NORTH WILDWOOD — Of the 10 keepers in Hereford Inlet Lighthouse history, some were bearded, some had crisp uniforms, one was a woman, and the first keeper in 1874 — whose image may be lost to time — drowned three months into the job.
They tended the lighthouse from 1874 until 1961, when automated beacons phased out the strictly regimented 24-hour-a-day careers that kept mariners safe from sandbars and shipwrecks.
“I see the history more as a people thing, the story of the people, because you really needed to have a sense of duty with job,” said Steve Murray, 59, chairman of the Friends of the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse and a lighthouse historian who authored a book on the subject.
“There was probably nothing more important than being a lighthouse keeper. … So many lives and cargo were dependent on them,” Murray, of Cape May Court House, said Sunday during the lighthouse’s Maritime Festival, a weekend celebration of the region’s ties to the sea.
The last of the keepers—most of whose images line a wall inside the North Wildwood lighthouse — died two years ago, he said.
For National Lighthouse Day on Aug. 7, Murray said, relatives of five keepers are scheduled to attend a special ceremony at 10 a.m., and the lighthouse will offer free admission all day.
The keepers of the light had an assorted history in North Wildwood during an age where maritime trade and travel played a pivotal role in national commerce.
There was the first, John Marche, whose tenure lasted from May 8 to Aug. 9, 1874. Very little is known of him.
“I don’t know whether they found his body. I don’t know where he came from. I don’t know whether he was married,” Murray said. “In the annual report, the simple fact was he drowned when returning from the mainland.”
There was the longest tenured keeper, Freeling Hewitt, who held the job for nearly 45 years, from shortly after Marche’s death to 1919. Hewitt was also a pioneer of the area, then a barren land. He became a fire chief and a founding member of the local Baptist church, where early religious services were held in the lighthouse’s drawing room, Marche said.
After him came William Hedges, who suffered a debilitating stroke on the job. His wife, Laura, assumed his duties, unbeknownst to the government, Murray said.
“She wasn’t in a hurry to tell the government because she thought they’d be booted out of the place,” he said. “He was completely paralyzed. She took care of the duties and was his nurse and was a homemaker for about nine months. Finally she wrote to the government because he deteriorated.”
He died in the house, he said.
For a lighthouse keeper, the job could be tedious but regimented, like ensuring door knobs were properly polished.
Shortly before sunrise every day, the keepers pulled down canvas shades to block sunlight from damaging the expensive and delicate Fresnel lens, Murray said. Lamps had to be removed, cleaned and refilled and prepared by 10 a.m. for the following night, he said.
Among the list of lighthouse keepers there is a blank space from 1942 to 1945, when lighthouses were shut down for fear of making them easy targets for German submarines, Murray said.
The last keeper was Bruce Bolen, who held the job in 1960 and 1961. His is the bearded face on the wall of pictures.
The Hereford Inlet Lighthouse is open daily through October, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults and children 12 and older, and $1 for younger children.
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