Mountain peaks, church steeples or any other prominent point, easily visible from navigable waters, often guided sailors entering a harbor before the introduction of beacons. As a long-time power-boater, I’ve often kept an eye out for land-based structures while navigating Lake Champlain, Long Island Sound and Florida’s south-west coast.
The British were among the first of maritime nations to make common use of pairs of light beacons, for navigating dangerous narrow and/or shallow channels. Range (leading) lights were in use at the Port of Liverpool around 1763. The first for our Nation was apparently established in 1820, at Wolf’s Island, Georgia (Lighthouse Service Bull, 1938). South Carolina’s Morris Island ranges, established in 1837, were made portable to accommodate for shifting channels.
The distinctively colored lights are used as a pair, the rear beacon, higher than the front one. When both ranges are aligned vertically, the vessel is on a correct bearing. If a ship’s helmsman veers too far to the right, the rear range appears to drift to the right of the front range; if the error is to the left, the rear drifts left. When the structures’ daymarks are properly aligned -bars/colors, the vessel is on course.
During the early years of New York Harbor, an elm tree growing along the shores of Staten Island, was a prominent aid for local navigation. Pilots and ship captains however, frequently noted their concern regarding the lack of suitable beacons in approaching such an important national harbor. At the time, New York was one of the world’s busiest harbors, second only to London in volume of imports.
In response, Congress, in 1852, authorize establishment of six Lower New York Bay lighthouses. Four were slated for the shores of New Jersey; the two others on Staten Island. Built in pairs, The Elm Tree Light (named after the tree it replaced), was located on the south side of Staten Island (Cedar Grove Ave.) It consisted of a wooden tower. The range’s rear beacon, the New Dorp Light, a wood building with a central tower, was stood on a hill (between Altamont & Boyle Streets). It was located about a half-mile inland of Elm Tree. Together, the ranges served the Swash Channel.
The Point Comfort Light, similar in construction to the New Dorp Light, was located on the shores of Keansburg, NJ. It functioned as the Gedney’s Channel Range front light. Standing about ¾ mile away, Waackaack rear range. a 96-foot wood tower, was also erected on the shores of Keansburg. Waackaack, a name derived from the Indian word Wakioak – “Land of Plenty” and Point Comfort, served vessels navigating Raritan Bay. In the early 1860s, Waackaack’s original tower was replaced by a 76-foot iron, skeleton tower. In 1893, the second structure was again replaced with a wrought-iron, skeleton tower. Before its delivery to Waackaack however, the tower made a slight detour. It was used as part of Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition. Following the World’s Fair, the tower was installed at Keansburg where it operated until 1955. But to the chagrin of many local residents, the popular landmark was torn down and hauled away.
The last pair of beacons added to the Lower Bay under the 1852 Congressional appropriation were the ranges at Conover and Chapel Hill. They served as the range for the Main (Chapel Hill) Channel. Conover front range, a wooden tower, was erected on the shores of Leonardo,NJ (between Leonard and Roop Avenues). The Chapel Hill Rear Range stood 1.5 miles in land of the Conover beacon (7 Roebling Court, Middletown, NJ).
The wide sandbar and sometimes shallow that reached between Coney Island and Sandy Hook was barely below the surface along most of its length. Even with the completion of the Lower Bay Ranges, large vessels navigating the waterways continued to demand the expertise of an on-board harbor pilot.
During the brief Spanish American War -1898, the Chapel Hill Range and some other Lower Bay ranges were darken. Bridgeport (CT) Lighthouse, New Haven Harbor’s Southwest Ledge Light and Gardner’s Island Light were armed in the anticipation of a Spanish raids. In April of that year, the Army laid 74 submarine mines throughout New York’s Lower Bay. Luckily, they had been removed by the end of August, 1898.
With the dredging of the seven and a half-mile long, 2000-feet wide Ambrose Channel, Congress appropriated funds in 1906, for the Ambrose Channel Range. The Staten Island beacon, a 90-foot tower standing on the island’s Richmond Hill, operated as the rear range. The West Bank Lighthouse, located off shore of Staten Island’s Midland Beach, served as the front range.
Farther down the Atlantic Coast, Delaware Bay and River were served by some 24 ranges (Delaware Bay Lighthouse Keepers Association). In the early 1880’s, Congress appropriated $20,000 for construction of an iron tower to serve vessels entering and seeking shelter in Delaware Bay. Built in Trenton, New Jersey, it functioned as a rear range, sometimes known as the Green Hill Light. It was paired up with Delaware Breakwater West End Light (front range) until 1902. In the following year, its front range shifted to the Delaware Breakwater East End Light. But, constantly changing sandy shoals, around the tip of Cape Henlopen, finally brought about the decision in 1918, that the rear range beacon was no longer useful.
Carefully dismantled, it was then stored at the Lewes Delaware Lighthouse Depot until 1921. At the about same time, her third-order Fresnel lens and clockwork were ship off for use in San Francisco, to be used in that lighthouse district. The tower itself was later shipped by railroad to Miami and erected in placed at Boca Grande (Gasparilla Island, FL), in 1927. Apparently however, it did not become operational until 1932. But even today, it continues to direct mariners through the pass between Gasparilla Island and Cayo Costa State Park, waters that are said to provide the best tarpon fishery in the world.