Updated: Sep 27
There are so many stories to write about the Twin Lights, and so many eras in which it has been an integral part of both local and national history. But former Atlantic Highlands Mayor Rich Stryker, probably the absolute best unrecognized keeper of local history stories and paraphernalia and artifacts, recently recanted the interesting facts about the role the Twin Lights have played in war and peace since even before the Revolution.
Not exactly the Twin Lights, but in the close vicinity of the property before the first structure was built, the British colonial government build a signal beacon on the Highlands hill. That was in 1746 and the Brits were at war with France, the colonies were involved, and the British needed to have some kind of signal to alert themselves if the enemy…the French… approached the land.
They designed a unique system which was to be activated if six or more ships dared to approach. The theory put into practice was a system of poles on which huge balls were hoisted, some say to a height of 108 feet. The balls were to be used in daylight hours, and huge kegs of oil, also hoisted up that 108 feet, were to be lighted at night should the system have to be activated.
Signals were raised and lowered according to a specific code the military set up, then that code would be read by telescope at Staten Island, and from there, sent using the same system, to Manhattan to complete the alarm signal.
The system was eliminated with the peace treaty that ended the war in 1748.
But, some 30 years later, when the colonies were in protest to the motherland, a similar signal system was installed and activated, this time to keep Congress in touch with General Washington so they could learn in Philadelphia of the movement of British ships in and out of New York Harbor, which was then under British control.
The colonies won that war, but it wasn’t much later, when as a young nation in 1812 we once again took on Great Britain; once again the same system from three quarters of a century before was activated. There are reports it was used very successfully several times before that war ended.
The next time this ball and oil keg system was used was during peacetime.
It was 1829 and the Merchants Exchange Company of New York got approval from the Treasury Department to build a signal telegraph on land near the lighthouse.. It was there three years later that Samuel F.B Morse, inventor of the telegraph, began designing his system and within another five years he had it perfected and transmission lines were installed. The New York and Sandy Hook Telegraph followed in 1854, and a year later, because of a merger, became the New York and Highlands Telegraph Company.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was finally a means of getting news from Europe brought to the New World in considerably shorter time. Without any trans-Atlantic cables, the only way people on this side of the ocean got news from Europe was when ships relayed news they had to smaller boats that made the trip out to more distant waters from Sandy Hook to bring in the news ahead of the ship.
Incoming captains would drop sealed bottles filled with news reports overboard, the smaller r boats picked them up, attached news capsules to the legs of carrier pigeons who then flew to Sandy Hook where the news then went by wire to the rest of the nation. The system brought great acclaim to the little Highlands business, which eventually blossomed into a major business with offices in New York, Keyport, Jersey City, and of course Highlands and Sandy Hook, The start of the Sandy Hook Telegraph Company.
By 1870, there were trans-Atlantic cables that carried the news, and the Highlands business ebbed with means of faster news transmissions. It wasn’t till 20 years later that the New York Herald once again brought notice to Highlands and the Twin Lights.
The Herald’s James Gordon Bennett invited Marconi to set up a station just below the Twin Lights, thus enabling the Herald to scoop every other paper around with its report of the famed America’s Cup race of 1899, just off the Jersey coast.
Working with the Ponce steamship as the sending station, and his receiving station in Highlands, Marconi announced to the rest of America that the defending American ship, the Columbia, owned by J Pierpont Morgan, had successfully defended her honor by besting the Shamrock, owned by Sir Thomas Lipton of tea fame, in three of the face races. Also on board was the only female crew member, Hope Goddard Iselin.