A lighthouse is by definition, a tall building set on the coast with a light in its tower to warn ships of the presence of dangerous rocks or shores. I have long loved lighthouses…their history, the ships they protected, and the place you find them. These days, there might not be as much need for lighthouses, because of GPS, but GPS can fail, computers can crash, and some solar activity can affect GPS too. There are lots of reasons why it can fail, so these days, lighthouses might be considered a…backup plan. You never know when they might be needed, and that is not the time to find out that you don’t have them.

The lighthouse at Sandy Hook, in what is now New Jersey, was put in use on June 11, 1764. It was needed badly, and the Provincial Congress of New York orchestrated two lotteries to raise money for its construction. As with many projects, things moved slowly. The lighthouse was first suggested for Sandy Hook nearly a century before, but it was finally initiated by Colonial Governor Edmund Andros. It finally became a priority 43 New York merchants, lost 20,000 pounds of sterling from shipwrecks in early 1761. Suddenly, it was really important. to protect those ships and their cargo. In the 27 months that the light house at Sandy hook stood, she had protected many ships.

Then, on March 6, 1776, a committee of the New York Provincial Congress instructs Major William Malcolm to dismantle the Sandy Hook lighthouse. The territory was in dispute, and Major Malcolm’s task was to prevent the lighthouse from helping the British to reach New York City. The Congress wanted Malcolm to remove the lens and lamps so that the lighthouse could no longer warn ships of the rocky shore. Major Malcolm succeeded. Colonel George Taylor reported six days later that Malcolm had “given him eight copper lamps, two tackle falls and blocks, and three casks, and a part of a cast of oil from the dismantling of the beacon.” While the removal would most certainly mean the loss of ships and lives, it was deemed collateral damage, even if some of the ships were friendlies.

While the lighthouse removal was a success, it did not keep the British from invading New York. They were soon able to put the lighthouse back into service by installing lamps and reflectors. The Patriots attempted to knock the light out again on June 1, 1776, by placing cannon on boats and attempting to blow away the British equipment. They managed some damage before being chased away. The new states of New Jersey and New York bickered over ownership of the lighthouse, until the federal government assumed control of all US lighthouses in 1787. As of 1996, the Sandy Hook lighthouse, the oldest original lighthouse in the United States, passed into the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. I’m glad it survived all that turmoil. It would be sad if it was lost forever.

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