By Tom Hoffman, Park Historian, Sandy Hook Unit
In the long history of America's lighthouses a milestone event will take place this June when the historic Sandy Hook Lighthouse turns 250 years old. The Sandy Hook Lighthouse was lighted for the first time on June 11, 1764, so this June 11, 2014 marks the 250th anniversary of that event. To mark that historic occasion, the Sandy Hook Unit, Gateway National Recreation Area, will hold a celebration event on Saturday, June 14, 2014, from 11 am to 4 pm.
The celebration event on June 14th will include the Fife & Drum Corps band from Trenton Barracks to provide Colonial Era martial music, appropriate remarks by invited dignitaries, a short dramatization that tells the story of how and why the lighthouse was built in Colonial times, a Colonial Era children's games area where modern children can play the games that were popular with children of that era, and a commercial food & drink area to provide refreshments for sale during the day. Commemorative 250th anniversary souvenirs will also be offered for sale. Parking and attending the event is free, and will take place rain or shine. Ranger and park volunteer guided tours of the lighthouse tower will start at 12 noon to 4:30 pm on a first-come, first-served basis. For safety, children must be 48-inches tall to climb the lighthouse. For more information about the celebration event please call the visitor center at 732-872-5970.
Although the event will highlight the first lighting of the Sandy Hook Lighthouse in 1764, a number of Revolutionary War re-enactors will also be at the event to interpret the lighthouse's role in that conflict. During the revolution the British Army, navy, and loyalists guarded the lighthouse tower, and fought off several attacks on it by American forces. The re-enactors will have an encampment and present musket and cannon firing demonstrations, and also musket drills for children, on the Fort Hancock main parade field.
What makes the Sandy Hook Lighthouse so historically significant was that it was one of only eleven lighthouses built in the thirteen colonies during the colonial era, but, as the years went by, the Sandy Hook Lighthouse literally stood "the test of time" to outlast all of its contemporaries to become the oldest standing and oldest operating lighthouse in the United States.
Lighthouses were an important part in the commercial growth and wealth of the colonies. As colonial era port cities along the east coast grew in size and commercial status during the 1700's each colony's government determined the need for a lighthouse in their colony, financed its construction, and oversaw its operation. These lighthouses were built mainly with the intent to guide commercial sailing ships safely into and out of harbors and bays to increase trade and commerce for the colonies with the rest of the world.
Sandy Hook's strategic geographic location at the entrance into lower New York Harbor made it a prime location for a lighthouse to help guides sailing ships safely around its tip and into the harbor. However, the only thing that happened from time to time from 1680 to 1757 were merely proposals suggesting that a lighthouse be built at Sandy Hook.
With the commercial wealth and fortunes of both the colonial era merchants and royal governments in New York and New Jersey at stake, one would think that a lighthouse would have been built much earlier than when it was during the early 1760's. The catalyst that created the movement to build a lighthouse at Sandy Hook occurred during the winter of 1761. During the first three months of that year the merchants of New York lost 20,000 pounds due to shipwrecks which threatened their material wealth and financial resources. Due to their financial losses, forty-three merchants in New York banded together and, on March 13, 1761, sent a "Memorial" (a petition of facts) to New York Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden, President of His Majesty's Royal Council of New York.
The merchants urged Colden to recommend to the New York Royal Assembly that a lighthouse be erected at the north end of Sandy Hook, along with a house to shelter Sandy Hook Pilots (who, for a fee, safely guided ships into the harbor), the stationing of some whaleboats at Sandy Hook to transport the pilots out to approaching ships, and a small duty (tax) on the tonnage of ships entering the Port of New York.
Colden strongly agreed with the merchants and wrote to the Royal Council on April 3, 1761, that:
The Erecting of a Convenient Building for a Light-House near Sandy Hook is an object so worthy of your consideration, and a Provision for it, so essential to the welfare of our commercial interest, and the Preservation of a very useful Part of the community, that I cannot avoid recommending the Memorial I received on the subject to your closest Attention.
The council agreed with Colden and the Provincial Congress of the Colony of New York soon passed an Act on May 19, 1761, "…for raising the Sum of 3,000 pounds to be employed for and towards purchasing so much of Sandy-Hook as shall be necessary, and thereon to erect a proper Light House."
While all of the above was going on the merchants of New York apparently started negotiating during 1761 with the owners of Sandy Hook, brothers Robert and Esek Hartshorne, to buy land so that a lighthouse could be erected. The Hartshorne brothers' asking price for four acres of land overlooking the tip of Sandy Hook was 1,000 pounds. The merchants felt that this was too much to for pay for such a small amount of "barren, sandy soil," and that the Hartshorne brothers were being unreasonable and obstinate over their asking price. The merchants again turned to Lieutenant Governor Colden, asking him to interpose with Thomas Boone, Royal Governor of New Jersey were Sandy Hook was located, in the hope that Boone could get the New Jersey Assembly to compel the Hartshorne brothers to sell their land for a more reasonable price.
The outcome of all this was a reduced price for the land at Sandy Hook, for when a committee of four prominent New York merchants, John Cruger, Phillip Livingston, Leonard Lispenard, and William Bayard, signed a deed on May 20, 1762, to buy the four acres of land from Robert and Esek Hartshorne, the price was 750 pounds. Now that the land was obtained, the merchants turned to Mr. Isaac Conro, a mason, builder, and seller of building materials in New York City, to build the lighthouse. Since the deed was signed May 10, 1762, Conro probably had his labor force of blacksmiths, coppersmiths, artificers, and laborers, along with four oxen, one horse, two carts, and two boats at Sandy Hook building the stone lighthouse tower during the late spring and summer of 1762. The lighthouse was built on sand dunes overlooking the tip of the Hook, and was about 187 yards (561 feet) to high watermark on a due north line.
However, by the end of 1762 more money was needed to finish building the lighthouse. Given that the 1761 lottery raised 3,000 pounds, about half of that amount had to pay winning ticket holders, leaving the other half to buy the four acres of land and build the lighthouse and adjoining keeper's house. Since the four acres cost 750 pounds this left only 750 pounds for lighthouse and keeper's house construction. Since additional funds were needed to complete the lighthouse the Colony of New York passed another act on December 11, 1762. The lottery was drawn in New York on June 14, 1763, and raised 3,000 pounds to complete the lighthouse.
The June 18, 1764, edition of the NEW YORK MERCURY NEWSPAPER announced the lighting of the "New York Lighthouse" at Sandy Hook for the first time on Monday, June 11, 1764:
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 [lantern house] is 7 Feet High: the circumference 33 Feet. The whole construction 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. This structure was undertaken by Mr. Issac Conro of this City, and was carried on with all the Expedition that the Difficulty attending to and from on the Occasion could possibly admit of, and is judged to be masterly finished.
The reference to "48 Oil Blazes" indicated that either brass or copper "spider lamps", each containing a number of wicks in each lamp, and using whale oil, were employed to light the lighthouse. To pay for the upkeep, maintenance and operation of the lighthouse a three-pence per ton duty was imposed on ships using the channel into New York Harbor. The operating costs of the lighthouse during the first two years of operation averaged 419 pounds per year, while the duty tax levied on ship tonnage averaged 451 pounds per year, making for a modest profit of 32 pounds when it came to maintaining and operating the lighthouse.
The lighthouse went on to guide many a ship in and out of New York Harbor after it was completed. On June 11, 1964, the 200th anniversary of the lighting of Sandy Hook Lighthouse for the first time, the nation bestowed a great honor on the lighthouse by designating it a National Historic Landmark. At some time during 1960 and 1964 Sandy Hook Lighthouse was automated with a timer switch. Even this was replaced in 1989 when the U.S. Coast Guard decided to keep the light on 24/7, since a modern day, commercially made 1,000 watt electric light bulb is rated to stay on continuously for one year, and they have been found by Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Teams (ANT) to stay on up to one and a half years.
In 1995, the U.S. Coast Guard officially transferred ownership of the Sandy Hook Lighthouse tower to the National Park Service, but still retained ownership of the 3rd Order Fresnel Lens (installed in 1857) and modern lighting system to maintain the lighthouse as an active aid to navigation.
In 1998 Congress appropriated $800,000 to totally renovate the Sandy Hook Lighthouse tower both inside and out from top to bottom. Primary contractor Worchester-Eisenbrandt, Inc., started renovation work in September 1999 and completed work in mid-May 2000. That same year, the National Park Service signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the park's official friends group, The Sandy Hook Foundation, to raise $650,000 to completely renovate the Sandy Hook Lighthouse keeper's house, which was built next to the lighthouse in 1883. Also during 2000, Unilever Best Foods Company donated money to complete the renovation of the old keeper's barn to convert it into a combination exhibit shelter and emergency back-up generator to keep the lighthouse lighted during power outages.
The old keeper's house currently serves as the park's visitor center and is open every day 9 am to 5 pm except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day. Free ranger and park volunteer lighthouse tours are presented every half hour, with the first going up at 1 pm, and the last tour going up at 4:30 pm. Children must be 48-inches tall to climb the lighthouse.