In 1764, the eight-year-old child prodigy Mozart was entertaining in Europe’s royal courts, Beethoven’s birth was still six years in the future, Thomas Jefferson would not pen the Declaration of Independence for a dozen more years, and the oldest lighthouse that is still standing in the United States was put into service.
The first landmark discernible by sailors approaching New York Harbor is the Navesink Highlands. Extending from the base of the headlands is a low-lying spit known as Sandy Hook, which stretches over four miles into the Atlantic and poses a serious navigational hazard for vessels seeking safe harbor.
Records show that a lighthouse at the tip of Sandy Hook had been suggested as early as 1679, but it wasn’t until several shipwrecks occurred in the first three months of 1761 that decisive action was taken. On March 13, 1761, forty-three prominent New York merchants successfully petitioned Caldweller Colden, President of His Majesty’s Council of New York, for a lighthouse to mark the entrance to New York Harbor.
Lotteries are apparently not a recent invention as one was proposed to raise funds to acquire land on Sandy Hook and to pay for construction of the lighthouse. By virtue of an Act of the Colony of New York, passed on May 19, 1761, a lottery was established to raise £3000. 10,000 tickets were to be sold at a price of 40 Shillings(£2). 1,684 tickets were to be “fortunate,” 8,316 blank, and 15% of the lottery sales would be retained for the lighthouse. The winning numbers were published in the October 5, 1761 edition of the New York Mercury.
The profit from the first lottery proved inadequate for the entire project, but it did at least fund the purchase of four acres on Sandy Hook from Esik and Richard Hartshorne. A second lottery, held on June 14, 1763, was authorized to raise an additional £3000 to see the lighthouse completed.
Originally called the New York Lighthouse, the tower on Sandy Hook was built of rubblestone under the guidance of Isaac Conro, a mason and builder from New York City. The beacon was first lighted on June 11, 1764, and a week later an article in the New York Mercury announced the lighting and described the lighthouse.
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.
As the lighthouse’s primary purpose was to guide vessels into New York Harbor, Jonias Smith, clerk of the Master and Wardens of the Port of New York, was authorized to collect three pence a ton from ships passing the lighthouse and entering the harbor. The money collected was then used to pay the keeper and purchase supplies like oil, tallow, and coal required at the lighthouse. In the first year, £487 was collected, easily covering the year’s expenses of £431. It seems the Port of New York had a self-sustaining venture as £451 was collected the next year, while expenses were only £407.
The tall lighthouse on the low-lying sandy spit was easily seen by mariners, but being the only structure of any height for several miles, it apparently was also susceptible to lightning strikes. In June of 1766, the New York Mercury reported:
The 26th Instant, the Lighthouse at Sandy Hook was struck by Lightning, and twenty panes of the Glass Lanthorn broke to pieces; the chimney and Porch belonging to the kitchen was broken down, and some people that were in the House received a little Hurt, but are since recovered. ‘Tis said the Gust was attended with a heavy shower of Hail.
Early in the Revolutionary War, the New York Congress resolved that the lighthouse should be destroyed or the lighting apparatus dismantled lest it fall into enemy hands. Major William Malcolm received orders in a letter dated March 6, 1776 to “take the glass out of the lantern, and save it if possible; but if you find this impracticable you will break the glass. You will also endeavor to pump the oil out of the cisterns into casks, or not being able to procure casks, you will pump it out onto the ground. In short, you will use your best discretion to render the lighthouse entirely useless.” Major Malcolm’s mission must have been partly successful as a letter to Colonel George Meade dated March 12 states: “Received from Wm. Malcolm eight copper lamps, two tackle falls and blocks, and three casks, and a part of a cask of oil, being articles from the lighthouse on Sandy Hook.”
Less than three months later, the British had the lighthouse repaired and back in operation. Next, a daring attack was led by Benjamin Tupper to destroy the lighthouse with cannon fire, but after an hour of volleys, he “found the walls so firm that the cannon fire could make no impression.” The stout lighthouse would remain under British control for most of the war.
Following the war, a feud over the lighthouse broke out between the states of New Jersey and New York. This disagreement was quickly defused when the Act of August 7, 1789 gave control of all lighthouses to the federal government, stating that "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."
In compliance to the Act, a lot of about four acres "at the point of Sandy Hook, in Monmouth County," was ceded to the United States by the State of New Jersey on November 16, 1790, and on March 1, 1804, the State of New Jersey "consented to the purchase of a lot on the north point of Sandy Hook, for the purpose of erecting a beacon." Over the years, several minor beacon lights have been placed on the spit, some paired with the main lighthouse to form a range light, to further help ships entering New York Harbor. In addition to maintaining the lighthouse, the keeper at Sandy Hook was also responsible for the smaller beacons. One of these, known as the north beacon was moved up the Hudson River in 1917, and is now known as the Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse.
In 1852 the Lighthouse Board reported "The tower of Sandy Hook … is now in a good state of preservation. Neither leaks nor cracks were observed in it. The mortar appeared to be good, and it was stated that the annual repairs upon this tower amount to a smaller sum than in the towers of any of the minor lights in the New York district. The illuminating apparatus is composed of eighteen 21-inch reflectors, and Argand lamps which were fitted new, according to the best information on the subject, in 1842." A fixed, third-order Fresnel lens was installed in the lighthouse in 1856 and remains in use.
In 1857, the lighthouse underwent a major refurbishing. A red brick lining was installed to reinforce the rubblestone walls, and a spiral iron staircase replaced the worn, wooden one. The keepers received the present dwelling in 1883, when the old dilapidated dwelling was razed and a new "substantial double frame dwelling with ample accommodations for the principal and assistant Keepers” was constructed.
In the 1890s, the peaceful life the keepers enjoyed on Sandy Hook was changed forever when Fort Hancock was created near the lighthouse and massive concrete gun batteries were placed nearby to defend the entrance to New York Harbor. The Sandy Hook Lighthouse has witnessed the progression of weapons firsthand, as first canons and later Nike missiles were deployed nearby.
In its bicentennial year, Sandy Hook Light was designated a National Historic Landmark, and a commemorative plaque was mounted on the tower as part of a celebration held at the site. Ownership of the lighthouse was transferred to the National Park Service in 1996. Unlike the situation at other lighthouses, shore erosion is not a threat at Sandy Hook. Originally standing 500 feet from the tip of the hook, Sandy Hook Lighthouse is now over a mile and a half away. The patriarch of America’s lighthouses remains in good condition, and with proper upkeep should be around for several more centuries.
|Position||40° 27' 42.8" N
074° 00' 07.3" W
|US Coast Guard Light List Number||35040|
|Light Characteristics||Fixed White|
|Focal Plane||88 Feet|
|Light Visual Range||19 Nautical Miles
|Color||White with red lantern|