The first landmark discernible by sailors approaching New York Harbor is the Navesink Highlands. Extending from the base of the headlands is a low-lying spit known as Sandy Hook, which stretches over four miles into the Atlantic and poses a serious navigational hazard for vessels seeking safe harbor.
Records show that a lighthouse at the tip of Sandy Hook had been suggested as early as 1679, but it wasn’t until several shipwrecks occurred in the first three months of 1761 that decisive action was taken. On March 13, 1761, forty-three prominent New York merchants successfully petitioned Caldweller Colden, President of His Majesty’s Council of New York, for a lighthouse to mark the entrance to New York Harbor.
The profit from the first lottery proved inadequate for the entire project, but it did at least fund the purchase of four acres on Sandy Hook from Esik and Richard Hartshorne. A second lottery, held on June 14, 1763, was authorized to raise an additional £3000 to see the lighthouse completed.
Originally called New York Lighthouse, the tower on Sandy Hook was built of rubblestone under the guidance of Isaac Conro, a mason and builder from New York City. The beacon was first lighted on June 11, 1764, and a week later an article in the New York Mercury announced the lighting and described the lighthouse.
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 is 7 Feet high; the circumference 33 Feet. The whole constructure 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.
As the lighthouse’s primary purpose was to guide vessels into New York Harbor, Jonias Smith, clerk of the Master and Wardens of the Port of New York, was authorized to collect three pence a ton from ships passing the lighthouse and entering the harbor. The money collected was then used to pay the keeper and purchase supplies like oil, tallow, and coal required at the lighthouse. In the first year, £487 was collected, easily covering the year’s expenses of £431. It seems the Port of New York had a self-sustaining venture as £451 was collected the next year, while expenses were only £407.
The tall lighthouse on the low-lying sandy spit was easily seen by mariners, but being the only structure of any height for several miles, it apparently was also susceptible to lightning strikes. In June 1766, the New York Mercury reported:
The 26th Instant, the Lighthouse at Sandy Hook was struck by Lightning, and twenty panes of the Glass Lanthorn broke to pieces; the chimney and Porch belonging to the kitchen was broken down, and some people that were in the House received a little Hurt, but are since recovered. ‘Tis said the Gust was attended with a heavy shower of Hail.
Early in the Revolutionary War, the New York Congress resolved that the lighthouse should be destroyed or the lighting apparatus dismantled lest it fall into enemy hands. Major William Malcolm received the following orders in a letter dated March 6, 1776: “take the glass out of the lantern, and save it if possible; but if you find this impracticable you will break the glass. You will also endeavor to pump the oil out of the cisterns into casks, or not being able to procure casks, you will pump it out onto the ground. In short, you will use your best discretion to render the lighthouse entirely useless.” Major Malcolm’s mission must have been partly successful as a letter to Colonel George Meade dated March 12 states: “Received from Wm. Malcolm eight copper lamps, two tackle falls and blocks, and three casks, and a part of a cask of oil, being articles from the lighthouse on Sandy Hook.”
Following the revolution, a feud over the lighthouse broke out between the states of New Jersey and New York. This disagreement was quickly defused when the Act of August 7, 1789 gave control of all lighthouses to the federal government, stating that “the necessary support, maintenance and repairs of all lighthouses beacons, buoys, and public piers erected, placed or sunk before the passing of this act, at the entrance of, or within any bay, inlet, harbor or port of the United States, for rendering the navigation thereof easy and safe, shall be defrayed out of the treasury of the United States.”
In compliance to the act, a lot of about four acres “at the point of Sandy Hook, in Monmouth County,” was ceded to the United States by the State of New Jersey on November 16, 1790, and on March 1, 1804, the State of New Jersey “consented to the purchase of a lot on the north point of Sandy Hook, for the purpose of erecting a beacon.”
One of the first duties of the Lighthouse Board, formed in 1851, was to examine the condition of the country’s lighthouse establishment. As part of their report, dated January 1852, the Board submitted the following on Sandy Hook Lighthouse and David Patterson, its keeper:
There is but one keeper allowed to this station, composed of the main and two beacon-lights, at the distance of about one mile the one from the other, containing 32 lamps and reflectors.
To perform the duty of lighting and extinguishing the 32 lamps at this station properly, it would require the keeper to walk about three miles, morning and evening, to the entire neglect of the lamps first lighted; rendering it utterly impossible to attend properly upon them during the entire night.
The present keeper employs a person (a small increase of salary having been allowed him to enable him to do so) to assist him in the performance of his duties; but the small sum allowed does not enable him to obtain the services of such a person as so responsible and important a trust demands.
The fact that there is only one keeper at Sandy Hook, while there are five at Navesink, cannot fail to be remarked upon. …
The two beacons are wooden structures, on stone foundations. Exteriors recently painted; interiors unfinished, and in bad order. The glass of the lanterns is of a very small size. Each beacon has seven lamps and fourteen-inch reflectors.
Over the years, several minor beacon lights have been placed on the spit, some paired with the main lighthouse to form range lights to further help ships entering New York Harbor. In addition, a lightship was anchored offshore. Assistant keepers were finally assigned to Sandy Hook Lighthouse in 1854, and they helped to maintain the main light and the beacon lights, until dwellings were built at the beacon lights and they received dedicated keepers. A fog bell followed by powerful fog signals were used at the east beacon to aid mariners during periods of limited visibility.
In 1857, the lighthouse underwent a major refurbishing. A red brick lining was installed to reinforce the rubblestone walls, and a spiral iron staircase replaced the worn, wooden one. The keepers received the present dwelling in 1883, when the old dilapidated dwelling was razed and a new substantial double frame dwelling with ample accommodations for the principal and assistant keepers was constructed.
In the 1890s, the peaceful life the keepers enjoyed on Sandy Hook was changed forever when Fort Hancock was created near the lighthouse and massive concrete gun batteries were placed nearby to defend the entrance to New York Harbor. Sandy Hook Lighthouse has witnessed the progression of weapons firsthand, as first canons and later Nike missiles were deployed nearby. As it interfered with the gun batteries at Fort Hancock, the metal tower used at the east beacon was discontinued in 1917 and later moved up the Hudson River, where it is now known as Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse.
An electric generating station had been built on Sandy Hook in 1888 to light buoys marking Gedney’s Channel, and wires were run from this station to Sandy Hook Lighthouse and South Hook Beacon in 1896. On May 9, 1896, a 150-candlepower electric lamp took the place of a 77-candlepower oil lamp atop Sandy Hook Lighthouse. When gas buoys took the place of the electric buoys, the power station was shut down and a kerosene lamp was again used in Sandy Hook Lighthouse. On November 15, 1906, a kerosene oil vapor lamp was installed in the lantern room. The operation of this new light source proved erratic at first, requiring Keeper Samuel Jewell to climb the tower’s 108 steps numerous times during the night. These frequent trips took a toll on Jewell’s heart, and in 1909, he was forced to resign after being in charge of the light for twenty-four years. In 1903, a shell exploded in a twelve-inch, breech-loading mortar on Sandy Hook and sent pieces of the fifteen-ton gun raining down all over the hook. A newspaper reported: “A piece of the mortar demolished the bicycle of S.P. Jewell, the keeper of the Sandy Hook Lighthouse. He was not on the bicycle.”
In its bicentennial year, 1964, Sandy Hook Lighthouse was designated a National Historic Landmark, and a commemorative plaque was mounted on the tower as part of a celebration held at the site. Ownership of the lighthouse was transferred to the National Park Service in 1996. Unlike the situation at other lighthouses, shore erosion is not a threat at Sandy Hook. Originally standing 500 feet from the tip of the hook, Sandy Hook Lighthouse is now over a mile-and-a-half away. The patriarch of America’s lighthouses remains in good condition, and with proper upkeep should be around for several more centuries.
Sandy Hook Lighthouse closed to visitors in 2017, but reopened nine months later, in June 2018. As part of the renovation work, the lighthouse received fresh coats of paint, new metal roofing, restored windows, and some interior work.