The wind it blew from Sou'sou'east,
It blew a pleasant breeze
And the man upon the lookout cried:
"A Light upon the lee!"
They reported to the Captain and
these words did he say -
"Cheer up my sailor lads,
Its the light on old Cape May.
Although the English are believed to have laid the ground work for a lighthouse on the cape as early as 1744, there has yet to be found positive proof that the lighthouse was actually built. What is certain is that Congress granted authority for the appointment of commissioners to purchase a site on Cape May for the erection of a lighthouse.
The site selected was a high bluff at Cape Island (Cape May City) in front of the property later occupied by Congress Hall. A search of old maps of the area reveals that the earliest map of the region, a 1779 Des Barres chart does not show a lighthouse at Cape May, but does indicate a lighthouse at Cape James (now called Cape Henlopen).
In 1821, Congress appropriated money of the construction of a lighthouse at Cape May. A site on Cape May Point was selceted, not far from the present lighthouse. Work began on it in 1822. Bricks were brought down the Delaware River from Philadelphia by barge. A stone foundation was constructed upon which the brick structure would rest. The first lighthouse at Cape May was completed in October, 1823. It was described as:
...70 feet high, arched at the top,
with a revolving light consisting of 15 lamps.
One hundred steps led from the base of the tower
to the walk at the top which was surrounded by
an iron railing...
It was 65 feet high to the base of the lantern.
The wall was 25 feet in diameter
and 6 feet thick at the base,
tapering to 2 1/2 feet thick at the top.
In 1859, the second lighthouse was razed and the present lighthouse was constructed, a thousand feet further inshore. Up until a few years ago, some of the foundation of the 1847 tower could be seen on the beach in front of the present lighthouse. The foundation of the 1847 tower remained for many years after the tower was razed and was used as an icehouse in the 1860's, and as a stable at the turn of the century.
The third and present Cape May Lighthouse is 157.5 feet tall (170 feet to focal plane), has a base diameter of 27 feet. At the time of its construction the lantern was equipped with a first-order Fresnel Lens, and kerosene wick lamps. In 1910, the lamps were replaced with incandescent oil vapor apparatus. This too, was replaced in 1938 with a 250 watt electric bulb which cast a beam 19 miles.
The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts is currently leasing the lighthouse from the state, and has restored and repainted the lighthouse to its former glory.