Touchstone of History
Although conceived and constructed for shipping safety and national defense, the Twin Lights have assumed a far greater role in history. A startling number of scientific and cultural firsts have taken place on this site a tribute to its powerful presence on the American landscape, both literally and figuratively. Indeed, the next time you answer your cell phone, checkout at a grocery store, land safely at an airport, create a family tree, or recite the Pledge of Allegiance, you are connecting with the people and events that have made the Twin Lights such a profoundly special place.
In the Beginning...
Prior to the 1820s, the only permanent lighthouse in this area was the Sandy Hook Light, which became operational in 1764. It was the only lighthouse serving the entrance to New York Harbor. In 1823, Sandy Hook was supplemented by the Sandy Hook Lightship, stationed in Sandy Hook Channel about three miles offshore. The United States learned some hard lessons about the need to protect its shipping during the War of 1812. It was the lifeblood of the new nation, and nowhere was keeping ships safe more important than the waters in and around New York Harbor particularly after completion of the Erie Canal in 1825.
The U.S. shipping industry requested that Congress authorize another lighthouse to be constructed on the Highlands of New Jersey to support the increase in shipping traffic to and from the area. Congress approved the request and instructed the U.S. Lighthouse Board (predecessor to the U.S. Lighthouse Service) to construct such a light. In 1828, sea captains welcomed two new beacons of the Twin Lights on their way to New York Harbor. They emanated from this spot, high above the Navesink Highlands, overlooking Sandy Hook. The official name of the facility was the Navesink Light Station. But sailors and fellow lighthouse keepers called it the Twin Lights. The original keepers quarters was made of wood, with two Rubble Stone towers and beacons 320 feet apart. In 1841, the first Fresnel lenses in the United States were installed in the towers. The Fresnel lens was a critical part of the lifesaving effort. It was created in France in the 1820s by physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel specifically for use in lighthouses. Before Fresnel's invention, a lens had to be thick and heavy to produce the intense light needed to signal ships. The Fresnel lens collected light in a brand new way; now even the smallest lighthouses could produce a big-lighthouse beam. The lenses at the Twin Lights sparked a scientific revolution in America that led to everything from checkout scanners and camera lenses to solar collectors and fiber-optics cables.
New and Improved
In the 1850s, the Lighthouse Board in Washington decided to create a more permanent structure. In 1862 the new Twin Lights went on line. It was a state-of-the-art marvel of science and engineering the new star of the American lighthouse world. It cost a whopping $74,000. During the 1880s, the area around the Twin Lights started to see a lot new development. Across the Shrewsbury River in Highland Beach (now Seabright and Sandy Hook), day-trippers and tourists from the cities in the north descended upon the Atlantic beaches. Wealthy and influential New Yorkers began to build summer homes near the Twin Lights. Soon the town of Highlands began to flourish. The Twin Lights once isolated from its neighbors now became the beacon for a thriving, vibrant community.
The Twin Lights made front-page news again in 1893 when the site was selected as the location for the first official reading of the Pledge of Allegiance as America's national oath of loyalty. This event coincided with the opening of the Colombian Exposition (aka World's Fair) in Chicago, and featured a grand naval flotilla off the coast of Sandy Hook. The Pledge of Allegiance event was held around a new addition to the Twin Lights the awe-inspiring, 135-foot Liberty Pole. During the 1890s and early 1900s, the Liberty Pole was the first piece of America seen by millions of immigrants as their ships steamed toward Ellis Island. In 1898, the South Tower received a new lens an ultra-bright bivalve design that emitted a 25 million candle power beam that lit up the sky as far as 70 miles away. The arc light at its center required a generator to be built on-site, making the Twin Lights the first electrically powered lighthouse in the country. In 1899, Guglielmo Marconi chose the Twin Lights to set up his history-making wireless telegraph. He transmitted messages from a boat offshore, which were then sent to a New York Newspaper for publication. These experiments established the commercial viability of wireless communication and provided the foundation for experiments and technology that led to the wireless devices we depend upon today. With the advent of new navigation technologies, the role of the Twin Lights in maritime safety diminished in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet once again, the site was selected for development and testing of cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs. In 1935, the U.S. Army began field-testing its new Mystery Ray, a name given by the press to what we now call radar. The radar experiments held at the Twin Lights not only helped the Allies win World War II, they led directly to the innovations that enable thousands of jetliners to safely share the sky.