Last updated: March 12, 2020
Navesink Lighthouse and Robbins Reef Lighthouse: Lighting the Way Through New York Bay
- Grade Level:
- Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
- Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
- Lesson Duration:
- 90 Minutes
- Common Core Standards:
- 6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10
- Additional Standards:
- US History Era 4 Standard 2A: The student understands how the factory system and the transportation and market revolutions shaped regional economic development.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies
- Thinking Skills:
- Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.
Learn about two historic lighthouses that illustrate how technological advancements contributed to maritime safety and about the isolated, often routine, but sometimes heroic life led by Kate Walker, keeper at Robbins Reef.
1. To explain how and why the federal government took an active role in protecting mariners by establishing lighthouses;
2. To describe how technological and building advancements affected lighthouses;
3. To compare and contrast the purpose, location, design, and technology of Navesink Lighthouse and Robbins Reef Lighthouse;
4. To list lighthouse keepers’ duties and explain how technological advancements affected these duties;
5. To analyze the history of transportation systems in their area
Time Period: 1820s to early twentieth century
Topics: The lesson could be used in U.S. history, social studies, and geography courses in units on nineteenth century and early twentieth century commerce or transportation, and to help students understand the role that maritime industries played in American history. The lesson could also be used to enhance studies related to the industrial revolution and women’s history.
By 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.”1
1William Hemmingway, “The Woman of the Light,” Harper’s Weekly, 14 August 1909, 11
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.
Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.
Maritime Heritage Program
This National Park Service program is devoted to interpreting and preserving America’s maritime heritage. Included on the website is detailed information about lighthouses, lighthouse keepers, the lighthouse establishment, and much more.
The National Register of Historic Places travel itinerary on the Maritime History of Massachusetts includes detailed information about lighthouses and other historic places that tell the story of the state's complex relationship with the sea. There are also additional Teaching with Historic Places lessons that consider important aspects of maritime history.
U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office
This website provides information about lighthouses and lighthouse keepers, as well as a variety of other topics. It also links to historical bibliographies, photographs, and images.
U.S. Coast Guard Light List
The Light List continues to be published by the U.S. Coast Guard to keep mariners informed about all aids to navigation in U.S. waters.
U.S. Library of Congress: Historic American Buildings Survey/ Historic American Engineering Record Collection
Search under the keyword "lighthouses" in the HABS/HAER collection for photographs and other documentation for 167 lighthouses nationwide. HABS/HAER is a division of the National Park Service.
National Archives and Records Administration
The historical records of the Bureau of Lighthouses and its predecessor agencies, beginning in 1785 and ending in 1951, are included in the Records of the United States Coast Guard (Record Group 26). A finding aid is available online.
Visit this website to learn more about the history of Navesink Lighthouse, see historical photos and images, and find out about visiting the Twin Lights Historic Site. You can view a visual tour of the lighthouse on the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry website.
New Jersey Lighthouse Society
This website is maintained by the New Jersey Lighthouse Society (NJLHS), a non-profit, educational corporation dedicated to the history and preservation of lighthouses everywhere, but particularly in the New Jersey, Delaware Bay, and New York Harbor areas.
Seeing the Light—Lighthouse Illumination Technology through the Years
This website provides information, photos, and diagrams related to lighthouse illumination technology from the earliest Argand lamps to the most modern equipment.
For Further Reading
Those wishing to learn more about The Lighthouse Board, lighthouses, lighting technology, and lighthouse keepers may want to read: Francis Ross Holland, Jr. America’s Lighthouses: An Illustrated History (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1988); David Veasey, Guarding New Jersey’s Shore: Lighthouses and Life-Saving Stations (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2000); J. Candace Clifford and Mary Louise Clifford, Nineteenth-Century Lights: Historic Images of American Lighthouses (Alexandria: Cypress Communications, 2000); Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford, Women who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers (Alexandria: Cypress Communications, 2000) and Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford and, Mind the Light Katie: The History of Thirty-Three Female Lighthouse Keepers (Alexandria: Cypress Communications, 2006).