Romer Shoal Light Station Lighthouse, Highlands New Jersey

Date added: August 20, 2020 Categories:
2004 Exterior view, looking west

Romer Shoal was a well-known hazard to navigation several decades before the existing lighthouse was built. Its location on the north side of the Swash Channel, a natural navigation route, meant that a significant amount of maritime traffic passed nearby. It is unclear how this submerged land feature got its name. However, its appellation clearly predates 1837 when the U.S. Congress considered a proposal to erect an aid to navigation on "Romer Shoal."

This hazard to shipping was marked by a series of unmanned aids to navigation for several decades prior to 1898 when the existing lighthouse was built. In 1837 the U.S. Congress appropriated $15,000 for building a day beacon marker. This was augmented with a second appropriation of $10,000 in 1838. The day beacon on Romer Shoal was built as a frustum constructed of granite blocks. A frustum is a truncated cone that tapers to a flat top. A wooden mast surmounted with a rectangular wooden case was affixed atop the stone masonry. This day beacon remained an important navigational aid in Lower New York Bay for almost 50 years. Congress appropriated additional funds in 1850 ($30,000), 1854 ($25,000), and 1867 (45,000) to provide for the marker's maintenance and improvement. However, erosion caused the granite structure to settle unevenly through time, and by the early 1880s, it became clear a replacement was needed.

In 1886, an iron skeletal tower was built atop the day beacon's granite foundation. This tower was topped with a lighted beacon fueled by compressed gas. Its optic was a fifth-order Fresnel lens that signaled a fixed red light.

During the 1890s, a navigation project was conceived to improve the port's shipping channels by dredging a new main shipping lane that would reduce the distance between the Atlantic Ocean and New York harbor by six miles. It was designed by a prominent engineer named John Wolfe Ambrose (1838-1899). Finally completed around 1912, it was named "Ambrose Channel" in his honor.

The proposed channel's alignment extended along the north side of Romer Shoal and would bring vessels into close proximity to that dangerous navigational hazard. This led to a decision in May 1898 by the U.S. Lighthouse Board to replace the gas-fueled beacon that marked the shoal with a manned light station.

The Lighthouse Board decided to reuse an existing light tower for the proposed light station. The one selected was located onshore at the Lighthouse Depot at Tompkinsville on Staten Island. This tower had been erected at the depot in 1883 to serve as a testing platform for lighthouse equipment and alternative lamp fuels.

The depot's experimental tower was dismantled for relocation to Romer Shoal. Work to prepare for its arrival included emplacing a cast iron cylindrical caisson to serve as the lighthouse's foundation. When the foundation was ready, the disassembled tower was transported to the site and erected. Construction of the new light station on Romer Shoal was completed on 14 September 1898. The tower's daymark was the same as today. The tower's lower half was painted white. The upper half, including the watch room and lantern, was painted brown and the cylindrical caisson was painted black.

The lighthouse beacon was a fourth-order Fresnel lens that signaled a flashing white light. It began operating on 1 October. The first Fresnel lens mounted in an American lighthouse was installed in 1841 at Navesink Light Station, New Jersey. This lens type came into widespread use during the early 1850s. The fourth-order lens was two feet, four inches in height with an inside diameter of nineteen and eleven-sixteenths inches. It was generally used for lights marking shoals, reefs, harbor lights, and islands in rivers and harbors. A 1,300-pound bell was also installed to serve as the light station's fog signal.

During World War I, the U.S. Navy assigned a patrol vessel to monitor shipping traffic going to and from the port of New York. Following the war, the Navy arranged to take over Romer Shoal Light Station and staff it with three quartermasters who would both operate the lighthouse and report on shipping traffic. On 13 November 1920, one of three naval personnel drowned while attempting to transfer provisions to the lightouse from the Navy's Submarine Chaser No. 137: In October 1921, control of the light station was transferred back to the U.S. Lighthouse Service.

The light station's fog bell was replaced by 1939 with a diaphone fog horn. The new fog signal's characteristic was a two-second blast followed by 13 seconds of silence. The station's light signal equipment was also updated in 1939. "The fourth-order Fresnel lens's wick lamp was replaced with an incandescent oil vapor (I.O.V.) lamp. This increased the intensity of its white signal light from 15,000 to 37,000 candlepower. The I.O.V. lamp was replaced later with an electric one which further increased the light's intensity.

The U.S. Lighthouse Service was abolished as a separate federal agency in 1939. Its duties were subsumed by the U.S. Coast Guard which took over responsibility for Romer Shoal Light Station. A crew of three Coast Guard personnel manned the lighthouse until it was automated in 1966. The work to automate the lighthouse included removing its fourth-order Fresnel lens and replacing it with a modem 190-millimeter acrylic beacon. The acrylic optic was subsequently replaced circa 1997 when the existing modem VRB-25 marine rotating beacon was installed.

Today, this property remains an active aid to navigation identified as number 35070 in the Regional Light List. Its optic signals two white flashes every 15 seconds. This signal light is visible for 16 miles in clear weather. The lighthouse's fog signal sounds a 2-second blast every 15 seconds.