Small peninsula, rich in history
For centuries, the safest way to sail into New York Harbor was by hugging the shore of Sandy Hook, where the water was deepest. This six mile peninsula had an outsize influence on the safety of the harbor and the defense of New York City. From its days as a British colony and outpost to the era of nuclear missiles, Sandy Hook lighted the paths of seafarers and protected New Yorkers from potential attack and invasion. Since the Federal government completed purchase of the entire peninsula in 1814, it was spared the commercial development that dominates much of the New Jersey coast. In 1982, the Sandy Hook peninsula was designated as the Fort Hancock and Sandy Hook Proving Ground National Historic Landmark.
Sandy Hook includes the oldest surviving lighthouse in what is now the United States. Built in 1764, it is still in use today. The British Army captured the lighthouse in 1776 and held it until the evacuation of New York in 1783. At least once the Continental Army tried to knock it down. Sandy Hook's maritime history includes the heroic U.S. Life Saving Service, which saved passengers and crew from shipwrecks. The distinctive structures of the USLSS can still be seen here today. The Sandy Hook Lighthouse was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964.
Sandy Hook's history as a military location began with the American Revolution, when British and Loyalist soldiers occupied the Hook for almost the entire war. U.S. defenses at Sandy Hook took place in fits and spurts during the War of 1812 and the Civil War. The "Fortifications at Sandy Hook" was renamed Fort Hancock in 1895, beginning the Army's permanent operational defensive fortifications of the Hook that spanned the Spanish-American War to the age of nuclear missiles--missiles which were housed here. Most of the fort's iconic yellow brick buildings survive.
An area that overlaps Fort Hancock in both time and space, the Sandy Hook Proving Ground was established by the U.S. Army in 1874 as a place to test new weaponry. The Proving Ground moved to Aberdeen, Maryland in 1919. By then, Fort Hancock had also been established at Sandy Hook.
Military history enthusiasts can check out the New York-Philadelphia Coastal Artillery system (1944), which included Sandy Hook. The file is very large and takes time to download. Study 1935 Army maps of all the forts which are now part of Gateway: Hancock, Wadsworth and Tilden.
The history of Highlands as a recreational beach resort overlaps areas which are now part of the national park. The impressive structures of Highlands Beach as a Jersey Shore destination exist today only in postcards.