Monday, October 13, 2008

America's Oldest Lighthouse

Today we are off to northern NJ...well, relatively north, to visit the Queen of lighthouses. Perhaps that should be the King of lighthouses, considering the symbolism of the towers and all. Yes, the King of lighthouses, Sandy Hook, the oldest existing, continually working lighthouse in the Unites States.

There is evidence that the need for a lighthouse at this sandy spit of land, that extends up to form the south end of the entrance into NY harbor, was discussed as early as 1679. Ships had to sail very close to Sandy Hook to follow the natural channel and there were numerous shipwrecks over the years, but it was not until there were several shipwrecks in a very short period of time, in early 1761, costing over £21,000 in lost of ships and merchandise, that a number of NY merchants approached the His Majesty’s Council, requesting that a lighthouse be built. The government decided to hold two lotteries, raising £3000 each, to buy four acres of the sandy land and to contract to build a tower.

Little is know about the mason who designed and built it, a Mr. Isaac Conro, except that he built a very strong and lasting structure that has survived lightening hits, and cannonball attacks and hurricanes for over two hundred years and still stands in excellent condition. It was built of rubblestone, stuccoed over and years late, lined with brick. Construction was started in 1763 and the light was first seen in what was then called the New York Lighthouse on June 11, 1764, the country's fifth lighthouse. As described in the New York Mercury newspaper ...
“On Monday Evening last the New York Lighthouse erected at Sandy Hook was lighted for the first time. The House is of an Octagonal Figure, having eight equal sides; the Diameter at the Base is 29 Feet and at the top of the Wall 15 Feet. The lanthorn is 7 Feet high; the circumference 33 Feet. The whole constructure of the Lanthorn is Iron; the top covered with copper. There are 48 Oil Blazes. The Building from the surface is Nine Stories; the whole from the Bottom to Top 103 Feet.”

Of course, it was not many yearsthat the nation was in the midst of the Revolutionary War and Sandy Hook was to be in the thick of it. The New York Congress decided to either destroy the tower or at least render the light useless by dismantling it, so as to make a British attack on New York Harbor more difficult. It seems that Major William Malcolm was successful in taking the light apart, but the British repaired it within a few months, leading to a daring attack by ship by Benjamin Tupper, in an attempt by the colonists to once again make the light useless. Happily, the attacks by cannon proved unsuccessful against the structure. After an hour, he “found the walls so firm that the cannon fire could make no impression” and Sandy Hook would remain under British control for most of the rest of the war.

After the war, there was a dispute over ownership of the lighthouse between the States of New York and New Jersey, which was settled in 1789 when the federal government took over control of all U.S. Lighthouses, saying..

“The necessary support, maintenance and repairs of all lighthouses beacons, buoys, and public piers erected, placed or sunk before the passing of this act, at the entrance of, or within any bay, inlet, harbor or port of the United States, for rendering the navigation thereof easy and safe, shall be defrayed out of the treasury of the United States."

And so it has remained for Sandy Hook up to the present day.

The original copper oil lamps were replace with Argand lamps in 1812, with eighteen 21” reflectors, and then the lighthouse received a fixed, third-order Fresnel lens in 1856, which remains in use today. It was also the first American lighthouse to be lit by electric incandescent lamps in 1889 and today is illuminated by a 1000 watt bulb, that emits 45,000 candle-power, and that is visible for almost 20 miles out to sea.

Oddly, Sandy Hook, unlike many other lighthouses, is in no danger from the encroaching sea. When it was first built, it was about 500 feet from the ocean, but the strong current at the inlet has deposited more and more sand on the hook over the years and today the light is over a mile from the water. History has not left the tower alone out there on that spit of land either. In the 1890's the government built Fort Hancock next to the tower, which while deserted today, was for many years the site of massive gun batteries to defend NY harbor. The Nike missiles once there can be seen on display on the roadside as you drive in to the Gateway National Recreation Area, the Federal park that encompasses the entire area today. Now the National Park Service controls the lighthouse and all the surrounding buildings but the light itself is still maintained by the Coast Guard, who has a station at the far northwest corner of the hook.

On June 11, 1964, the lighthouse was declared a National Historic Landmark, on the 200th anniversary of the night it was first lighted, and you can see the plaque marking that day mounted on the side of the tower.

It is a beautiful and stately lighthouse, well worth a visit, as is the whole Gateway National Recreation Area, in which it is located. There are a number of beaches, open for swimming and very popular in the summer and available for surf fishing year round. There are miles of bike and hiking trails, several observation towers which promise views of NY city when the weather is clear and amazing views of huge ships, very close offshore, sailing into the harbor year round. You can also see any number of pleasure crafts and fishing boats just off the beaches on a fine day, as I can attest.
The Park also includes the Sandy Hook Bird Observatory, established in 2001 by the New Jersey Audubon Society, in what is one of New Jersey's best year-around birding locations and you can check their website for a list of activities they offer.

So, whenever you go, bring your binoculars and your camera and a picnic lunch.


  1. I won't shoot you for all the ARCs you've snagged at LT, but I will say that I enjoyed this post. I love lighthouses!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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