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Setting the Stage

The sea has played an important role in transportation and commerce throughout our nation’s history.  Unfortunately, dependence on water transportation inevitably resulted in shipwrecks, causing the death of sailors and passengers and the loss of cargo in the 18th and 19th centuries.  New York Harbor provided a safe haven for vessels during bad weather.  Its geographic location also was ideal for taking advantage of transatlantic, coastal, and inland trade. The colony of New York took action in 1764 to improve access to New York Harbor, already a busy and dangerous shipping area.  It conducted a lottery and raised funds to build Sandy Hook Lighthouse.  In 1789, the newly established federal government took over responsibility for constructing, operating, and maintaining lighthouses, buoys, markers, and other “aids to navigation” nationwide.

Traffic through the port of New York continued to increase, with hundreds of vessels entering and departing daily.  By 1797, New York Harbor was the nation’s leading port, surpassing both Boston and Philadelphia in both cargo and passenger traffic. After the Erie Canal opened in 1824, the volume of goods and the number of people passing through New York on the way to and from the nation’s interior grew rapidly.  New York also served as the distribution point for goods arriving from European and southern markets.  More than a third of the world’s foreign trade passed through the Narrows, the tidal strait connecting Upper New York Bay and Lower New York Bay.

By the mid-1820s, the federal government decided that Sandy Hook Lighthouse was not entirely meeting the needs of regional mariners.  During the following years it constructed many additional lighthouses to guide ships safely through the dangerous waters of New York Bay. Navesink Light was established in 1828 and Robbins Reef Light in 1839. 



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