Historic Structures

History of Navesink Light Station Navesink Light Station - Twin Lights Lighthouse, Highlands New Jersey

The Highlands of Navesink is a 200-foot-high peninsula protruding towards the Atlantic Ocean from New Jersey. It is protected by a low lying barrier beach known as Sandy Hook and the Shrewsbury River to the east, while surrounded by Sandy Hook Bay on the North, and the Navesink River to the south. In 1609, Robert Juet, a member of explorer Henry Hudson's crew aboard the ship Half Moon, wrote: "For to the Northward off us we saw high Hils [sic]. For the day before we found not above 2 Degrees of Variation. This is a very good Land to fall with, and a pleasant Land to see." There is no other point of land higher than the Navesink Highlands heading south along the United States coastline to Florida. To the north mariners would be near Maine before seeing other coastal formations with equal height. This distinction later made the Highlands an ideal landmark to find the narrow entrances to New York Harbor.

During the eighteenth century, the Highlands was used as a signaling post to warn the inhabitants of New York City of approaching enemy ships. As shipping into New York Harbor increased, a lighthouse was built on Sandy Hook in 1764. Although Navesink may have had some type of beacon, a traditional light station was not established until 1828. The government purchased 2 3/4 acres of land from Nimrod Woodward for $600 and contracted Charles H. Smith of Stonington, Connecticut, to build the two towers and a keeper's dwelling for $8,440. David Melville of Newport, Rhode Island, supplied the lamps and reflector system then used for illumination. The towers were outfitted at a cost of $1,840.36 The first keeper, Joseph Doty of Somerville, New Jersey, was appointed with an annual salary of $600 in May 1828.

The principal keeper at Navesink was allowed four assistants after the installation of the Fresnel lenses in 1841. Each assistant was paid 30 dollars a month. The 1852 Report of the Lighthouse Board to the Secretary of the Treasury described the division of duties as follows:
The principal keeper does not keep a watch during the night, but divides the four assistants into two watches, two for each tower, and alternating in their duties—the first watch from the time of lighting until midnight, and the second watch from midnight until daylight. The principal keeper generally retires to bed at nine o'clock, and is only called when something goes wrong.

The report went on to note that there were too many keepers at the station and put forward that one principal and two assistants were sufficient to perform the duties properly and efficiently and that no keeper, principal or otherwise should be exempted from keeping a regular watch.

The 1852 Report also commented on the deteriorated condition of the towers:
The two towers are very badly constructed of rubble stone, and their present condition is very bad, owing to leaks and cracks. There is no cellar for oil, nor storerooms in the towers for wicks, chimneys, cleaning-cloths, etc. The oil is kept on the ground floor, where the temperature is necessarily very variable.

The U.S. Lighthouse Board Annual Report of 1857 stated:

The two Lighthouse towers at Navesink, N.J., marking the approach to the bay of New York, are in a dilapidated condition, the consequence of the original bad materials and workmanship, and it has been represented that there is apprehension that they are not capable of standing much longer the heavy winter storms of the coast.

The position is one of great exposure, the lights of much importance, and it is believed it will not be safe to trust the stability of the present towers much longer. . . The estimated cost of construction of these two towers of cut stone, and fitting them with proper apparatus, is $72,941.

The proposal was submitted to Congress during the fiscal year ending June 1859, and $72,941 was appropriated in June of the following year. The Annual Report of 1861 indicated that:

the two first class light-house towers authorized to be erected at Navesink, New Jersey, entrance to New York bay, are near completion. The materials for these two towers had been contracted for in 1860, and nearly all delivered or ready for delivery early in the summer. There was a temporary suspension of the work after June 30, and resumed again soon after by authority. The old towers at this light station are in very bad condition, which made it of the greatest importance to complete the new ones without delay.

The new towers were lit on May 1, 1862. The Lighthouse Board had upgraded the second-order rotating light in the north tower replacing it with a fixed first-order light. It is not known exactly why this was done except to eliminate some confusion with the Sandy Hook light ship's two lights. The light ship was anchored in the Atlantic Ocean at the entrance to the Sandy Hook channel in view of the Navesink towers.

Once the towers, work room, and oil room were complete, the Board's Committee on Engineering urged that the construction of the dwelling be completed as the old keeper's dwelling was reported to be "not inhabitable or even safe." A report of unexpended balance on the light station was $19,157.75, with the estimate for the dwelling portion of the station as $11,251. The 1863 Annual Report indicated that "the dwellings for light-keepers at Navesink have been completed, and the new station and structures present a highly ornate and substantial appearance."

In 1883, mineral oil or kerosene was tested at Navesink as a fuel for first-order lamps. The 1883 Annual Report stated, "After successfully experimenting here for several weeks, a mineral-oil lamp was placed in the north tower, in place of the lard-oil previously used. This is the first instance in which mineral oil, has been used in a first-order lamp in this country." The Lighthouse Board was always looking for new or improved fuels to burn in the lamps. Lard oil was smoky and difficult to work with. Mineral oil burned a lot clearer and made a more brilliant light. A mineral oil lamp was placed in the south tower the following year and eventually became the most commonly used fuel source in American lighthouses. Because mineral oil is highly flammable, after the adoption of its use, light stations across the country needed to have oil houses built away from the towers to protect against accidental ignition. At Navesink, two oil storage houses were built; one in 1890 and a second in 1892.

The next significant event at Navesink occurred in 1898, when the Lighthouse Board purchased a lens from the French Government, which had been displayed at the Chicago's World Fair. Manufactured by Henri LePaute, "The lens consisted of 386 separate lenses around a central bull's eye. It was 9 feet in diameter and 5 feet high and when set in position resembles a clam shell." The new lens was designed for use in conjunction with an electric arc lamp and could produce a 25 million-candlepower light. After some indecision on the part of the Lighthouse Board about which light station should receive the lens, the Navesink south tower became its final destination. The Board thought that the importance of marking the entrance to New York harbor warranted placing the lens here. Since electricity was unavailable, a generating facility was built behind the lighthouse. An electrician was authorized by the Secretary of the Treasury to serve as a keeper, and maintain the electrical equipment. Producing a flash of 25,000,000 candlepower, the light was described as a "flash of artificial sheet-lightning." Flashing once every five seconds for duration of 1/10 of a second, it was visible 22 miles at sea. The powerful lens became one of the brightest beacons in the United States and there was little danger of it being mistaken for another lighthouse. It was so bright that the Lighthouse Board ordered solid metal panels be placed on the landward side of the south tower to alleviate complaints from neighbors who were kept up all night by the light.

Once installed in the south tower, the north tower light was no longer necessary and was reduced to backup status. Even though the new lens rivaled a first-order lens in size, it was actually of the second order. In 1917, the electrical producing equipment operating in the powerhouse needed costly repairs. To save money the Lighthouse Service switched to incandescent oil vapor lamps which greatly reduced the candlepower of the second-order lens. It was not until 1939 that commercial electricity became locally available and the light was returned to electricity at 9-million candlepower, again making it the brightest light in the United States.

In the 1930s the importance of the Navesink Light Station was seen as diminished because of the improved lightships marking the approaches to New York Harbor. New technology such as radar and improved floating navigational devices eventually made this powerful seacoast light obsolete. The lens was taken out of service in 1949, crated up, and sent to the St. George Lighthouse Depot on Staten Island for disposal. The lens was subsequently given to the Boston Museum of Science and, in 1979, returned to Navesink under the care of the Twin Lights Historical Society.

The U.S. Coast Guard declared the deactivated station surplus property in 1953, and in 1954, the General Services Administration turned the station over to the Borough of Highlands for use as a museum and public park. The Twin Lights Historical Society was formed to establish a museum with volunteers to staff it. Unable to keep up the required maintenance, the town approached the State of New Jersey to take over the facility. The New Jersey State Park Service, working with the Twin Lights Historical Society, and the Rumson Garden Club raised close to a million dollars for restoration of the site, which began in 1978. "Exterior stone and brick work was cleaned, repainted and repaired, public restroom facilities were added, and exterior walkways, overlooks, and landscaping created to complement the restored building." In 1987 the exhibits of the museum were redesigned to focus on the history of the lighthouse and its contribution to lighthouse technology and navigation.

Today the structure's fortresslike architecture provides an interesting contrast to other historic light stations and modern navigational aids. As a New Jersey State Park and Historic Site it is visited annually by 100,000 people, who have an opportunity to learn about its significant history.