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the Readings


Inquiry Question

Historical Context


Reading 2
Reading 3



Table of

Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Navesink and Robbins Reef Lighthouses

Navesink Light Station was established by the federal government in 1828 on a coastal bluff about 200 feet above sea level in Highlands, New Jersey.  This is the highest point of land on the Atlantic Coast from New Jersey to Florida. The light station originally consisted of two rubblestone towers and a separate keeper’s house.1 Navesink’s two lights helped ships tell it apart from the Sandy Hook Lighthouse about five miles to the north and the Sandy Hook Lightship located offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. Robbins Reef Lighthouse is located about one mile north of Staten Island on a dangerous rocky underwater ledge.  Established by the federal government in 1838, it was the first lighthouse built offshore in the water of New York Bay.  It consisted of an octagonal stone tower resting on a granite-block pier. It. Navesink and Robbins Reef worked in conjunction with Sandy Hook and other aids to navigation to safely guide mariners through the Main Channel, into Lower New York Bay, through the Narrows and into Upper New York Bay.

By 1851, the federal government had received numerous complaints about the lighthouse system, including faulty construction, inadequate visibility and poor placement.  In response, a group of distinguished military officers and civilian scientists gathered to conduct a large-scale investigation of existing lighthouses.  The investigation determined that many lighthouses were in poor condition and therefore unable to meet mariners’ needs. In 1852, the federal government formed the Lighthouse Board, made up of the individuals who conducted the earlier investigation.  The Board was responsible for all duties related to lighthouses and to improve upon them by using better building materials, new construction methods, and advancements in lighting technology.

The newly formed Lighthouse Board presented a report to Congress based on the recent investigations of the quality of America’s lighthouses. After visiting Navesink Light Station, the Board concluded, “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, no storerooms in the tower for wicks, chimneys, cleaning cloths, &c. The oil is kept on the ground-floor of the towers, where the temperature is necessarily very variable.” The report added, “The dwellings and out buildings are all out of order, and require repairs.” On the other hand, the Board considered the Robbins Reef tower “well-built, dry, and in good preservation.” The biggest problem was the light itself, which the Lighthouse Board described as uneconomical and “wasteful,” “badly placed,” “in very bad order” and “dirty.” Since the tower was in good condition at the time of the 1851 inspection, it would be several years before it was finally replaced with a new one.2

The Lighthouse Board replaced the deteriorating Navesink towers and associated buildings in 1862 with a sturdy, fortress-like structure consisting of “twin” towers connected by keepers’ quarters and work rooms. The entire structure was made of cut sandstone blocks and brick. Although the U.S. Lighthouse Board began standardizing 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 architecture was popular for government buildings, the design looks much like a military fort. The architect, Joseph Lederle, might have been influenced by European lighthouses that incorporated many elements of castles in their designs. The castle-like appearance of Navesink is unusual, but the two towers make it quite distinctive. Early on, the lighthouse service experimented with “twin” or “double” lights in locations where lighthouses were close together, but advancements in lighting technology related to the development of the Fresnel lens eliminated the need for two towers. Navesink is the only surviving set of twin lights where the towers are part of a single building.

In 1883, the granite Robbins Reef light tower was replaced by a four-story, conical, iron-plate tower containing living space for two keepers. It was built upon the original pier. After 1840, cast iron was increasingly used for construction purposes in the United States because it was a readily available, sturdy, and economical building material. The first iron light towers designed and constructed by engineers and architects employed by the Lighthouse Board resembled early stone and brick towers. The iron towers were often lined in brick for added stability and increased insulation. For offshore sites, like Robbins Reef, a standard design was developed for the superstructures and used frequently in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. The specifications and plans for the cast-iron lighthouses were printed in large quantities and distributed to companies interested in competing for the federal construction jobs. Much of the tower was cast at foundries and fitted together off-site for preliminary approval by lighthouse engineers. This included the tower and floor plates, and architectural details such as the window surrounds, the brackets supporting the galleries, and the railing posts. The parts were numbered, the structure was taken apart, and then the parts were shipped to the location of the lighthouse. Once the foundation was in place, the light tower would be erected in just a few days time, although finishing work such as putting in windows, hanging doors, and laying floor boards extended the completion time.

In order for mariners to distinguish lighthouses like Robbins Reef from other nearby lighthouses during daylight hours, the towers were painted in different colors or painted with strips or other distinguishable markings. When the cast-iron tower was erected at Robbins Reef, it was painted brown. However, by 1890 the color scheme or “day-mark” had changed slightly. The tower was painted brown from the base to the top of the second level and white above that to the lantern, which was painted black.

Questions for Reading 1

1. How were the locations for the Navesink and Robbins Reef lights chosen?

2. Why was each lighthouse rebuilt during the second half of the 19th century?

3. Why did the architects, engineers, and builders decide to use the designs they did at these two lighthouses? Why might cast iron be more practical than stone or brick for an offshore lighthouse like Robbins Reef?

4. How could mariners tell the difference between lighthouses of same or similar design during the day?

Reading 1 was compiled from “Navesink Light Station” (Monmouth County, New Jersey) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2005 and “Robbins Reef Light Station” (Hudson County, New Jersey) National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2004.

1 Groups of buildings were often called “light stations.” “Light station” is also the general term that includes both lighthouses and lightships..
2 U. S. Lighthouse Board, “Report of Light-House Board, dated Washington City, January 30, 1852,” Record Group 26, Clippings File, National Archives and Records Administration.


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