The area now known as Barnegat Light sits upon the highest land on Long Beach Island. When the inlet was named by Captain Cornelius May in 1614, the area was graced with cedar and oak trees. The inlet was not popular during the sixteen and seventeen hundreds. The Dutch Barendegat means 'Inlet of the Breakers', and the name aptly describes the strong currents that dominate the area. After 1750, Cranberry Inlet provided a safer and faster route to the important trading town of Toms River.
The territory to the south of the inlet along the bay was peaceful and crowded with wildlife, and this was the attraction that drew the earliest settlers to the area in the 1820's. Hunters would stay at the Herring House, a popular boardinghouse. Jacob Herring ran this establishment until 1855 when John M. Brown bought much of the land from the inlet south to present day Loveladies. The area became known as Brownsville, the first official name of the community.
In the meantime, Cranberry Inlet had closed up in 1815, and Barnegat Inlet became more important to trade and travel. A 40 feet tall lighthouse tower was constructed in 1835 to mark the inlet. The light was not very strong, and its steady white beam could not be seen beyond 10 miles. To improve the strength of the beacon, a fourth order fresnel lens was installed in 1854, but the tower was now in poor shape and plans for a new lighthouse were made.
Lt. General George G. Meade (who would later make history leading the Union Troops at Gettysburg) was place in charge of designing the new lighthouse. He designed a 170 ft. tall tower with two circular brick walls. The interior wall rose straight up and supported the iron stairs leading up to the lens assembly, while the outer wall tapered from 28 feet at its base to 14 feet at the keeper's platform. The lens was to be of the first order, designed by Augustin Fresnel himself. A counterweight system would keep the lens assembly rotating. The signature of Barnegat Light would be one flash every ten seconds. The tower was completed in 1859, just in time to replaced the old lighthouse which had tumbled into the sea due to beach erosion.
The upper part of the lighthouse was painted red while the lower section was colored white. John Brown, who had renamed the Herring House Ashley House, bucked tradition and painted his boardinghouse white to match the bottom half of the lighthouse. Usually, beach houses were allowed to weather without being painted, but many residents of the area copied Brown's example. Ashley House remained an important part of Brownsville and was operated by different owners until it closed in 1887.
During the late 1860's and 1870's, well-to-do vacationers from New York would travel by train to Toms River and boat across the bay to Long Beach Island. The name Brownsville faded away after the family left the island, and the area became Barnegat City. The new resort town was becoming very popular, and two hotels, the Oceanic and the Sunset, were built to accommodate the increasing number of visitors. In 1886, the railroad trestle was completed, and trains brought passengers directly to Barnegat City.
The rough waters at the inlet constantly eroded the beach. Originally, Barnegat Lighthouse was built 900 feet away from the ocean, but ten years after it began operation, there were only 450 feet between the tower and the shore. A large, three-family keeper's house was constructed next to the lighthouse in 1889. By that time, several jetties had been built to slow down the beach erosion, but the problem was so bad that they had little effect. The Oceanic Hotel was moved away from the receding shore to a safer location, and people began to fear that the lighthouse itself was in danger.
As the Tides slowly wore down the sands at Barnegat Light, the resort became less popular.The trains stopped running to Barnegat City in 1923. A severe storm claimed most of the Oceanic in 1920, and the Sunset Hotel was destroyed by fire in 1932. The 1920 storm also wore the beach away right up to the base of the lighthouse. The keeper's house had to be abandoned and torn down. Barnegat City became a quiet island village, once again enjoying the serenity it had seen in earlier days.
When Long Beach Township was established in 1899, Barnegat City became part of that municipality, but it would be declared an independent borough in 1904. This was probably due to the fact that the northern end of the island was mostly undeveloped, and citizens of Barnegat City felt separated from the rest of the township's communities.
The lighthouse was automated in 1927 but would only remain in service another seventeen years. After World War II, the lighthouse was decommissioned and given to the state of New Jersey. Barnegat City became Barnegat Light in 1948, probably to honor the lighthouse and make the area more attractive for development. The area around the tower was declared a State Park and was dedicated in 1957.
More information about the Barnegat Lighthouse and the bay can be found by clicking the following links:
LBInet's Non-Profit Organizations: The Barnegat Light Historical Society