TwHP Lessons

Navesink Lighthouse and Robbins Reef Lighthouse: Lighting the Way Through New York Bay

[Photo] Robbins Reef Lighthouse today
(U.S. Coast Guard)

[Photo] Navesink Lighthouse today
(Courtesy Twin Lights Historical Society)


y 1800 New York was America’s busiest harbor, but navigating it was difficult and dangerous.  Among other hazards, a series of shifting sandbars, some only 24 feet below the level of the water at low tide, extended across the entrance to the harbor. As maritime traffic and shipping increased during the 19th century, the number of shipwrecks also rose.  In response to the losses of lives and cargo, the federal government began to build lighthouses, fog horns, and other structures to warn mariners of obstacles and hazards and to help them find safe harbors.  Lighthouses are probably the best known of these “aids to navigation.”  Some of these towers, with lights that could be seen for miles, were located on land.  Others were built out in the open water.

Navesink is an excellent example of an onshore lighthouse.  Robbins Reef is a good example of an offshore tower.  Navesink is in Highlands, New Jersey; Robbins Reef is officially in New Jersey, but physically closer to the northern tip of Staten Island in New York.  These two historic lighthouses illustrate the impact of building materials, construction techniques, and technological advancements.  They also testify to the importance of maritime safety, especially during the period when water transportation of both cargo and passengers was at its height.

Many people still refer to Robbins Reef as “Kate’s Light” because of its connection to Kate Walker, principal keeper at the isolated lighthouse from 1894 to 1919. She served as principal keeper in spite of the fact that government regulations did not allow women to be in charge of an offshore lighthouse. When she retired after 19 years of service, she was asked about her difficult, isolated, and dangerous life.  Her modest reply was “It isn’t much of a story. Just keep the light burning and the fog-bell wound up and the siren ready all the time. That’s all.”

1William Hemmingway, “The Woman of the Light,” Harper’s Weekly, 14 August 1909, 11.


About This Lesson

Getting Started: Inquiry Question

Setting the Stage: Historical Context

Locating the Site: Maps
 1. New York Bay
 2. Third Lighthouse District in 1876

Determining the Facts: Readings
1. Navesink and Robbins Reef Lighthouses
2. Technological Advancements and  Experimentation at Navesink and Robbins  Reef Lighthouses
3. Keeping the Light

Visual Evidence: Images
 1. Entry for Robbins Reef in Light List of 1883
 2. Entry for Robbins Reef in Light List of 1901
 3. Navesink Lighthouse, circa 2000
 4. Robbins Reef Lighthouse, circa 1950
5. Fresnel lens on display at the World’s  Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893
 6. Kate Walker, Keeper at Robbins Reef

Putting It All Together: Activities
 1. Advancements in Lighting
 2. Living at a Lighthouse
 3. Transportation in the Local Community

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The lesson is based on the Navesink Light Station and the Robbins Reef Light Station, two of the thousands of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.



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