Highlands’ History Lives Behind These Stone Walls

June 19, 2018
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The Twin Lights Museum is located on Lighthouse Road in Highlands. It is generally open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but closed for an hourlong lunch at noon and occasional special events. See twinlightslighthouse.com for information. Photo by Rick Geffken

By Rick Geffken |

HIGHLANDS – On their recent visit to the Twin Lights Museum at the Twin Lights historic site, fourth-grade students from Rumson Country Day School toured four new galleries spanning 200 years of Highlands history, examining turn-of-the century bathing suits, the first Pledge of Allegiance and vintage postcards.

Their teachers were thrilled to see these young scholars connect the things they are learning in the classroom, specifically in social studies, to their own community.

“It is really exciting to see their curiosity sparked by the experience of visiting the lighthouse and museum,” said the school’s Casey McChesney.

The Twin Lights Historical Association’s latest public exhibition features nautical and landlubber themes related to the famed lighthouse, as well as tales of Highlands personalities and events. It is a follow-up to the “Seeing Stars: Every Flag Tells a Story” exhibit at the museum, seen by more than 150,000 visitors over the last two years.

This unique perspective on Two River history is presented on brightly painted walls and in stand-alone installations in four appealing galleries. The first features Highlands Heroes and is “like stepping back into Highlands a hundred years ago,” said Mark Stewart, a trustee of the Twin Lights Historical Association.

News clippings and pictures of Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to successfully swim the English Channel in 1926, surround the trophy she won the previous year for swimming from the tip of Manhattan to the tip of Sandy Hook. She trained in the Shrewsbury River at Highlands.

Other eye-catching artifacts include a carousel horse, rare black-and-white photographs and several blue- woolen period bathing suits of the type worn by day-trippers to the mostly forgotten Highland Beach Resort just across the Shrewsbury River in today’s Sea Bright. One of them is Ederle’s.

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Another grouping highlights Robert Blume, a Medal of Honor winner who was an assistant lightkeeper here and a bit of a rapscallion. He was in and out of the military and often in trouble due to his irrepressible attraction to slightly illegal and inebriated escapades.

Completed in 1862 as a beacon to guide ships into New York Harbor, the architectural design of the Twin Lights was inspired by the Army Corp of Engineers castle insignia. Because it was built on the highest point along the East Coast of the United States, the venerable landmark could be seen far out at sea by ships making the Atlantic passage from Europe and points east. Although decommissioned as an actual lighthouse in 1952, Twin Lights is still one of the most recognizable New Jersey historical sites.

Stewart acknowledges the special advantage the Twin Lights Museum has: the state of New Jersey owns the building and oversees maintenance and capital improvements. While the Friends of Twin Lights nonprofit organization engages in some fundraising activities, its unique relationship with the state allows the museum to concentrate on creating exhibits, enabling it to change themes every six months or so.

“One of the real goals of this organization is linking the past and the present,” said Stewart. After Super Storm Sandy, the Twin Lights Historical Association used about $100,000 of its own money to make improvements to attract visitors and bring people back to Highlands to help the devastated business community. When the Historical Society of Highlands lost irreplaceable documents and perishable images in the 2012 storm, the group was invited to store its collections at the Twin Lights Museum. Historic postcards and other unique items from the society’s collection enhance the current exhibit.

A second gallery displays maritime themes such as memorabilia from the America’s Cup sailing race which was held off Sandy Hook starting in 1870. “People spend more time standing in front of the Life Saving Service artifacts case than any other current display,” notes Stewart.

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The “Twin Lights Technology” gallery has the building’s construction blue-prints and pictures of the Fresnel Lens once mounted in the lighthouse. Guglielmo Marconi conducted his telegraph experiments from the Twin Lights in 1899. A video production introduces visitors to the science of radar.

The last and innermost gallery features one-of-a-kind 19th century paintings and photographs of “the quiet, bucolic village of Highlands.” As Stewart relates, less than a month after beginning a search for the original and frequently reproduced Granville Perkins c. 1872 painting of the Twin Lights – the watercolor he calls “our Mona Lisa” – he got a call from a Rumson resident who coincidentally offered the painting to the museum. This exhibit is only the second time the painting has been shown in public.

Twin Lights Historical Association Trustee Mark Stewart with the original Granville Perkins c. 1872 painting of the Twin Lights, now on exhibit at the museum. He calls it “our Mona Lisa.” Photo by Rick Geffken

The building atop Mount Mitchill is the second Twin Lights erected at this location. According to the Friends of the Twin Lights website: “In 1828, sea captains welcomed two new beacons of the Twin Lights on their way to New York Harbor. They emanated from this spot, high above the Navesink Highlands, over-looking Sandy Hook. The official name of the facility was the Navesink Light Station.”

Stewart is expecting upwards of 75,000 visitors this year. He is proud to note that “Twin Lights drew more visitors than any of the other historical sites in the county during the Weekend in Old Monmouth annual event in early May.”

The Twin Lights Museum is open virtually year-round, Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except for the lunch hour starting at noon. Admission to the museum is free, with donations gratefully accepted. The museum store offers unique Twin Lights-related gifts, maps and books. The address is 2 Light House Road, Highlands, NJ 07732. The website twinlightslighthouse.com is loaded with history and more details.

This article was first published in the June 14-June 21, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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