish bird, the brant,” observed Cranmer, “a mighty foolish bird. Once he is in the circle of light around the lighthouse, he is doomed. He comes nearer and nearer, like a moth and a flame. Then he whangs right into the heavy netting, and it's all over. You can see there that the window is protected only on the land side by netting. I was readin' here one night, with the wind squallin' outside, when all of a sudden there was a crash of glass on the sea side, and a fine big brant came flopping in my lap. A foolish bird, the brant.”
The photographer poked at the reporter, two minds with but a single thought. They were wondering how they would feel under the circumstances.
Standing on the narrow balcony at the top of the tower the visitor has that grand and glorious feeling that he is monarch of all he surveys. It is a fascinating scene, exotic. Not one great beam of light, but all twenty-four are visible from the top of the tower, flashing in every direction, slowly moving, piercing the night. Not a sound below, not even the rumble of a railroad train—there are only three into Barnegat during the winter months—nothing but the slight noise of the big light itself, fed by kerosene vapor, as it slowly and methodically revolves.
Some Musings on Space
Down the long spiral stairway the writer walked into the night to stand upon the ruins of the lighthouse keeper's cottage and watch the stars. Stars and stars, and space. There is no end to space? Some professor had told him that once. No end to space? He wondered. Suppose he were to go a million miles beyond those stars that twinkled overhead. What then? More space, without end. Why should Einstein worry his head about such things?
He was still pondering when a figure appeared on the sand.
“Hello, there!” came a call.
It was the coast guard patrol, at the end of his long beat along the beach. A few minutes chat on the weather and bootlegging followed. There wasn't much of the latter around Barnegat City, he said. Every unknown boat, large or small, slipping into the inlet, was searched by the coast guard as soon as it reached the town wharf. The highway stretched from Barnegat City to Surf City was closely watched. From the tower of the coast guard station in Barnegat City the fishing smacks are visible at sea, and their every movement is watched during the day. No chance there of wholesale booze smuggling. Then the guard left, and a newspaper man was alone with the night again.
New Lightship Planned
Out there beyond the shoals, he mused, there would be a light ship some day. The lighthouse bureau in Washington had said that they were more practical, anyway. The Barnegat Light has been signaling since 1859, and there was another on the same spot before that, built during the 30's. It had outlived its usefulness they said, and it was only a question of time before the sea would claim it. Across the mouth of the inlet was a narrow stretch of sand, uninhabited and uninviting. Like a youngster playing a prank for which it knows it can not be punished, the sea has piled up sand on this bar during the last dozen years. As the bar has grown the water has swept across the point of land on which the lighthouse stands. The keeper's cottage, which one may observe from its ruins, was a neat brick home, was so badly undermined by the waves that the government ordered it sold and dismantled. Some one bought it for a bit more than $100 and got his money back in the fixtures he salvaged. Then the house collapsed, and the ruins are there today, silent reminder of the lonely lighthouse keeper of the days that used to be.
Back up the 225 steps the writer climbed. The photographer was out on the landing, his hair flying in the wind, trying to get a picture of the light from the outside. Cranmer was reading a newspaper.
“What's the news?” the writer asked, “More trouble in the Ruhr?”
“Readin' the weather report,” he replied. “It says there'll be high winds, tomorrow.”
And he went back to his newspaper.
Lines from Gilbert's “Yarn of the Nancy Bell” went sailing through the reporter's mind.
“And I never smile, and I never grin,
And I never laugh, nor play.”