Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Twin Lights at Navesink

Speaking of lighthouses, since before we know it the height of the NJ Lighthouse season, the NJ Challenge, will be upon us, I think it is time to take a look at another one of our wonderful lighthouses. Today it will be a very unique one, one that looks unlike any other lighthouse that exists, the Twin Lights at Navesink.

Now most of coastal NJ is very flat and low to the water, so for the light to be visible far at sea, the lighthouses were built very tall, in the 200 foot range, like the conical towers of Barnegat, Absecon and Cape May. But as you head north and approach the entrance to New York Harbor and the Hudson River, tall cliffs rise out of the water, the beginning of the New Jersey Highlands. As early as 1609, the English explorer Henry Hudson recognized these hills as a marker for the entrance to the harbor and the river that would come to bear his name. Their height made them a natural place to build a signal light to warn mariners as they came near the coast and the many sandbars that form just off shore in the area, and it is believed there was some sort of light made there, perhaps as early as the 1700's.

The first twin lights were built at the spot in 1828, two to make them distinct from the Sandy Hook light that is just 5 miles north from Navesink. The Twin Lights, maybe because of their accessibility to New York, maybe because there were two lights so close together, have always been the sight of lighthouse experimentation. It was there, in 1841, that the first Fresnel lenses from France, a revolution in lighthouse illumination, were installed in the USA, in the original two towers. But, as is so often true, these first towers were badly built and it was decided to replace them in 1862, while the nation was in the midst of the Civil War.

Now come the interesting question of the Twin Lights distinct appearance. Because they are on cliffs, huge towers were not needed. The two towers are about 75 feet tall and built of brownstone with turrets and a very castle like appearance. It is said that this sort of heavy, militaristic look was popular in government building during the period, so that might explain their appearance. Others suggest that the architect, Joseph Lederle, might have been influenced by European lighthouses that sometimes included element of castles in their designs. But my favorite story is that he was a huge fan of the game of Chess and made the two towers to look like two different chess pieces. Because of the ongoing war, no one was really supervising the plan carefully and he was left to design them as he liked, so long as he was within the budget he was given. I like this story it explains the fact that the two towers are different, the south one being a square tower and the north one being an octagon and really do look like chess pieces connected to a center, fort like building. For whatever reason it was built like that, Navesink is the only surviving set of twin lights where the towers are part of a single building. And it is certainly unique in appearance.

Navesink is also famous for being the first American lighthouse that was lit by electricity. In 1898 the Lighthouse Board installed a new test lens at Navesink, a huge bi-valve lens that was made up of 386 separate lenses around a central bull’s eye lens. The bivalve lens was 9 feet in diameter and 5 feet high and resembled a giant clam shell, with an electric light at the center. Between the lens and the electric light, it made it by far the brightest, most powerful light at any US lighthouse, a huge 25 million candlepower. It was also the sight of cutting edge communication technology when Marconi placed an antenna and receiving station there to demonstrate his wireless telegraph, receiving from a ship offshore the results of the America's Cup race that was being held off the coast of New Jersey in 1899. In 1917, it was the sight of the first experimental radio beacon and the first radar tests were held there just before WWII.

Of course, it was these very technologies that ultimately lessened the need for lighthouses and the Twin Lights were shut in 1952. The lighthouse and surrounding grounds are now operated by the New Jersey State Park Service and open to the public. The North tower, which you can climb, still contains a smaller Fresnel lens, and there is a simply beautiful view of the town of Highlands down below, Sandy Hook State Park to the north and, on a clear day, a view of Raritan Bay, the New York harbor and the city skyline in the distance.

Also in the center building between the two towers, once the keeper's house, and in the outbuildings, is a fascinating museum about all the history that has taken place at Navesink. The old brick generator building contains the original, huge bi-valve lens which is just beautiful and remarkable, and a must see if you visit the site. Somehow, it seems I no longer have a photo of that lens...so I will just have to make a trip back soon!

Postcard featuring the Navesink lighthouse from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History


  1. Those lighthouses are probably the most unique I have ever seen. I love this!

  2. Those lighthouses are absolutely gorgeous. I don't think I've ever seen one that is built in a brown stone. Someday on the annual big trek north, I'd like to veer off and see some of these wondrous sights. All I know of NJ is the Garden state Pkwy and the turnpike although we did go to Cape May one time with our daughter. I'd love to go back there.
    Thanks for posting these and the fascinating history lesson along with it.

  3. well, to know NJ from the Parkway is better than knowing it from the Turnpike!Little industrial in the northern part.

    And since the parkway goes down near the coast, you are nearer most of the lighthouses...except the ones on the Delaware.

  4. I so enjoy your lighthouse posts..They remind me of the days when I was a docent at the new Lighthouse Museum in Rockland ME and I used to give tours to busloads of people from NJ who remained convinced that NO lighthouse in Maine could ever rival the twin lights!

    They are on my long list of lights to visit before I die...now I just have to tear myself away from books and blogs...LOL

  5. Lorin, yes, it is nice, isn't it.

    Tina, one day I will get to the Lighthouse Museum! Navesink is certainly the most unusual NJ light, but not my favorite. That would be...hmmmm...it is hard to say...lol

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