With summer here and a growing sense of freedom returning to everyday life, this is a great time to treat yourself to a deep breath of history at the Twin Lights Historic Site in Highlands.
Whether you’re cruising on Route 36, enjoying a day at Sandy Hook or on the high seas, you can’t miss this landmark. Climb the hill, and you will be in for a truly breathtaking sight. You will also be walking on the same grounds visited by baseball legend Babe Ruth; Francis Bellamy, author of the Pledge of Allegiance; as well as Gertrude Ederle, championed Olympian and the first woman to successfully swim the English Channel.
The Twin Lights sits 250 feet above sea level in Highlands. It is in the top five highest elevations on the entire Eastern Seaboard. From the grounds, visitors can see the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers, Sandy Hook, Raritan Bay, the New York skyline and the Atlantic Ocean.
The imposing structure was built in 1862 using local brownstone. The unique twin lighthouses were the design of architect Joseph Lederle. In addition to the two non-identical towers, there are the keepers’ quarters and multiple storage rooms.
The Twin Lights were the primary navigational aide for ships entering New York Harbor. The height of the towers and the elevation dwarf the nearby lighthouse on Sandy Hook. For many years, it was considered the technological leader of lighthouses in the United States.
The first Fresnel lens in the United States was used here. These super bright lenses vastly improved safety for the ships. The North Tower has a fixed First Order Lens and the South Tower’s lens was changed to a First Order Fixed Lens in 1862. In 1883, the site became home to the first kerosene-fueled lamps. By 1898, it had become the first major lighthouse in the United States to be lit by electricity. Another distinctive feature was the beacons; one was flashing and the other shone a fixed light, making it easy to recognize by ships at sea.
This was also the site where, in 1899, Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated the first use of the wireless telegraph on American soil.
Another intriguing fact is that the Twin Lights was the place where the Pledge of Allegiance was read. It was 1893, and the original version read, “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” You can see the story and the Pledge in the lighthouse’s museum. The museum contains many artifacts well worth investigating when it reopens for public visits when the state reopens the site.
In 1920, America’s Cup competition was held in front of the lighthouse for the last time. This race returned here for the final time after a six-year absence due to World War 1. After 120 years of active service, the lighthouses were decommissioned in 1949.
The building had fallen into disrepair after years of neglect following its decommissioning. In 1955, the Twin Lights Historical Society, a nonprofit volunteer organization formed to save this national landmark from ruin. Today, the Twin Lights State Historic Site is owned and operated by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Parks & Forestry, who originally hired now-Operations Manager/HistorianJenna Paterno as a summer intern. Working closely with the society volunteers and state employees, Paterno impressed everyone with her knowledge and enthusiasm for history. By retaining Paterno full-time, the society is dramatically upping its ability to support and enhance New Jersey parks in conjunction with the state, in sharing the beauty and history found at the Twin Lights.
The State Park Service maintains the grounds and buildings and continues to showcase the site’s history through various exhibits curated by Resource Interpretive Specialist Nicholas Wood.
The Twin Lights has the honor of being listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
For six decades, the Twin Lights Historical Society has thrived alongside the New Jersey State Park Service, however like other historic sites, it was forced to close its doors in 2020 as a precaution to the pandemic.
Devoid of visitors and eager to keep interest in this important site active, both the Twin Lights Historical Society and the state of New Jersey undertook social media to make the site digitally active. Trustee Mark Stewart dug into the society’s immense collection of nautical, lifesaving and New Jersey cultural artifacts and began posting several images each week on Facebook. The Society’s curator, Joanne Sutton, and her volunteer corps photographed and cataloged every item.
“I wanted to see if people actually valued what we do here,” Stewart explained. “From mid-March to the end of June, we had 50,000 views and a ton of shares, so obviously that told us people wanted to stay connected to us and one another.”
Next, the society launched a daily Facebook series entitled “Twin Lights People,” which featured mini-biographies of individuals with a connection to the lighthouse.
“People loved seeing how people from Thomas Edison to Robert E. Lee to Isaac Asimov were linked to Twin Lights,” Stewart said. “People rediscovered dozens of local legends and shared their memories, which was very helpful.”
In November, the society began devoting its Facebook page to lighthouse keepers around the world in a series entitled “Jeepers Keepers.”
Despite being closed for more than a year, the Twins Lights has been “visited” via social media around a half million times –and more web series are in the works now.
The entire Twin Lights People and Jeepers Keepers series can be found on the society’s Facebook page or by searching for the hashtags #TwinLightsPeople and #JeepersKeepers. The Twin Lights Historic Site Facebook page, managed by Paterno, regularly created posts discussing Twin Lights, local and artifact history on the site’s Facebook page. A link to the respective Facebook pages can be found on the new TwinLightsLighthouse.org website.
The doors are currently closed, but you can visit the grounds every day from 9 am to 4:30 pm and enjoy those breathtaking views. Admission is free, and donations are appreciated.