History of Sandy Hook Lighthouse
By Ranger: Thomas J. Hoffman Park Historian
Since the days of Exploration and colonization, Sandy Hook and the nearby Navesink Highlands have been prominent landmarks for ships approaching Lower New York Harbor. Englishman Thomas Pownall sailed into the harbor in 1755 and noted that:
" The first land you discover in coming from the Sea is the high land of the Nave-Sinks... under the Navesinks stretching from their foot for about 4 miles to the right or northward of this high land (is) a neck of low sandy hills covered with cedars & holly, ending in a low sandy point...This was the first land of America that I saw...The Cedar point,.. was.. called by the Dutch Sandy Hoek. After having...come from the sea (and) within the Hook & under the pleasant feel of still Water, the Eye is delighted with the view of a most noble bay."
To enter the harbor, sailing ships carefully navigated a narrow, curving channel around the tip of Sandy Hook. Pownall's passage took place during good weather, but just six years later a number of shipwrecks occurred on the treacherous, unseen sandbars and shoals surrounding Sandy Hook. Severe financial losses from these shipwrecks made forty-three New York merchants petition the Colonial Assembly of New York in 1761. The merchants requested that a lighthouse be erected on Sandy Hook since "a more certain guide than the Highlands of Navesinks." was needed to guide ships safely into the harbor. The New York Assembly supported this proposal and passed "An Act for raising a sum not exceeding Three Thousand Pounds by way of Lottery for building a Light House" on Sandy Hook.
A committee of prominent New York citizens was authorized to establish the lottery and purchase "a small quantity of land" at the tip of Sandy Hook to build a Lighthouse. Negotiations with Robert Hartshorne, the owner of Sandy Hook, resulted in the purchase, on May 16,1762 of 4 acres of "barren, sandy soil...for the moderate price of 750 pounds." Because the lottery did not raise enough money to finance the construction of the lighthouse, a second lottery was held in 1763 to raise additional funds.
The June 18, 1764 edition of the New York Mercury Newspaper reported that: " On Monday Evening last June11, 1764 the New- York Light House 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, 29feet; and at the top of the wall, 15feet. 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 bottom to Top,103 Feet. This Structure, was undertaken by Mr. Isaac Conro of this City, and was carried on with the Expedition that the Difficulty attending to and fro on the occasion could possibly admit of; and is judged to be masterly finished."
To pay for the operation and maintenance of the new lighthouse, the Colony of New York authorized a tonnage tax of three pence per ton on ships sailing into the harbor. This enabled the Port of New York to maintain the tower, pay a keeper's salary, and make a small profit from any surplus tax money.
Early in the American Revolution, the expected arrival of the British Fleet made the lighthouse a military target. A patriot raiding party removed 8 copper lamps and 4 casks of whale oil from the lighthouse in March, 1776. In June, a daring attack to destroy the tower was attempted by Lieutenant-Colonel Benjamin Tupper and his soldiers. Tupper "ordered the artillery to play, which continued an hour, but found the walls so firm I could make no Impressions." In the face of stiff resistance from a British armed guard defending the lighthouse, and supported by a British Frigate in Sandy Hook Bay, Tupper called off the attack and withdrew his command. I n response to the raid, the British high command took steps to protect the key navigational aid by sending loyalists to fortify the lighthouse ad guard it from attack. Supported by the British Army and Navy, loyalists kept the "Lighthouse Fort" or "Refugees Tower" under British control for mast of the revolution.
After the Revolution, another "battle" took place between New York and New Jersey, over which colony had the right to keep the tonnage tax revenues raised by the lighthouse. The new federal government intervened and agreed to maintain and operate all of the nation's fourteen lighthouses. One of the first Acts of Congress, dated August 7, 1789, created the federal "Lighthouse Establishments." The Sandy Hook Lighthouse was ceded from state to federal ownership in 1790.
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