Whether you are planning a day trip to Atlantic City or a week at the Jersey Shore, you’ll find family fun for kids from one to 92 at Absecon Lighthouse. Atlantic City’s lighthouse stands at 171 feet tall overlooking the Absecon Inlet. With a total of 228 steps to the watchroom (240 to the top), a climb to the top of the light fondly known as “Abby” will leave you breathless in many ways. Even the fittest person will find the narrow winding staircase to the top a challenge. But the views from the deck are worth the effort. And if Buddy, the lighthouse keeper can make it at 92 years young, you certainly can too.
On your way to the observation deck, you will find landings that allow you to catch your breath. This is what makes the climb manageable for most visitors. Once you reach your destination, Buddy will greet you warmly and hand you a card that reads, “Congratulations, you just climbed New Jersey’s tallest lighthouse and the third tallest in the United States.” How’s that for an achievement??
If the little ones or older family members feel they aren’t quite up for the climb, they can explore the 2-acre property including the CROPS Community garden. Or they can learn about the light’s history at the museum inside the replica Lighthouse Keepers dwelling. Exhibits include ocean life, shipwrecks, keepers and lighthouse history, local memorabilia, and restoration photos. Those remaining on terra firma will miss the opportunity to see Abby’s original first-order Fresnel lens, however, they can learn about these amplifying lenses at the Fresnel Lens exhibit in the light’s original Oil House.
The History of Absecon Lighthouse
As early as 1830, Jonathan Pitney, known as the “Father of Atlantic City” petitioned for a lighthouse to be built on Absecon Island. But it wasn’t until 1854 that Congress approved his request and appropriated $35,000 for its construction. Absecon Lighthouse would serve as a coast light to guide vessels clear of the dangerous Absecon and Brigantine Shoals. Had its construction been approved sooner, it may have prevented some of the wrecks lost off the inlet between 1847 and 1856. It is estimated that during that 9-year period some 64 vessels were lost.
Construction of Absecon Lighthouse began in 1855 under Major Hartman Bache who was later replaced by Lt. George Meade who is typically credited as its builder. Completed 1856 with the help of the Army Corp of Engineers the final price tag for the lighthouse was $52,436.62.
In addition to the light’s obvious maritime purpose, it became a significant tourist attraction. According to visitor’s logs from the early 20th century, Abby received over 10,000 visitors a year making her Keepers as much tour guides as light tenders. Crowds would come to climb the tower but also to view the impressive ornamental gardens on her grounds including a conservatory. However, the Lighthouse Service ordered the removal of the greenhouse in 1922. Though they noted that Absecon Lighthouse was “visited by the public more than any other lighthouse in the United States.”
While Abby’s address has never changed, she is much further from the shoreline today than when she was erected. Her original location was just 1200 feet from the shore at the corner of Pacific and Rhode Island Avenues. But by 1876 high tides and erosion threatened the Absecon Lighthouse. Seven short jetties were built to trap sand and build the shoreline protecting her and the surrounding community.
Once the tallest structure in Atlantic City, land development and the erection of high-rise hotels obscured Abby’s beacon leading to her decommissioning in 1933. She has only been re-lit twice since then. Once for Atlantic City’s centennial celebration in 1954 and again for New Jersey’s Tercentenary (300th Anniversary) in 1963.
In 1988 the Inlet Public/Private Association (IPPA) was formed and adopted Absecon Lighthouse as its logo. Throughout the years the IPPA pursued various funding options for the restoration of the Absecon Lighthouse. Funding sources included a $970,000 grant from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and over $1,000,000 from the New Jersey Historic Trust. These funds, along with other grants and donations lead to both lighthouse and Keeper’s House restoration commencing in 1997. Just over a year later, restorations were nearly complete on the tower when a fire broke out destroying the Lighthouse Keeper’s dwelling. The IPPA reopened the tower to visitors in 1999 while continuing to rebuild the Keeper’s House. The dwelling finally reopened to the public in October of 2001.
Absecon Lighthouse is listed on both the New Jersey Register of Historic Places and the National Register.
Abby’s Unique Construction
In addition to being the tallest of the 11 NJ lighthouses and the 3rd tallest in the US, Abby has a number of features that are unique to her. First, while most lighthouses are built with solid mortar walls, she was built with a double-walled conical construction. This means she has both an interior and an exterior wall.
As you climb the stairway to the light, you see vents which allowed air to flow between her walls and aided in the mortar’s drying process. While it may seem that this building method might not be as strong as the solid wall construction, it is quite substantial. The benefit of this building method is a reduction in both the amount of time and material required to erect the tower. Despite being comprised of over 500,000 bricks, the tower’s construction used about one quarter the number required to erect a solid structure of similar size.
Absecon Lighthouse First Order Fresnel Lens
The beacon atop the Absecon Lighthouse, first lit in 1857, was originally fueled by kerosene (later converted to electric) and projected through a a French-made first-order Fresnel lens. These lenses take their name from the designer Augustin-Jean Fresnel.
Unlike a conventional lens, Fresnel lenses use flat glass (or plastic) surfaces set at different angles rather than a continuous curved surface. Positioned in a circular manner with steeper pieces on the edges and a flat or slightly convex center piece the prisms concentrate the light into a narrow beam. This design allows for the use of thinner material compared to a conventional lens. However, the result is a lesser quality image. But in lighthouses this is not a concern. The distance the light projects is what matters. The Absecon Lighthouse would have shone roughly 22 miles onto the horizon and her beacon was fixed (not flashing).
Fresnel produced six lens sizes for lighthouses and categorized them into four orders based on their size and focal length A first-order lens has a focal length of 920 mm (36 in) and a maximum diameter 2590 mm (8.5 ft) high. Completely assembled, a first-order Fresnel is approximately 12 feet tall by 6 feet wide.
Abby’s first-order Fresnel lens was manufactured in 1854 by L. Sautter & Cie of Paris. It’s made of lead glass and weighs 12,800 pounds. Each prism would have been carefully carried by hand to the top of the tower and assembled in place.
The first Fresnel lens was used in 1823. At that time and through the mid-20th century they were considered state of the art. Most lighthouses have since retired them making Absecon Lighthouse quite rare and special.
Planning Your Visit to Atlantic City's Lighthouse
September – June
Open Thursdays through Mondays
11am to 4pm
Closed Tuesdays & Wednesdays
July – August
Open 7 days a Week – 10am to 5pm
Thursdays until 8pm
NOTE: The last tower climb of the day is always a 1/2 hour before closing
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year.
$9.00 College Students
$6.00 Children (4-12)
$5.00 Atlantic City Residents (With ID)
Group rates for 10 or more:
FREE Active Duty Military
FREE Kids Under 4
All coupons only apply to the climbing rate
There are two FREE lots; one across the street from the light on Rhode Island Ave and other behind the lighthouse. Street parking is also available.
Where to eat nearby
After climbing Abby you may find yourself hungry. Check out these Diners, Drive Ins and Dives including two that are just a quick trip from the light. Tony Baloney’s will be your best bet with kids but Kelsey and Kim’s is not a bad choice either.
Support the Absecon Lighthouse
Absecon Lighthouse continues to operate on mostly a volunteer basis and through donations and admissions fees. Like many non-profits, the foundation has struggled financially during the COVID-19 crisis. Your visit to the Absecon Lighthouse helps keep it open to the public. There are a number of ways to support Abby and keep her open for generations to come. Look here for ways to donate or here for volunteer opportunities.