New Jersey has over 200 miles of coastline that provide unique ecological riches, miles of sandy beaches, popular boardwalks and busy coastal waterways used by many including residents, tourists, fisherman and nature lovers. NJ is also home to beautiful barrier islands that are surrounded by the ocean, bays, and marshes. Dotted throughout this coastline are several inlets that are part of the heavily traveled inter coastal waterway, allowing natural transportation routes from Boston to Texas.
One of these especially treacherous inlets – Absecon Inlet – is home to the State’s tallest lighthouse, which was constructed in the 1850’s and still stands tall today at 171 feet. The Absecon Lighthouse, or “Old Abby” as it is endearingly called, is also the third tallest masonry lighthouse in the nation and saw its first lighting in 1857. Where it is sits in Atlantic City the lighthouse still proudly displays its original first order Fresnel Lens, which was a magical invention at the time, reflected light over 20 miles out to sea and is one of the only Fresnel Lenses still housed in its original location in the nation.
Old Abby was built to protect the heavily traversed, treacherous Absecon Inlet, which saw many tragedies and accidents. In April 1854, the Powhatan crashed just off the coast and resulted in over 300 deaths. Because of this and many other wreckages, the inlet was nicknamed “Graveyard Inlet”. As a result, Jonathan Pitney, well known as the Father of Atlantic City, worked hard to have Old Abby funded and constructed, without a doubt saving many lives in the process.
The lighthouse was designed by Civil War General George Meade (famously known for being the Commanding General of the Union Army for the Battle of Gettysburg) and
today is listed as a National and a State Historic Site. It was used as a prototype for additional lighthouses – including the “sister” lighthouses in Barnegat and Cape May – as it represented a major shift in design and technology. The preserved space includes the original restored lighthouse, the original first order Fresnel Lens, and a replica of the original Lightkeeper’s house. You can climb the 228 steps to the top of the lighthouse, brave the walkway and see the amazing views of the inlet, the ocean and of Atlantic City and get an up close and personal look at the amazing original Fresnel Lens.
And if you’re lucky, you will visit on a day when Buddy is volunteering! Buddy is somewhat of a landmark to Old Abby himself and they even sell T-Shirts in the museum with his picture. Buddy is 91 years old. He lives a few blocks from the lighthouse and walks there at least 3x a week. He climbs all 228 steps to the top so he can chat with interesting people and share his wealth of knowledge of not only the lighthouse but of history and times gone by, complete with many personal accounts. After his long shift, he then climbs back down the 228 steps, still smiling and happy, so he can make his walk home. He is smart and charming, with a wealth of knowledge and is pretty awesome to talk with. He intends to continue volunteering with the lighthouse for at least another 14 years and after meeting him, I have very little doubt he will achieve this. He told us that he’s lived a charmed life – “but that’s a story of another day” he says grinning – and although he can technically still drive, after having his car stolen 30 years ago, he says the best thing he ever did was not replace it. The money he saves on the expense of a car he uses to travel to Spain every year. He discussed with us his upcoming vacation to Palms Springs over Thanksgiving. He has a wealth of information at the ready on the lighthouse and its history. Buddy is as legendary, historic and interesting as the lighthouse himself. And I enjoyed our talk as much, if not more, than the lighthouse – and the Spirit within.
Although I have lived in NJ most of my life and frequent the coast, especially since my day job involves helping to protect it, I have never been to or seen the Absecon Lighthouse. I also – and yes, I am a little ashamed to admit this – know very little history about it. So, when Lou suggested we take a little jaunt, visit the lighthouse and maybe a local brewery or two – I was game. It was one of those cold November days, where daylight is in short supply and the nights can be very long in New Jersey.
Atlantic City is an interesting place, full of casinos, resorts, outlets and restaurants at first glance but with dilapidated houses, abandoned structures, and struggling people when you look a little deeper. Add to that the traffic lights on every half block, and the ride through the city is oh so joyful at times. There is a pretty amazing boardwalk though, complete with a new section recently constructed along the Absecon Inlet. This portion of the boardwalk is also home to one of the best coastal protection systems I have seen built including steel pilings, a seawall, and stone jetties with a fishing pier thrown in for good measure. Atlantic City itself has been in a steady decline for many years, with several well-known casino’s closing their doors and claiming bankruptcy. The surrounding area has certainly suffered and seeing this newly created structure was like a breath of life in a bleak area.
Old Abby is just a few short city blocks from the inlet and although it is obviously no longer the tallest structure in the area (long since being out built and out shined by the light of casinos), it is still quite impressive. As we pulled in, I noticed the energy of this historical place – it felt inviting and happy – which is in stark contrast to the surrounding few blocks. The first thing to catch my attention was an extensive garden planted on the grounds of the museum, each garden box had a simple, educational sign about how plants grow. Each sign was entitled “Old Abby” and I (since I never bother to know my local history) had no idea what “Abby” had to do with a garden. I thought of asking my husband who is a great wealth of knowledge on almost anything I ask (I often wonder if he is making some of it up….) but since he has a way of looking at me like YOU JUST HAVE TO BE KIDDING, I decided I would google it later. As I walked around the grounds, I was saved the indignity of this embarrassing question (I often wonder if GOOGLE thinks YOU JUST HAVE TO BE KIDDING sometimes too) as a later sign described how the Absecon Lighthouse is lovingly known as Old Abby (ok, stop laughing, I know… I know…).
Sitting to one corner of the lot is an old, wooden life boat which I couldn’t help but think of later as I read about the Powhatan wrecking just a short distance away. I wonder if they had life boats available to help at the time or if those over 300 Souls that passed on that day had absolutely no hope of rescue. The old boat is covered by a tattered and torn, wore down tarp that barely does its job and it has a sense of foreboding surrounding it, of desperation and fear. I wonder what stories this old boat has to tell? Maybe on a return visit I will ask – hopefully Buddy if he is still gracing the place with his intriguing, charmed presence.
On the other corner of the property sits a very large anchor, possibly like one used on the Powhatan. There are no cards posted with information around the anchor, but it is a focal point all the same. It provides a very distinct reminder of the important job this and other lighthouses performed for decades, some still today. The sheer size of it alone impresses upon you the magnitude of the vessels traveling these inlets and waterways.
Finally, I turn my attention to the lighthouse, all 171 feet of her glory. Old Abby has been restored and is a stark reminder of by-gone eras, impressive to look up at, intriguing to feel. Her presence is vast, strong, and appealing.
I want to go inside immediately and see what secrets she has to offer. You enter the museum through the replicated lightkeeper’s house, which would have been quite a residence during the time-period. As Buddy explained to us later, being a lightkeeper or even an assistant was quite the coveted job back in its time and quite prestigious. You were paid a good salary, provided ample living space, and were well respected for keeping people’s loved ones safe on their voyages.
After paying a nominal entrance fee, all used for the care and maintenance of Old Abby, we walked through the hall way towards the actual tower. There are many drawing on the walls of Old Abby, as well as historical pictures and information on the lighthouse, the site and the construction. However, it was hard to pay attention to anything other than the large arched doorway and the thick metal door that marks the entrance to the lighthouse.
From the hallway, you see the start of the stairs that twist and wind all the way, and as I walk in and look up, the view is quite dizzying – winding, twisting, metal stairs that seem to go on forever. I feel the need to begin climbing right away, I am drawn upwards, towards the top. As we begin the climb, I notice that each step is marked with a little plaque, listing a name of a donor as well as the step number. All 228 steps. Buddy later shows us the remarkable construction of these steps and how every 5th one is anchored into the brick to keep them sturdy and safe. There is no give to these steps as we climb, they feel strong and safe. We come upon the first landing and look out the window. The landing is quite thick and as I learn later, that reflects the craftsmanship of the lighthouse. There is a double wall, so to speak, almost all the way to the top. This allows the bricks to breath and keeps the lighthouse dry and strong.
As we continue up the stairs, towards the next landing, I get a very strong, distinct smell of smoke – either cigar smoke or pipe smoke. I couldn’t tell which. I also smelled whiskey. I half expected that as we rounded the next landing I would find some fine old fellow there having a nice drink on a cold day and enjoying a smoke – seriously it was that strong. Of course, there was nobody there and I had to wonder if I was picking up a residual smell or if Old Abby really does have someone lingering around still keeping watch.
I enjoyed the climb up, each landing offering some historical photos to compare with the current view out of the windows, as well as unique plaques along the way marking someone’s special occasion – I saw marriages and birthdays. Such generosity and joy inside this old structure that has obviously been maintained (at least in recent years) with passion.
We crossed Buddy on the way up and he stepped aside and told us we were younger and more agile, so he would let us go first. Considering I was breathing heavy at this point and my knees were killing me, I didn’t feel younger or more agile. Buddy didn’t even look winded and was smiling and ready to chat. Once we reached the top, we went outside along the walkway to take in the outstanding views of the inlet and of Atlantic City. There is a live feed available (link posted above) where you can wave at or gesture to (remember now, anyone can watch) your friends if they pull up the link. Once we went back inside the lighthouse, we finally officially met Buddy, our 91-year-old passionate volunteer and was given all the history I mention above in an engaging, enlightening way. He also explained in detail about the Fresnel Lens as he had us backed up against the wall staring up and into it. He’s right, it is amazing to see and an incredible invention for the time-period.
After chatting with Buddy about so many things, we finally were ready to brave the climb back down. As we started down, passing the first landing, I smelled the smoke and whiskey again quite strongly. Coming to the second landing, I could see a male Spirit standing there. He was large and burly, with a thick beard and wavy dark hair. He had a red nose and looked quite amused, especially since he now realized I could see him. He waved at me and grinned, a big jolly grin that said “oh, I am going to have fun with this”. I didn’t inform my husband at first, but when he stopped on the landing and then said he felt a little disoriented, I HAD to tell him to move on because he was standing on this guy. It amazes me sometimes the restraint Lou has, he neither looked at me like I was crazy nor rushed to get away. He just took a deep breath (or was it really a sigh?) and kept walking. As I joined him, our jolly friend decided to follow behind me, nice and close, getting way too much amusement out of my discomfort. At one point, I felt his breath on the back of my head and I could feel him right up behind me as we descended. He continued on past the next landing with us, and I swear I heard him chuckle. I don’t mind providing some amusement for a happy Spirit, but I had to concentrate on these steps. I tend to be quite clumsy and the last thing I needed was for Lou and me to join him in the Spirit world because I trip and knock us both down the steps. So, as we rounded the next landing, I kindly informed Mr. Jolly that he needed to knock it off and back off. At this point, there were two younger men on this landing, looking over the historical pictures, kindly letting us pass. Mr. Jolly, still smiling, said ok, I’ll join these guys then and check out what they’re doing. I have little doubt they felt this man up and close behind them as they climbed, maybe got a whiff of smoke or whiskey along the way.
Overall, the Absecon Lighthouse is a hidden gem in Atlantic City and a great place to visit and support. History like this needs to be maintained, especially with volunteers like Buddy to bring it to life. Stop in and take a look, maybe you will see or feel Mr. Jolly while there. He is quite happy and seems to enjoy his little interactions with the living and I don’t think he would ever intentionally cause any mischief. I would love to investigate Old Abby sometime, I’m confident we could get Mr. Jolly’s voice on a recorder and maybe a picture or two.
And who knows, maybe 50 years from now, we may come across Buddy here still doing what he seems to enjoy so very much – climbing the steps and chatting to “interesting folks” as he put it.
And if you are in the mood, there is a nice brewery not too far of a drive from Old Abby that we visited. It has an absolutely delicious sour brew and as most breweries are, it is kid and pet friendly.