Work should start next month to finally repair and renovate the historic East Point Lighthouse, which has guided Delaware Bay mariners to the mouth of the Maurice River for more than a century.

For the first time in years, the building in Maurice River Township will get a new roof, windows, decking and doors, have its foundation secured, brickwork repointed and cracked interior walls repaired.

“It’s a huge project,” said Nancy Patterson, president of the Maurice River Historical Society.

East Point Lighthouse faces the same problem as many lighthouses across the country — a continued battle for protection against a sea, bay or lake, and the constant need for repairs and maintenance at a time when lighthouse proponents say funding is drying up.

But the $852,000 worth of work on the lighthouse building still isn’t as big, or arguably as important, as the estimated $1.9 million project to protect it from the encroaching Delaware Bay. Patterson is worried that if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t soon start the project, which will likely involve a protective berm and beachfill, bay water may make the building repairs futile.

The protective marsh in front of the lighthouse is routinely under water, Patterson said, and waves, depending on the tide, lap against the steps of the front door. Nearby cedar trees blew over because their roots sat in salt water instead of firm soil, she said. About 8 feet of a wooden walkway near the structure washed away, as did some recent stopgap beachfill, she said.

“I’m not being an alarmist, but from what I’ve watched, if we had Hurricane Sandy today, there could be nothing left,” she said.

The $852,000 part of the East Point Lighthouse project is financed through the New Jersey Historic Trust and the Federal Highway Administration. Federal and state governments are paying for the $1.9 million berm and beachfill project, U.S. officials said.

That the East Point Lighthouse got federal and state funds is an exception to what’s happening across the country, said Jeff Gales, executive director of the United States Lighthouse Society.

Available funding options normally come with spending restrictions or take the form of matching grants, he said. Many lighthouses are operated by small groups that have difficulty raising moderate amounts of money, let alone the cash needed for the matching grants, he said. Those organizations must in many circumstances pay for all the work and then be reimbursed for its promised financing, he said.

Gales said funding alternatives for lighthouses are so bad that his 3-year-old organization now offers “brick and mortar” grants averaging about $10,000 per lighthouse. That money is crucial to help lighthouse operators preserve buildings routinely battered by winds, sand and water, he said.

“They always need work,” Gales said. “They face a relatively harsh environment. Things tend to rust.”

Steve Murray knows about the difficulty of maintaining a lighthouse.

The Hereford Inlet Lighthouse in North Wildwood recently needed a paint job estimated between $50,000 and $70,000.

“We didn’t have the money,” said Murray, who chairs the Friends of the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse Foundation. “Then we found out there were no grants big enough to pay for the paint.”

The foundation was fortunate to get the work done for free when companies donated the labor and paint, and a fraternal organization paid for the hydraulic lift for painters to reach the top of the building.

With few funding options available, Murray said the foundation depends on things such as donations and revenue from the lighthouse’s gift shop, and events such as next month’s Hereford Inlet Lighthouse Maritime Festival. The foundation is increasing lighthouse admission fees by $1 by Memorial Day, and increasing dues for lighthouse members for the first time in about 15 years, he said.

Back in Maurice River Township, Patterson said the East Point Lighthouse’s preservation and protection plans are crucial for the Maurice River Historical Society’s plans for the site.

The society wants to the lighthouse to be — especially if it gets some heat and air conditioning — a year-round visitation site and gathering place. The site’s remote location makes it unique and a draw for people interested in everything from birding to butterfly migration to horseshoe crabs, she said.

“I don’t care what your thing is. I think it can be a catalyst to get this very depressed area up and running again,” Patterson said.

Murray said the work at Hereford Inlet Lighthouse and East Point Lighthouse is worth it in terms of historic preservation and the potential economics they can present.

For instance, he said Hereford Inlet Lighthouse visitors have come from 40 countries and 50 states. A group of travel writers visited the lighthouse Wednesday morning as part of a tour of the Wildwoods, he said.

“They loved it,” Murray said, expecting their articles will prompt more Canadians to visit the lighthouse.

More importantly, Murray said, people just can’t let the historic structures vanish.

“If you go to Italy or Ireland, they don’t even tear down ruins,” Murray said. “Over here, it’s very short-sighted.”

Contact: 609-226-9197

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