Fact or Fiction
What you don’t know about the Twin Lights could fill a book! Or, at least, a web page.
The Mystery Cannon
The oldest artifact at the Twin Lights has been a source of mystery and conjecture for well over a century. The Mystery Cannon is also one of the most-photographed 18th Century cannons in the world. Indeed, visitors to the Twin Lights have been posing on it, in front of it and around it almost as long as people have been snapping souvenir photos.
The cannon was actually “discovered” in 1841, buried on the grounds of the Twin Lights. For many decades, the most feasible story of the cannon’s origins had it belonging to one of the pirate ships that trolled up and down the Jersey Coast in the early 1700s. However, there was no record of how the cannon—worn and pitted from years rolling in the surf—found its way up the hill.
The inscription “J Lopez” on the barrel was assumed to refer to Joseph Lopez, the Twin Lights keeper at the time the cannon was unearthed. But if Lopez first found the cannon in 1841, how do you explain the “1756” etched into the iron beside the name?
In the years that followed, local researchers turned up scraps of evidence that only deepened the mystery. Records of a lighthouse built by New York merchants in the Highlands in the mid-1700s raised the question of whether the Mystery Cannon had been associated with that structure—perhaps for signaling to ships in foggy conditions. There were also suggestions that the gun had been used by Loyalists against the British troops that occupied this area during the Revolutionary War.
Recently, new research has pieced together a more plausible story. The inscription on the side of the cannon helped us trace it back to the Aaron Lopez family of Newport, Rhode Island in the 1700s. Aaron Lopez was a successful merchant who operated a fleet of merchant vessels out of Newport. Upon Aaron’s death his son, Joseph Lopez—coincidentally the same name as the Twin Lights keeper in 1841—took over the family business. Joseph was born in 1756.
Many of the ships in the Lopez fleet were named after Lopez’s children and close relatives – one of them was the Snow Joseph – most likely named after Joseph Lopez, Aaron’s son. We now think that the cannon—a 12-pounder with an accurate range of a half-mile—came off one of the Lopez ships, probably the Snow Joseph, which wrecked off the New Jersey coast.
The Liberty Pole
The next time you drive past an auto dealership with a gigantic American flag, consider that, at one time, the Twin Lights could boast a pole that would have dwarfed it in size. The 135-foot Liberty Pole stood in front of the Twin Lights for approximately 15 years. During that time it was one of the first “pieces of America” millions of new immigrants saw as they steamed their way toward Ellis Island.
That was the idea behind the Liberty Pole, which was twice as tall as the Twin Lights’ two towers. The project was the brainchild of a patriotic Newark businessman named William McDowell. McDowell traveled back and forth to Europe, often in vessels carrying thousands of immigrants. He thought that their first glimpse of the United States should be a glorious flag, visible from miles away—and he knew the Navesink Highlands was the perfect location for it.
The Liberty Pole was dedicated on April 25, 1893. A special Peace Flag was designed for the pole to be flown on special occasions. At the ceremony, the Pledge of Allegiance was uttered for the first time as America’s official national loyalty oath.
The first flag up the pole was a true national treasure—the flag from the Bonhomme Richard, the ship made famous in 1779 when its captain, John Paul Jones, uttered the definat words “We have not begun to fight!” during an epic battle with the British ship Serapis. As legend had it, Serapis gunners managed to blow Bonhomme Richard’s colors into the water. A Lieutenant Stafford dove into the sea and retrieved them, an act of bravery for which he was later awarded a medal by Congress. Nearly a century later, a descendant of Stafford’s carried the flag to patriotic events around the country. The Bonhomme Richard flag’s authenticity was never determined, and its whereabouts are currently unknown.
McDowell’s dream was to erect a massive Liberty Pole in every major eastern port, but the one at the Twin Lights appears to have been the only one completed.
Like any wooden flagpole exposed to the extremes of wind and weather, the Liberty Pole required constant maintenance and repair. Judging from photos, it appears to have been assembled in two pieces, connected roughly midway, which leant the structure some give and flexibility.
Eventually, the Liberty Pole needed to be completely replaced. This never happened. There is no specific entry in the Keeper’s Log regarding the date of the Liberty Pole’s removal. However, photos from the early 1900s suggest that it may have come down in the years prior to World War I.
Two flagpoles at the Twin Lights were standing at the turn of the century. The Liberty Pole may be gone, but the other remains! Click HERE for words and video on its dedication ceremony.
In 1898, after a powerful new lens was installed in the South Tower, a rumor started circulating that the local cows had trouble giving milk because the light was so bright that it kept them up at night. Eventually, this serious situation came to the attention of U.S. Lighthouse Service.
A recent look through the Twin Lights archives strongly suggests that this story was a clever “cover” for the truth. Around the time the new lens went on line, the hill behind the Twin Lights was being developed by wealthy New Yorkers as a summer community. Today this area is the national landmark Water Witch Historic District.
Some of the top architects in America designed the homes for their wealthy clients, and a few even lived in the community. Imagine their surprise when their summertime slumber was interrupted by the same rotating beam that could be seen by ships 22 miles away! This may have been the first recorded instance of “light pollution” in New Jersey.
The frustrated residents of Water Witch began firing off letters of complaint to their influential friends in New York and Washington. Soon keeper Robert Bishop received orders to remedy the situation—which he did, by positioning a piece of metal to block the light that affected these areas of the Navesink Highlands. That piece of metal is still there today.