By Celia Belmonte
HIGHLANDS – The Twin Lights Historic Site marks its sesquicentennial this year with a series of events between now and October, beginning on Sunday, June 24, with Twin Lights Family Day.
The free program is geared toward families with children, ages 10 and younger, and will include pirate shows, caricatures, balloon art, games, face painting and pony rides and live music by Aardvark Smile and Rip Tide.
The event, sponsored by the Twin Lights Historical Society, will run rain or shine from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and move indoors in case of inclement weather.
“We have never done anything like this before,” said Claire Reilly-Taylor, Twin Lights trustee and event co-chair. “Our goal is to get local families to come. We want to share the space with our community on its 150th anniversary.”
Since the Twin Lights opened to the public in the early 1960s, almost 3 million people have visited the historic site. In a typical year, between 80,000 and 100,000 people explore the Twin Lights Museum and climb the 65-foot North Tower for its unparalleled view.
Despite the large public draw and its close proximity, Reilly-Taylor pointed out that few in the Two River area have visited the historic landmark.
“It is amazing how a lot of people in our community have never been to the Twin Lights,” Reilly-Taylor said. “It is funny because I lived in Navesink and never went before I was a trustee. But being up there, it is amazing.”
A record-setting crowd is expected to come to the site on Twin Lights Family Day.
“We have definitely reached out to the Highlands community,” Reilly-Taylor said. “There has been great synergy. We really want to bring some awareness to the Highlands.”
Twin Lights Historical Society members also hope the event will help celebrate the rich history the site has gained as the nation’s only connected lighthouse. Since its completion in 1862, the structure has hosted some of the United States’ most significant and fascinating events.
At more than 200 feet above sea level, the Twin Lights Historic Site was chosen to host the first ever public reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance. On April 25, 1893, hundreds of citizens, government leaders and foreign dignitaries, politicians and naval vessels were invited by President Grover Cleveland to join the U.S. Navy in the elaborate patriotic event.
The Twin Lights was also the site of groundbreaking advances in science and technology.
Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi conducted his revolutionary communications experiments in 1899, wirelessly reporting the progress of the America’s Cup sailing regatta off the coast of Sandy Hook from aboard a flotilla in the Atlantic Ocean back to a wireless receiver in front of the Twin Lights.
The lighthouse would become the country’s first wireless telegraph station that could send and receive messages on a regular basis.
Additionally, a series of top-secret experiments in the mid-1930s were conducted at the Twin Lights by the U.S. military to jumpstart a radar program. By the 1940s the technology developed in the Highlands would dramatically change the course of history, helping the U.S. detect enemy attacks and win World War II.
“We have this amazing 150-year-old historical site right in our backyard,” Reilly-Taylor said. “It is good for the community and great for families to partake in it.”
During the event food and beverages provided by local restaurants will be sold. Visitors can also bring their own snacks and drinks but are reminded that New Jersey state law prohibits alcoholic beverages.
Parking for Twin Lights Family Day will be available at Henry Hudson High School located at 1 Grand Tour. Two shuttle vans will run for families unable to make the short walk from the high school. The newly expanded Twin Lights parking lot will only be able to provide a limited number of handicap spots.
Reilly-Taylor and fellow co-chair Laurie Bratone received assistance from the state of New Jersey to bring Twin Lights Family Day to life.
“The state is co-sponsoring the event,” Reilly-Taylor said. “They have been really great. The DEP (N.J. Department of Environmental Protection) runs these kinds of historical sites.”
Family Day on June 24 is just the first in a series of events scheduled to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Twin Lights in 2012. Coinciding with the last day of the Highlands 18th Annual Clamfest on Aug. 5, the Twin Lights will host On Hallowed Ground: 150 Years of History at the Twin Lights.
“The second event is more focused on historically significant things like the first Pledge of Allegiance and the first lifesaving station,” Reilly-Taylor said. “The lifesaving station was just restored this past year. It was at Sandy Hook but the Coast Guard gave it totally restored to us. It will be open to the public in August.”
The Twin Lights is home to the Spermaceti Cove Boat Building, the northernmost of eight original U.S. Life Saving Service stations constructed between Little Egg Harbor and Sandy Hook in the mid-1800s. The very first of its kind to be built, the station at the Twin Lights holds the oldest surviving original boathouse equipment artifacts dating back to 1849.
On Sept. 16 the Twin Lights will then showcase some of the area’s top creative talent with its first fine art and photography show, Double Exposure: The Twin Lights Through the Artist‘s Eye.
The yearlong celebration will end in spectacular form with an Oct. 20 fundraising event, Making Waves Shipboard Gala, a dinnertime cruise around the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Although the anniversary festivities end in October, the Twin Lights Historical Society has plans in the works to secure an even brighter and longer future for the lighthouse.
Starting in 2013 and headed by curator Margaret Carlsen, the Twin Lights Museum will begin a “reimagining process.” Along with continuing to expand its collection of important work and photography, the museum will implement touch screens and interactive exhibits to become more kid-friendly and hands-on.
“I have a five-and-a-half-year-old son,” Reilly-Taylor said. “At first when I traveled around and went to alternative museums, like the Mystic Seaport, I saw that they were more kid-oriented. Kids react to touch, feel and visual exhibits. That is what we are trying to do.”
New exhibits with papers and artifacts on the Pledge of Allegiance, wireless communications and the U.S. Life Saving Service will also give students, historians and interested visitors greater access to and knowledge of the site’s storied past.
The historical society hopes these four events, as well as the lighthouse’s new developments, will help gain local support so the Twin Lights can reach its bicentennial anniversary and beyond.
“Of course everyone is welcome,” Reilly-Taylor said. “But we really hope to reach out to local families so they become more involved and love the lighthouse and want to care for it like we do.”