After many wrecks and the loss of much money, the merchants of New York petitioned for a lighthouse to be built to guide ships into the city. A lottery was authorized in 1761, which raised twenty-six hundred pounds to buy four acres of land. This, though, was not enough to get the lighthouse built. Another lottery was held in 1763, and a tonnage tax was placed upon ships for the maintenance of the light. (1)
The lighthouse was completed in 1764 and first lit on the 11th of June that year. The New York Mercury, in their 18 June 1764 edition wrote: “On Monday evening last the New York Light-house erected at Sandy Hook was lighted for the first time. The House is of an Octagon Figure, having eight equal Sides; the Diameter at the Base 29 Feet; and at the top of the Wall, 15 Feet. The Lanthorn 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.” (2)
Only twelve years later, in early March, 1776, the New York Congress ordered the light destroyed so it would be of no use to the British ships attempting to work their way towards New York. The Congress chose Major William Malcolm to “take the glass out of the lantern, and save it if possible; but if you find this impractible you will break all the glass. You will also endeavour to pump the oil out of the cisterns into casks and bring it off; but if you should be obstructed by the enemy, or not be able to procure casks, you will pump it out on the ground. In short you will use your best discretion to render the light-house entirely useless.” (3) Major Malcolm, with Colonel George Taylor and some of his men, were successful. Although Malcolm could not save the glass, “for want of tools as by reason of time” he was able to remove other items, including “eight copper lamps, two tackle falls and blocks and three cask, and a part of a cask of oil.” (4)
This map, published in 1776, shows Sandy Hook, Staten Island, Long Island and Manhattan Island and shows the depths of water and the banks for sailing vessels
The British were able to repair the light before June of that year. On 1 June, the Americans again attempted to disable the light. Captain John Conover, with some boats mounted with two six-pound cannons managed to damage the lighthouse slightly, but they were driven off by an armed British ship in the area. (5)
The largest attempt at destroying the Sandy Hook Lighthouse happened on 19 June 1776. About 300 Americans under the command of Colonel Benjamin Tupper launched an attack against the lighthouse which lasted about two hours. At about three or four o’clock in the morning, Tupper’s force was able to advance within 150 yards of the lighthouse undiscovered by the British. Their guns, two six-pound brass cannons, fired upon the lighthouse for about one hour, but Tupper reported to George Washington that he “found the walls so firm I could make no Impression.” Tupper reported that he therefore retreated, and although he and his men were “between two Smart fires vis from two men of war on one Side & the Light house on the other” not a man was killed or wounded. (6) The two British ships firing at Tupper and his men were most likely the Phoenix and the Swan. A man from the Swan reported, contrary to Tupper’s report, “a serjeant and corporal of the 57th regiment, with five of Gov. Tryon’s men, killed 14 of the rebels.” (7) At a time when casualty figures were fudged for various reasons, this contradiction is not unusual.
No large-scale attempt to attack the lighthouse was made by the Americans again during the war. In 1787, four years after the war had officially ended, New York and New Jersey quarreled over the lighthouse. New York first passed a law requiring vessels to stop at the custom house and pay a fee, which was an especially heavy burden to ships trading in New Jersey. New Jersey retaliated by charging New York a tax of thirty pounds per months for the lighthouse, owned by New York, but on New Jersey’s land. The controversy was negated, however, in 1790, when the federal government, in a controversial action, took control of the lighthouse in the United States. (8) In 1996, the U.S. Coast Guard transferred ownership of the lighthouse to the National Park Service. The lighthouse is still in active operation today, and is open to visitors.
(1) Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States. by George R. Putnam. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1917, 11.
(2) Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States. by George R. Putnam. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1917, 12.
(4) Naval Documents of the American Revolution Vol. 4. ed. William Bell Clark. U.S. Navy Department, Washington, DC, 1969, 310.
(5) Sandy Hook Light - Fort Hancock, NJ – History. The New Jersey Lighthouse Society. http://www.njlhs.org/njlight/sandy.html, 2006. [22 June 2009].
(7) Naval Documents of the American Revolution Vol. 5. ed. William James Morgan. U.S. Navy Department, Washington, DC, 1970, 963.