Friday, May 30, 2014

Sabotage on Sandy Hook: our oldest lighthouse's Redcoat past

Standing as it does within a decommissioned U.S. Army fort, it's difficult to imagine that the Sandy Hook Lighthouse was once the target of sabotage by loyal Americans.

How the heck did that happen? Did the government cover up some sort of invasion on the Jersey Shore? No, not quite. The pieces start to come together after you consider the history of Sandy Hook and the lighthouse itself, which celebrates its 250th birthday this year.

The oldest operating lighthouse in the United States, Old Sandy was originally conceived in the early 1760s by New York merchants weary of losing incoming cargo to shipwrecks. Approaching New York Harbor by ship can be a tricky prospect, even today, but it was downright hazardous back then. Importers lost about 20,000 pounds sterling in merchandise to the shoals in just a few years, leading them to petition the Colonial Assembly of New York for funds to construct a lighthouse on the hook. (Why didn't they appeal to the New Jersey Legislature? The borders had yet to be settled, so the jurisdiction for the Hook was up for conjecture, and the merchants no doubt went where they felt they'd have more influence.)

Drawing on a popular funding mechanism for the time, the legislature authorized two lotteries to raise the £3000 to pay for construction. Its ongoing maintenance and a salary for a resident keeper were funded through a tax on cargo entering through New York Harbor. The lantern on the 105 foot New York Lighthouse, as it was called then, was first lit on June 11, 1764. Combined with the efforts of the Sandy Hook Pilots organized 70 years earlier to help ships navigate the shifting sand bars on the approach to the harbor, the light proved to be an effective aid to navigation.

Sandy Hook Lighthouse, Hidden New Jersey, Gateway NRA
Sandy Hook Lighthouse, ca. 1937
(photo by Historic American Buildings Survey
photographer Nathaniel R. Ewan)
The tower operated peacefully for twelve years before it metaphorically landed in troubled waters. New Jerseyans and New Yorkers were starting to take sides: remain loyal to Great Britain, or advocate independence. By early 1776, rumors of a British military invasion of New York were beginning to take hold. The powerful British Navy would likely attempt to sail into New York Harbor, led by ship captains unfamiliar with the intricacies of the waters south and east of Staten Island. Destroying the light at Sandy Hook would deprive them of a vital navigational aid, leaving them prone to grounding and shipwreck.

Seizing this strategic opportunity, the independence-minded legislatures in Trenton and Albany sent troops to dismantle the New York Lighthouse lantern and remove the lamp oil, confiscating whatever they could take away. The troops, led by Monmouth County Militia Colonel George Taylor and New York Major William Malcolm, completed the task and departed the Hook, leaving the lighthouse unguarded.

In the weeks that followed, foraging parties of British sailors would periodically land on the Hook in search of fresh water, often being ambushed and captured by American troops. The British responded by capturing the lighthouse in April 1776, fortifying the grounds to repel additional attacks and ultimately repairing the light by June to welcome additional naval vessels to the bay. As further protection, the Redcoats stationed several additional ships in the waters surrounding the Hook, adding potent firepower to the defense.

Undeterred, the Americans continued their attempts to take out the lighthouse, with a half dozen or more attacks in 1776 and 1777. National Park Service historians will emphasize the sturdiness of the lighthouse's six-foot thick walls by highlighting the unsuccessful use of artillery trained on the tower, but one has to consider the relative size of the cannons to get a true sense of the threat. The patriots' six pound guns (known as such for the six pound cannon balls they fired) were small in comparison to other artillery available at the time, and likely not up for the challenge, though they did do some damage to the lighthouse's walls.

In any case, the patriots found themselves no match for British forces on the Hook, especially when the firepower of the surrounding warships was taken into account. The peninsula became a refuge for a motley assortment of New Jersey loyalists, thieves, smugglers and raiders until the end of the war. Patriot privateers would occasionally attempt foraging raids on the Hook but lacked the firepower to attempt any harassment beyond stealing British supplies.

You can get a taste of the lighthouse's revolutionary past during its birthday celebration on June 14, when Revolutionary War reenactors will be on hand with musket and cannon-firing demonstrations. Though it doesn't sound as if any NPS-sponsored smugglers and raiders will be on hand, the event looks to be a fun time for all.

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