Historic Structures

Navesink Light Station - Twin Lights Lighthouse, Highlands New Jersey

Date added: August 21, 2020 Categories: New Jersey Lighthouse

The Twin Lights at Navesink were established in 1828 on a promontory of land in Highlands, New Jersey, overlooking Sandy Hook peninsula and the Atlantic Ocean. The purpose of the light station was to guide shipping in and out of New York Harbor. The lighthouse's "twin" or "double" towers gave it a distinct appearance, preventing mariners from confusing the lights at Navesink with Sandy Hook Light about five miles to the north and the Sandy Hook Lightship nearby. The original twin towers were replaced in 1862 with the current castle-like structure which continued to serve as part of a system of navigational aides for the New York Harbor area until the station was decommissioned in 1949.

In the early 1820s, the federal government decided that the lighthouse at Sandy Hook was not entirely meeting the needs of mariners in the region. The Highlands hills, used since the early 1700s as an observation post, became a logical place to establish a new seacoast beacon. The Navesink Light Station was constructed there in 1828 with two towers (and thus two lights), so that it might be distinguishable to mariners from Sandy Hook Light Station, which was located just five miles to the north and only had a single light. When the station was rebuilt in 1826, it continued to have two towers and two lights. From 1828 until 1949, the twin towers of Navesink served as one of the principal aids to navigation for vessels entering the United States' busiest port—New York harbor—and the station had the distinction of being the first in the United States to test several important lighthouse technologies. The revolutionary Fresnel lens, the use of mineral oil, and an electric flash bivalve lens were tested at Navesink before being put into wider use by the lighthouse establishment. In 1899 the station became the site of the first United States demonstration of commercial wireless telegraph. Furthermore, the fortress-like appearance of the 1862 light station was unique in American lighthouse design which had been standardized by the United States Lighthouse Board in the 1850s.

Built as part of a system of aids to navigation which marked the path into the Port of New York, the towers at Navesink played an important role in assisting the growth of commerce of this nation. New York served as the country's largest and most active port when maritime transportation was at it height in the United States, both in terms of cargo and passengers. After the opening of the Erie Canal in 1824, goods and people passed through New York to and from the interior of the country at an exponential rate. New York also served as the distribution point for goods arriving from European and southern markets.

The lights at Navesink are among the few remaining intact twin light stations still in existence in the United States. Several multiple lights were built in the early days of lighthouse engineering so that one lighthouse could be distinguished from others along the coast. In the case of Navesink, the double lights distinguished it from the nearby light at Sandy Hook. At one time there were seven sets of twin lights and one triple light, all on the Atlantic coast. The other twin lights were Plymouth (Gurnet) Lights, Massachusetts (1769); Newburyport Harbor Lights, Plum Island, Massachusetts (1788); Bakers Island Lights, Massachusetts (1789); Chatham Lights, Massachusetts (1808); Matinicus Rock Lights, Maine (1827); Cape Elizabeth Lights, Maine (1828); Cape Ann (Thacher Island), Massachusetts (1771, rebuilt 1861); North Point Lights, Maryland (1833); and the Three Sister Lights, Nauset Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts (1838). The only twin lights left fully intact are Navesink and Cape Ann. Of the others, the tower at Cape Elizabeth has been modified; the towers serving Three Sisters have been modified and moved; a lantern is missing on one tower at Matinicus; and all other former twin light stations have only a single tower or no longer exist as in the case of North Point in Maryland. The development and installation of revolving lenses, whose distinctive flash signal served to distinguish lighthouses, ended the need for twin lights. In the case of Navesink, the two tower characteristic had been established in 1828 and remained when the newer towers were constructed in 1862.

In 1822, French physicist Augustin Fresnel developed a lens bearing his name which evolved into an optic that revolutionized the lighting of lighthouses in Europe. Similar to a glass beehive in appearance, Fresnel's circular glass lens surrounded a light source at the center; catadioptric prisms were added at the top and bottom to refract the light into a concentrated horizontal beam. After hearing much criticism of the lights in American waters, Congress sent Commodore Matthew Perry to France to obtain two Fresnel lenses in 1838. After his return, the first-order lens was placed in the Navesink's south tower and the second-order lens in the north tower in 1841, thus making them the first light towers in the country to use the revolutionary lighting devices.

The purchase and installation of the lenses cost $24,000. Mr. Bernard, referred to as a 'French artisan,' an associate of Henry LePaute, manufacturer of these extraordinary lenses, came over from France to oversee their installation. The original intended recipients of the first French lenses were nearby Sandy Hook Light and Isle of Shoals Light on White Island in New Hampshire. However, upon examination, Mr. Bernard found the diameter of the top of the lantern at Sandy Hook to be too small to accommodate the larger lantern required for housing the fixed lens. Also the tower was not of sufficient elevation to take full advantage of the lens. The Navesink towers became the obvious substitute—each had a diameter of 16 feet at their tops and was 246 feet above sea level. A lantern sent from France was used to house the revolving lens and a second lantern was fabricated on site for the fixed lens.

Stephen Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of the U.S. Treasury, who oversaw the Lighthouse Service, reported in 1841, "The cost of these lenses ... is nothing compared to the beauty and excellence of the light they afford. They appear to be the perfection of apparatus for Lighthouse purposes, having in view only the superiority of the light, which is reported by pilots to be seen in clear weather a distance of forty miles."

The lenses were praised by mariners and seen as far more effective than the reflector system they replaced. Lt. David D. Porter, U.S. Naval Commander of the U.S. Mail Steamer Georgia, stated, "The Navesink fixed and revolving lights, I consider the only perfect lights on our coast, not only as regards regularity of lighting, but in the brilliancy of the light." Lt. T. A. Jenkins of the U.S. Coast Survey reported that "the French lens lights at Navesink, New Jersey and Sankaty Head, Nantucket, are, in the point of brilliancy and range, far superior to any other lights I have seen in this country."

Although the lenses were seen to be enormously successful, it took enormous pressure and a total reorganization of the administration of lighthouses under the U.S. Lighthouse Board in 1852, to acquire them for all American lighthouses. The Board reported that "the lights at Navesink (two lenses) and the second order lens light at Sankaty Head, Nantucket, are the best lights on the coast of the United States" and that they "are to be considered, as a general rule, equal to European lights of the same classes." The report also stated "that the Fresnel lens is greatly superior to any other mode of Lighthouse illumination, and in point of economy is nearly four times as advantageous as the best system of reflectors and Argand lamps." When comparing the lights at Navesink with the light at nearby Sandy Hook the report concluded that "the relative useful effect of the Navesink and Sandy Hook lights is in the proportion of 5.2 to 1: or, the Navesink lights are 5.2 more powerful and effective than the Sandy Hook Light." Although Fresnel lenses required a large initial investment, they required smaller quantities of costly whale oil than was needed to light a system of lamps and reflectors, and thus over the long term were less expensive to operate. By the start of the Civil War, the vast majority of United States lighthouses possessed the superior Fresnel lenses.

In 1883, kerosene, or mineral oil, was first tested in the first-order lamp at Navesink. This illuminant proved highly successful and soon replaced lard oil as the standard fuel for lighthouse illumination. Later, in 1898, Navesink would display a bivalve-type Fresnel lenses using the first electric arc lamp in the United States. The bivalve lens, shaped like a clam shell, combined with the electric arc lamp produced a more powerful light than its "drum-style" counterpart.

Joseph Lederle submitted sketches for the Navesink Light Station in August 1860 and later, as a U.S. Lighthouse Board Superintendent of Construction, oversaw its construction. 28 Lederle was appointed Acting Engineer for the Third Lighthouse District in October 1862. He worked for the Third Lighthouse District, headquartered in New York, for nearly a decade, resigning in October 1871. It is not known what other lighthouses Lederle designed during his career with the Lighthouse Board. After resigning, he eventually opened his own architectural practice on Staten Island and is listed as having an office there until his death in 1895.

The design of Navesink Light Station is that of a fortress. Although the U.S. Lighthouse Board began to standardize lighthouse designs in the 1850s, no other United States lighthouse repeats the design used at Navesink or even resembles its unique appearance. Built during a period when massive Government architecture was in vogue, the design is reminiscent of the "battle gothic" style used in institutional buildings such as those built at Virginia Military Institute and the Old Louisiana State Capitol. European lighthouses that incorporated many elements of castles in their designs might have influenced Lederle.

The castle-like appearance of Navesink is unusual, but the two towers makes it quite distinctive. Early on, the Lighthouse Board experimented with "twin" or "double" lights in locations where light stations were close together. In the case of Navesink, the Lighthouse Board wanted to ensure mariners did not mistake it for the Sandy Hook Light just five miles away or confuse it with the lightship stationed just off Sandy Hook. Navesink is the only surviving set of twin lights where the towers are incorporated into a single building.

The elevation of the grounds around the lighthouse made it an ideal spot to conduct communication activities. Colonists established an outpost here in 1746 to send warning signals to the colony of New York about approaching French war ships. During the Revolutionary war General George Washington stationed a militia post to monitor British navy movements in Sandy Hook Bay. Even after the construction of the lighthouses, the hills remained an important communication center with the establishment of several different telegraph companies. In 1829, the Merchant's Exchange, a commodity exchange for buying and selling goods, erected a semaphore tower here. Another tower had previously been erected in nearby Sandy Hook in 1827.

The tower was used to relay messages between ships passing Sandy Hook and the Exchange's building in Manhattan, New York. The New York-Sandy Hook Telegraph Company, using magnetic telegraph equipment, replaced the semaphore in 1854. Other telegraph companies would follow including the Western Union in 1872, and the Postal Telegraph in 1898, who competed against each other sending messages about passing maritime traffic to clients around the country.

In 1899, Guglielmo Marconi placed an antenna and receiving station at the Navesink Light Station to demonstrate his wireless telegraph. Marconi had studied the works of several inventors experimenting with electromagnetic waves. He conducted his own experiments leading to the development of commercial wireless telegraph equipment that would become the forerunner of modern radio communications. By 1896 Marconi had patented a wireless telegraph system in England demonstrating it in several British locations including sending a signal across the English Channel. The New York Herald newspaper had hired him to bring his wireless telegraph to the United States and report on the 1899 America's Cup yacht races being held off the tip of Sandy Hook, New Jersey. This demonstration worked so well that Marconi expanded his American operations, establishing the nation's first commercial wireless telegraph station at Navesink capable of sending and receiving messages on a regular basis. Eventually Marconi ship to shore communications equipment would become standard on ocean going vessels.

The United States Navy, which had observed Marconi's operation at Navesink, saw the value of using the light station for wireless telegraph. The Navy's Bureau of Equipment was instructed to build a small house on the lighthouse property and set it up for wireless operations sometime after 1903. Originally the intentions were to use Marconi's equipment, but the Navy could not come to terms with the inventor and they decided to use a competitor's wireless set instead. The military operated wireless station was short lived. By 1909 the Navy had established a more favorable location near Fire Island, New York and the Navesink station was abandoned. The Postal Telegraph Company eventually purchased the structure and moved it from the lighthouse grounds to their property making living quarters for the telegraph operator. In 1985 through a land acquisition program the State of New Jersey purchased the former Postal Telegraph Company complex. The Navy telegraph building and Postal Telegraph Tower base are still standing as part of that acquisition and are administered as part of the Twin Lights Historic Site.

The United States Army also used the towers at the light station as a test site for experimental electronics and detection devices. From July 30 to August 9, 1935 heat-seeking equipment know as thermopiles were used to track ships approaching New York Harbor. The Army Signal Corp was experimenting with various methods of doing this and needed a high vantage point to test their equipment. The unparalleled view from the hill of the Navesink Light Station provided that vantage point. The tests required the use of a powerful searchlight, so the Lighthouse Service issued a notice to mariners warning them of its use. The notice attracted local attention with the Long Branch Record newspaper carrying a headline that said, "Ray Which Detects Ships Off Shore To Be Tested Secretly at Highlands." The New York Times noted the tests as well printing their headline as "Mystery Ray Sees Enemy At 50 Miles."

Four years later in 1939 the Army Signal Corp was again at Navesink Light Station. This time it was to test the effects of higher altitudes on long-range radar sets. The Lighthouse Service permitted the Army to take over half of the lighthouse reservation including some interior sections in the north wing. Photographs show several radar sets and equipment huts on the grounds of the lighthouse. Once testing was completed all evidence of these devices and accompanying buildings were removed.