From the outset of daybreak on November 11, 2002, the sullen sky to the east presented a foreboding appearance with ominous thunderclouds dominating a gray horizon over the Atlantic Ocean. It was against this backdrop in the dissipating moments of darkness that the Cape May Lighthouse flashed the morning’s final guiding beam seaward to shipping traffic transiting the mouth of the Delaware Bay. As the light’s flash flickered off with the last rotation of the historic DCB-36 optic, so too ended an era 56 years in the making.
Cape May Lighthouse towers 157 feet, 6 inches above the serene seaside vista at Cape May Point, New Jersey and punctuates its surroundings of sandy beaches, shore cottages and lush marshes with an elegance as daunting as her dominating skyward presence. The lighthouse was built in 1859 and had faithfully sent out its lifesaving beam every night from October 31, 1859 until it was darkened in 1941 due to a mandatory blackout imposed along the Atlantic coastline during World War II. The light remained darkened until 1946. Later that year, a more modern aero-type beacon known as a DCB-36 optic replaced the sentinel’s gorgeous first order Fresnel lens. Since that time, the U.S. Coast Guard has ensured the Cape May Lighthouse continued to flash its characteristic white light every 15 seconds to mariners as far out to sea as twenty-four miles.
Despite the optic’s unfailing performance over the years, the DCB-36 recently began to show signs of major wear. Parts were no longer available for this 56 year old beacon that outlived its projected life thanks in large part to the meticulous care provided by Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team (ANT), Cape May. In light of these findings, Senior Chief Dennis Dever, Officer-in-Charge of ANT Cape May, recommended that the DCB-36 be replaced with a more modern optic to ensure the lighthouse would continue to enjoy uninterrupted service well into the 21st century.
As the nine-man crew from ANT Cape May assembled at the base of the lighthouse on the morning of November 11th to begin the optic replacement project, the historic task at hand became quite apparent. The Coast Guardsmen gazed upward at the daunting structure rising into the threatening skies and quickly realized that this endeavor would be a challenge of attrition. For on this day, there was no avoiding the fact that each man was being asked to make anywhere between 12 and 20 strenuous trips up and down the 199 steps of the tower with heavy disassembled pieces of both the old and new optics. In addition to the arduous physical task, ANT personnel were reminded by Senior Chief Dever to take utmost care to preserve every aspect of this historic lighthouse that has been so wonderfully restored and cared for by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. Senior Chief Dever later was quoted as saying, “The historical integrity of any lighthouse is always a major concern, but Cape May Light is magnificently restored and visited yearly by thousands of people from all over the world. We made sure that any modifications to historic equipment were invisible once completed. We also gave special care not to damage the lighthouse interior while carrying heavy equipment and were mindful to preserve the old beacon which is not a Fresnel lens, but an artifact nonetheless.”
The ominous weather outside the lighthouse did little to deter the energy and efforts of the ANT Team despite the afternoon arrival of a powerful November thunderstorm that was accompanied by torrential rains, heavy winds and fierce lightning. The ANT Team’s 10-hour operation of disassembling the DCB-36 and reassembling the new DCB-224 took place inside the safe and dry confines of the watchroom and lantern room of the Cape May Lighthouse.
Comprehensive and precise pre-planning by Senior Chief Dennis Dever and Chief Electrician’s Mate Brandon Pfeilmeier enabled the transition from the DCB-36 optic to the modern DCB-224 optic to be implemented smoothly. When asked to explain the differences in the optics, Senior Chief Dever stated, “Where the DCB-36 supplied two light beams from one lamp shining through opposing lenses, the DCB-224 has an independent lamp, drum and parabolic reflector for each opposing beam. This is a more efficient design in that a reflector focuses the light without transmissitivity loss from having to pass through a lens. The range remains 24 miles because the curvature of the earth is more of a limiting factor than light intensity.”
Cape May Lighthouse, though darkened on the evening of November 11th due to the installation process requiring one more day to fine-tune the electrical components, is once more set to shine forth well into a new century. Lighthouses continue to make history - with Cape May Light recently writing yet another chapter in the storied history of American lighthouses. No, the lighthouse keepers don’t make their daily walks up the tower to tend the light any longer, nor is their presence required to conduct nightly watches from below the glow of the lantern room. Nonetheless, you somehow get the feeling that the lightkeepers from a bygone era would have beamed with pride at the effort and spirit put forth by Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Cape May to keep Cape May Lighthouse shining on without fail.
This story appeared in the
February 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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