Goes“Down to the Shore”
New Jersey is well known for its sandy beaches that divide its northern and southern sections. In the northern section comprising Monmouth and Ocean counties there are nearly three dozen beaches. Sandy Hook is just one in which you can enjoy a mix of beach and nature as well as architecture, including the Sandy Hook Lighthouse. It wouldn’t be the Jersey shore without its more than twenty lighthouse structures.
Headed south there are Atlantic and Cape May counties where the gambling Mecca creates a unique sense of nightlife with much revitalization underway. South of Atlantic City is where you’ll find nearly three miles of boardwalk, rides, and year round festivals. There you’ll find yet another arrangement of lighthouses. Getting down to the bottom tip of the state in Cape May you’ll find around 600 restored Victorian homes.
Up and down the coast activities include all sorts of sports from fishing to bicycling and just walking the miles of boardwalks that line the shores. But my favorite activity includes checking out the amazing lighthouses. These mesmerizing structures have played a charming and essential role in our society. They come in all shapes and sizes and each has its own unique history and daymark, a color scheme that helps seamen distinguish one from another. They each have lanterns or a lens that shines brightly for many nautical miles out to sea.
One of my favorite places “down the shore,” as we Jersey’s like to say, is Sandy Hook where the oldest operating lighthouse has shown the way since 1764. Its weathered frame tells a history of the days and nights it thwarted shipwrecks and of the handiwork of courageous keepers. Without lighthouse enthusiasts, each structure would eventually crumble and be forever a lost piece of our American and Jersey heritage. For those avid “lighters,” a list of the Jersey lights and lenses includes:
Absecon Lighthouse, Ambrose Lightstation, Barnegat Lighthouse, Brandywine Shoal Light, Cape May Lighthouse, Chapel Hill Lighthouse, Conover Beacon, East Point Lighthouse, Finn's Point Lighthouse, Fourteen Foot Bank Light, Great Beds Lighthouse,
Hereford Inlet Light, Miah Maull Lighthouse, Navesink Twin Lights, Robbins Reef Light, Romer Shoal Light, Sandy Hook Lighthouse, Sea Girt Lighthouse, Ship John Shoal Light, and Tinicum Lighthouse.
My favorite is the Sandy Hook Lighthouse. Standing at its base is awe inspiring. The rubblestone tower with its octagonal cream colored structure stands 85 feet into the Jersey sky. It originally beaconed over the Atlanta with 48 wicks, which was later changed to a Winslow Lewis Argand lamp and reflector. In 1856 it got its Fresnel lens. Its keeper’s home, built alongside the tower was supported by shippers using the New York Harbor Channel.
The tower was damaged during a 1776 American Revolution plot to douse the beacon. When George Washington took an interest in the country's lighthouses, he commanded a keeper to tend the light until funds were raised for its revitalization. The keeper using his own discretion did not do a satisfactory job. The lights were not operational when needed, likely because funds were low for its upkeep and diligent management. Finally, in 1857 the Sandy Hook Lighthouse was restored inside and out. The old keeper’s home was also replaced with the structure that stands today.
Among many of Jersey’s “firsts” was the installation of the first electric incandescent lamps in a lighthouse, and it is Sandy Hook that enjoys the commemoration. Its light is visible for 19 nautical miles at sea. The Sandy Hook Lighthouse is open for weekend tours May through July and the grounds are open daily. Be sure to visit, and check out its red lantern room.
Before you visit, it can be exciting to have the stories in hand that haunt the house to this day. For instance, in 1850 a skeleton was discovered sitting at a table in a secret underground passage beneath the keeper’s house. Nearly a century later, the corpses of four men and one woman were found buried at the base of the lighthouse. Could these be the ghosts that seem to tap your shoulder when you’ve wondered off alone?
Among the sights at Sandy Hook are its seven-mile stretches of wide and dune-swept beaches, accessible by a mere 30 minute ferry ride from Manhattan. The area is a diverse national park, a part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. The reason is its thriving natural habitats and bird sanctuaries, its holly forest laced hiking trails, its brimming fishing spots where bluefish and bass abound, and of course the oldest operating lighthouse in the country, not to mention a ghostly abandoned military barracks.
Once off the New York ferry, assemble your convert-a-bike and hit the path, a smooth ride that snakes its way along the most scenic length of Sandy Hook. Make your way to the waterside seafood feast in Highlands, nestled into the crook at the bay. Too lethargic to peddle back? Take the ferry. It’s right there. The car-free excursion provides a relaxing trip across the water way.
All summer long at the SeaStreak Ferry at Pier 11 on Wall Street, waiting passengers tote beach gear instead of brief cases. They don bathing garb rather than business attire. All are in anticipation of the famously clean, sandy, and dune lined paths and beaches at Sandy Hook. From the upper deck a patch of fog can overtake eager passengers in its mist just after clearing the Verrazano Bridge. Pulling up to the now silent officers quarters confuses first-timers, so the SeaStreak captain announces, “The beach is just ahead folks, a short three-mile trek in the free shuttle.” Many bike, roller blade, or stroll their way after taking in historic Fort Hancock.
Of course, don’t forget to visit the Sandy Hook Lighthouse. Your tour guide will rap the foundation and recite, “This baby is one strong structure.” Once inside, you’ll need to take a deep breath as you make your way up the 101 steps to the red room. From there you can catch spectacular views of the hook and see all the way to the city skyline. You will appreciate that the tower was once called the “New York Lighthouse.”
In the fall, the birdwatchers come out to inspect the south-bound shorebirds and later the migrating songbirds like sparrows, warblers, and flycatchers. In the winter, the loons, sea gulls, and sea ducks mingle with Snowy Owl and winter finches. Lately watchers have spotted Gyrfalcon, Gray Kingbird, and Groove-billed Ani.
Birds, beaches, lighthouse tours, and more; Sandy Hook offers something for everyone. See you there!
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