Partnership JournalismApril 29, 2022

Ellis Island, lighthouses among historic NJ sites flooding as seas rise

By Ayurella Horn-Muller, Andrew S. Lewis, Michael Sol Warren, and Brendan Flanagan

Climate change threatens to drown Ellis Island. The gateway to the United States for 12 million immigrants holds a precarious place amid rising seas on a warming planet. One model predicts the island will be submerged within 80 years. But its buildings, artifacts and immigrant stories hold an iconic place in the American narrative. The problem — how can we protect Ellis Island without surrounding it with a seawall that would diminish its historic value?

A report, Future Flood Risk: Historic Sites in NJ, is available from Climate Central, a nonprofit, nonpartisan climate science organization.

An attempt by the state to slow the rapid erosion of East Point Lighthouse's shoreline with a sand-filler “geotube” quickly proved to be inadequate against the rising water. Credit: Andrew S. Lewis

The Garden State’s history is starting to wash away.

New Jersey as it exists today was built up over hundreds of years from the arrival of Europeans, and thousands of years of Lenape settlement before that. Reminders of the past are scattered everywhere — the state has more than 100,000 historic properties, one in nearly every city and town.

“This is part of our cultural consciousness,” said Barton Ross, a past president of the advocacy group Preservation New Jersey. “To experience the historic neighborhoods and what they bring.”

But as climate change pushes water up along New Jersey’s coast, the risks of flooding and destruction during storms are rising for the state’s waterfront heritage.

“That’s what we’re trying to save for future generations,” Ross said. “To preserve it so they can understand what their heritage is, and how special a state like New Jersey is.”

Sea levels rise as heat trapped by pollution in the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans, causing the water to expand. Warming temperatures also melt glaciers and ice sheets.

New Jersey’s coastline is experiencing some of the highest rates of rising seas in the nation, in part because the mid-Atlantic region is plagued by land subsidence, or sinking land. Depending on pollution levels, a state climate report this week cautioned that sea levels could rise an additional 4 to 6 feet or more this century. That poses a major threat to the tangible remnants of the state’s past. There are roughly 2,500 historic sites in the state that can flood when nearby waters reach just 2 feet above the average high tide, according to a report from the New Jersey Climate Change Resource Center published in January. Push that surging water to 7 feet above the average high tide, and that number balloons to more than 20,000.

The effects are already apparent. Each year, Ross’s group publishes a list of the 10 most endangered historic sites in New Jersey. Flood risks, both from sea level rise and heavy rainstorms, have steadily become a more important factor in the criteria.

“We really have a couple (of sites) each year that fall under this category of needing some kind of flood mitigation or some other type of preservation,” Ross said.

The change, detailed in this reporting collaboration between NJ Spotlight News and Climate Central, is forcing advocates and authorities that use limited resources to preserve historic and cultural places to grapple with an emerging question: How do you prioritize the parts of history to be saved?

Ellis Island under threat

Ellis Island represented the gateway to America from 1892 to 1954.

“For me, it’s such an important site because it questions our current values,” Wolfram Hoefer said. “What do we think about immigration these days?”

A landscape architect and professor at Rutgers University, Hoefer immigrated to the U.S. from North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany in 2006. “It is so important for America,” he said of Ellis Island.

More than 12 million immigrants, almost all from Europe, were processed by federal customs officials at the small piece of land now split by New Jersey and New York in New York Harbor. Today, families across the U.S. trace their roots back to Ellis Island.

Nowadays, the biggest threat to Ellis Island isn’t a lack of investment or public attention: It’s the water that surrounds it. The island is already plagued with regular floods. By mid-century, floodwaters could reach the site’s structures multiple times per year, and by the end of the century they could cover the entire island multiple times a year, a Climate Central analysis shows.

Climbing temperatures driven by fossil fuel pollution are threatening heritage sites like this across New Jersey, with everything from emblematic landmarks like Ellis Island to century-old lighthouses starting to crumble beneath the impacts of climate change.

‘Everything that keeps the park running and operating safely, and gets visitors here, was underwater or destroyed.’

“Historic sites allow us to relate to our own past and where we come from, but also question our current actions and our current values according to what happened in the past and how we are dealing with the present and the future,” Hoefer said.

The federal government stopped using Ellis Island as an immigration center in 1954, and the facility fell into disrepair until it was added to the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965. It reopened to the public in 1990. The Great Hall was restored as a museum, attracting around 4 million visitors each year before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Critical to our collective history’

“Ellis Island is critical to our collective story,” said Erin Dempsey, who leads the National Park Service’s cultural preservation efforts at the island. “To so many people, Ellis Island lives large in their minds, in their family history and it looms large in our cultural identity as American people. So impacts to Ellis Island, I think, really have wide-ranging effects on so many people.”

Superstorm Sandy revealed the extent of Ellis Island’s exposure when it slammed through the region nearly 10 years ago. Surging water rose out of the harbor and inundated the island. The old ferry building had its doors and windows blown out, and basements around the site filled with water.

Damage on Ellis Island in late 2012, following Superstorm Sandy. It took a year of recovery following Sandy before Ellis Island reopened to visitors. Credit: Courtesy of the National Park Service

“Everything that keeps the park running and operating safely, and gets visitors here, was underwater or destroyed,” Dempsey said.

The Great Hall sits just high enough that it avoided first-floor flooding. Historic artifacts in the building had been stored upstairs, which kept them safe in the short term. But Sandy knocked out Ellis Island’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, leaving those artifacts exposed to uncontrolled temperatures and humidity.

After the storm, a National Park Service team of museum specialists packed up the island’s artifacts and shipped them to a storage facility in Maryland.

It took a year for Ellis Island to reopen to the public after Sandy, and nearly three years for all the artifacts to be returned.

To protect against the next Sandy, the National Park Service has rolled out a $50 million plan to make Ellis Island more resilient. That includes elevating critical infrastructure like HVAC systems and generators, all of which need to be running to protect the artifacts stored at the park.

“The main thing we had to do was make sure that some of those critical systems like electrical, mechanical systems, the HVAC system, [were] raised up out of the flood plain. So that was our biggest response,” Dempsey said. “We needed to get all of that critical infrastructure so that it wouldn’t be affected by storm surge in the future.”

The park service is also tackling the island’s well-worn sea wall — a project that posed a conundrum for  NPS leadership. They had to decide whether to raise the height of the wall, which would better guard against flooding but change the historic nature of the park that the service is tasked with protecting. Dempsey said that visitor experience, especially the evocative feeling that many tourists get as they sail into the island and the views they enjoy once there, were critical considerations.

“What’s difficult here, for us, is that one of our main goals is to protect our historical resources as they are,” Dempsey said. “We need to maintain their integrity.”

Ultimately, the NPS decided to restore the sea wall at its original height — preserving the island’s historic presence but leaving the harbor waters just feet below the edge during regular high tides. “We’re doing this rehabilitation work, making sure the masonry is in good shape, making sure it can stay as it is for another one hundred and fifty years, instead of altering its character, which could lead to a slew of other issues, potentially,” Dempsey said.

Grappling with how far to go to protect a single site is one thing. A pair of lighthouses in South Jersey poses a related question: What makes one site more worthy of money and resources for protection than another?

“That’s why historic preservation is so important,” said Hoefer of Rutgers University. “It asks current questions about decisions we did in the past. And what do we do presently?”

A tale of two lighthouses: Barnegat and East Point

On a recent morning, a pair of bald eagles perched on the upper branches of an Eastern red cedar near the edge of the Delaware Bay shoreline. Behind them was the 163-year-old East Point Lighthouse, its fresh coat of red and white paint gleaming in the sunshine.

“It’s just gorgeous,” said Nancy Patterson, president of the local historical society that manages the wedge of semi-dry land where the lighthouse sits. “This is an important thing for the community; it’s a historic site that deserves to be protected, especially because of where it is.”

Like the bald eagle, the fight to keep East Point Lighthouse in Cumberland County from disappearing has been a long, difficult struggle — and one that is likely to get harder. It joins Barnegat Lighthouse, a popular tourism spot at the northern tip of Long Beach Island, on the Atlantic coast, in being threatened by unrelenting sea level rise. The two historic lighthouses offer a vivid look at the tough choices New Jersey is willing to make when it comes to prioritizing historic structures.

Since the Maurice River Township Historical Society took charge of East Point’s upkeep 50 years ago, volunteers like Patterson have waged a battle for recognition with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which owns the lighthouse and its grounds.

In that time, compared with other historic lighthouses in the state, the department has done little to protect East Point from erosion made severe by the combination of naturally subsiding land and unnaturally accelerating sea level rise.

Lack of support for East Point

The effects of that lack of support were particularly striking this spring. For much of last year, Patterson was locked in a standoff with the department over the terms of a new management agreement that would have allowed the state to terminate its partnership with the society with little notice, as well as be entitled to revenues from its museum and gift shop, which in part sells work by local artists.

Because of the standoff, Patterson felt she had to shelve plans for a berm project that she believes is necessary to save East Point from not just the next Superstorm Sandy, which flooded the lighthouse, but regular nuisance flooding. Local municipalities had offered to provide topsoil and sand fill for free, and the society had cobbled together enough donations to pay for labor. Meanwhile, in March, the DEP announced that it would begin a $1.3 million restoration of Barnegat Lighthouse, paid for by the state’s corporate business tax.

Barnegat and East Point are two of the oldest lighthouses in the state that are still in operation. East Point was first lit in 1849 and Barnegat in 1859. Both structures were originally built hundreds of feet back from the water’s edge, but natural erosion and sea level rise have reduced those buffers to stone throws from the waves.

In March, the Department of Environmental Protection announced that it would begin a $1.3 million restoration of Barnegat Lighthouse, paid for by the state’s corporate business tax. Credit: Andrew S. Lewis

That is where many of the similarities between the two lighthouses end. In 1957, the land around Barnegat was made a state park, and in 1971 the lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Since the late 1980s, Barnegat and the surrounding land have been restored and rebuilt with millions of state and federal dollars to save it from the results of age and the encroaching sea, including an Army Corps of Engineers-built rock seawall.

Barnegat is facing at least a 1% chance of flooding each year already. That chance increases to at least 10% each year by 2040, and by 2060, the lighthouse will face a chronic annual flood risk, the Climate Central analysis found.

Already at risk of chronic flooding

Down in Cumberland County, however, the historic, but less heralded, East Point Lighthouse is already at risk of chronic flooding, with a 99% chance of at least one annual flood.

Rapidly rising waters spell trouble not just for these landmarks, but for historic sites across the country. A 2014 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists identified intensifying flood, coastal erosion and wildfire threats to historical sites and infrastructure across the nation, as well as state and local parks.

Cornell University professor Sara Bronin says that a whole range of natural hazards increasingly threaten historic sites. “You can see that in sea level rise in coastal areas, wildfires in the West, and even increased precipitation leading to more erosion, mudslides and moisture that ends up being retained in the buildings, structures and sites that we’ve tried to protect by designating them historic,” she said.

‘If East Point got anywhere near even a small fraction of the support and infrastructure over the years that they’ve seen at Barnegat, or Cape May, or any of the other lighthouses, it would be a really nice tourist place.’

Bronin has worked in local planning and zoning as a lawyer, architect and policymaker, and is the current nominee to serve as chair of the U.S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Her 2020 paper identifies how federal law makes it difficult and costly for climate-related adaptations to historic properties, and finds that the legal standards typically applied to physical changes to preservation sites inadequately address climate change.

“Currently the way that we protect historic properties is something of a patchwork with local, state and federal officials each looking at the issue from a different angle and not necessarily coordinating,” Bronin said.

Inequitable preservation efforts

This can lead to inequitable preservation efforts in the face of worsening climate change. The same year that Barnegat became a federally recognized historic place, 83 miles to the south, on the Delaware bayshore, East Point was nearly destroyed by fire. By that point, the lighthouse had been abandoned for decades — the fire inspired the Maurice River Historical Society to push for the structure’s renovation.

It wasn’t until 1995 that East Point was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and not until 1998 that an exterior restoration was completed by a volunteer effort led by the Maurice River Historical Society. In 2019, the state attempted to address East Point’s dire erosion problem with a sand-filled synthetic “geotube” berm along the shoreline. The project was meant to be a temporary solution, but almost immediately, storm surges were breaching the berm, rendering the lighthouse property “a big bowl of water with no place to go,” as Patterson described it last year.

Instead of a park, much of the land around East Point is state-owned preserved open space and wildlife management areas, meaning it is to remain essentially untouched rather than built up with hard infrastructure to defend against sea level rise.

“If East Point got anywhere near even a small fraction of the support and infrastructure over the years that they’ve seen at Barnegat, or Cape May, or any of the other lighthouses, it would be a really nice tourist place,” Patterson said. “But [the department’s] mission is to, basically, gather up as much land as possible and let it go back to nature. Protecting history is completely against what they’re trying to do here.”

After being abandoned for decades and nearly destroyed by a fire in 1971, East Point Lighthouse was rescued and restored by volunteers of the Maurice River Historical Society, and its lantern was reactivated in 1980. Credit: Andrew S. Lewis

In a statement, New Jersey’s Chief Resilience Officer, Nick Angarone said: “The DEP evaluates historic assets and structures against climate change, including sea-level rise, looking at issues such as risks to a structure, benefits and public access. The Barnegat Light Lighthouse and East Point Lighthouse are both vulnerable to sea-level rise and face different threats from climate change. The Department recognizes the value of both historic structures as well as the importance they have to their communities and visitors. With that in mind, we assess the needs of each lighthouse and account for all available resources, including federal funding, to ensure that both lighthouses continue to stand as New Jersey beacons for future generations.”

It’s not that Patterson isn’t happy to see the state investing in Barnegat Light, she said. It’s just that it seems unfair to prioritize one over the other. “I want to see Barnegat get the attention it’s getting,” she said. “I don’t want money taken from them to give to us — I want it given to them and us.”

It’s a race against time, and limited resources. A professor and chair of the department of historic preservation at the University of Kentucky, Douglas Appler says the lack of funding for historic preservation, and reliance on philanthropies and individuals for investment, means officials don’t have much leeway with deciding where the money goes. “There are limits to what local government and state government can do in a system where everything is basically privately driven,” he said.

Appler says this is particularly true in smaller towns and municipalities — like the unincorporated community of 227 people living in Heislerville, where East Point is found. “They don’t have a ton of levers to pull.”

‘They don’t get away with treating Barnegat the same way they get away with treating the southern bayshore.’

Patterson worries that, because East Point is a “money pit,” in terms of upkeep, the state is only interested in seeing the structure and the property disappear. And while Barnegat is also expensive to maintain, it is central to the tourism economy of Long Beach Island, home to some of the Jersey Shore’s most expensive real estate.

“They don’t get away with treating Barnegat the same way they get away with treating the southern bayshore,” Patterson said. “We’re treated like the neglected stepchild — there’s not enough of us to add up to enough votes, and we don’t have enough millionaires to add up to enough contributions to their campaigns.”

If the state would only invest…

The bayshore municipalities of Cumberland County are among some of the poorest in New Jersey. If the state would only invest in the property, Patterson insisted, it could become a tourist attraction that would help prop up Maurice River Township and surrounding economically depressed municipalities.

“Maurice River Township would look different,” Patterson said. “Restaurants could survive, and businesses could make it, because they would have people coming in.”

Already, Patterson hosts Christmas and Easter events on the historical society’s shoestring budget. But she envisions restoring the old drainage ditch behind the lighthouse by removing the invasive phragmites, which have taken over, with native plants like bayberry, beach plum and goldenrod. Tourists and schoolchildren could learn about what a native coastal New Jersey landscape looks like — one that isn’t relentlessly inundated by saltwater, that is. Just something more than a rutted dirt road to the property would be nice, Patterson said.

There was some good news recently. Though the state would only issue the historical society a license agreement instead of a lease — preventing the group from doing their own renovation work — they did change the terms so that revenues from the museum and gift shop can’t be taken by the state. And the berm project is being allowed by the DEP to move forward. If the final approval processes go well, Patterson is hoping topsoil and sand will be rolling in within the next few weeks.

Patterson thinks stopgap solutions are better than nothing, but she plans to continue to fight for more substantial fixes to preserve the landmark as seas continue to rise and storms continue to intensify.

“Nothing would make me happier than to hear, twenty years from now, somebody say, ‘I just care so much about the place because we always had such a good time there,” Patterson said. “Because it’s a part of my history.’”