History, Travelling

Visiting New Jersey’s Historic Sites- Part I

New Jersey is famous for many things, but its history should get more recognition. There are several places in New Jersey that are the site of where an important event took place or are home to buildings of historical significance. In what I plan on being a series of posts, I will talk about many of New Jersey’s historic sites that I have visited or would like to visit one day. In the future, plan your own visit to some of these sites to keep our history alive.

*Please note- Some of these places may not be open or only partially open to the public due to COVID-19.

(Cover image: Sea Girt Lighthouse)

Lighthouses of New Jersey

Sandy Hook Lighthouse

The NJ coast is dotted with these beacons that still serve to guide seafarers safely to shore. I first took an interest in these historic structures when I was a pre-teen and have loved them ever since. I am fascinated by how these towers are reminders of a time gone by and how they once served a noble purpose. I am also intrigued by their architectural design as you don’t see structures of this sort being built anymore. I may do individual discussions of some of these lighthouses in later posts, but for now I will give an overview of all of them.

Navesink Twin Lights

 In Atlantic City stands Absecon Lighthouse, the third tallest lighthouse in the United States. You can climb the 228 steps to the watch room and then take a minute to catch your breath. In addition to Absecon Light, Cape May and Barnegat Lighthouses are also tall towers that provide breath taking views once you reach the top. Sandy Hook meanwhile is home to the oldest operating lighthouse in the US, having withstood efforts for its destruction during the Revolutionary War. Another interesting light station is the Navesink Twin Lights in the Highlands. This pair of lighthouses sits high atop a bluff overlooking Sandy Hook and the Atlantic Ocean. Then there are lighthouses East Point, Hereford Inlet, Sea Girt, and Tucker’s Island which are essentially houses with a lighthouse tower attached, making anyone who loves the beach wish they could live in one. There are also several lighthouses that sit in the waters surrounding NJ including Great Beds, Romer Shoal, Miah Maull, and Ship John Shoal lighthouses. During October, there is an annual challenge for people to visit participating lighthouses in the state within two days.

Visiting Tips: Wear sneakers if climbing the towers. Bring a camera to take pictures of the stunning views. Anyone with long hair going to Absecon, Barnegat, Cape May, or Navesink lighthouses is advised to wear a ponytail because the winds at those heights will make your hair fly all over the place!

Hereford Inlet Lighthouse in North Wildwood

Great Beds Lighthouse in Raritan Bay

Forth Hancock

Sandy Hook is one of my favorite places to visit in New Jersey. Not only does it have expansive beaches, but it also has a rich history. What many may not know is that at the tip of Sandy Hook stand the remnants of the military base Fort Hancock. The fort was first established in the 1800s to protect New York Harbor and to serve as a site for weapons testing. Although the Coast Guard still operates there, many of the buildings and structures were abandoned when the fort was decommissioned in 1974. These structures include several concrete gun batteries once used for gun and mortar testing. Unfortunately, these batteries have gone long unused and are not properly maintained. Along the bay side of the fort is Officers Row where large Victorian era houses line the street. These yellow brick houses once used to be the homes of military personal. One of the houses, now dubbed History House, is open to the public and is furnished with 1940s décor. This is an especially fun place to visit around Christmas and you’ll envy the large rooms of the house. The fort also features a lighthouse (see above), barracks, a theater, guardhouse and jail, an Officers’ Club, and many more historic buildings.

Battery Potter
History House at Christmas
The decaying Officers’ Club

Sadly, many of the structures at Sandy Hook are decaying and efforts have been made to lease the buildings so that they can be repaired, but the going is slow. As someone who loves history, I am hurt that the government has allowed these buildings to deteriorate.  If these buildings continue to fall apart, they will be taking their history with them.

For more information go to: https://www.nps.gov/gate/index.htm

Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Thomas Edison is one of New Jersey’s most well known residents. In recent decades, there has been some controversy over just how many of his inventions were truly of his own original ideas or were just improved, commercialized designs of other pioneers.  Debate aside, this National Park located in West Orange contains Edison’s laboratories and Glenmont Estate. The laboratories are immense, particularly the main building which features three floors of machinery and historic artifacts. Edison developed and/or improved such devices as the storage battery, motion picture camera, phonograph, x-ray machine, and hydrogen detector within these labs. Demonstrations and discussions of inventions such as wax cylinder recordings and the phonograph and the incandescent light bulb are available. The ground floor of the main laboratory building features a jaw-dropping three story library. There is also a Visitor Center complete with a gift shop on the grounds.

The machinery in the main laboratory building.
The three story library in the main laboratory building.
Edison’s talking doll which contained a miniature phonograph that played a nursery rhyme. The sound recordings are available for listening online, but be warned, they’re a bit creepy.

A few blocks down is Edison’s home, Glenmont. The estate features a Victorian mansion with beautifully furnished rooms, a large greenhouse with various plants, a garage with Model T Ford and Detroit Electric cars, and the graves of the Thomas and Mina Edison.

For more information go to: https://www.nps.gov/edis/index.htm

The Glenmont Mansion
I loved the mansion’s stained glass window featuring the mythical Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, from the Odyssey. (Photo from NPS / Thomas Edison National Historical Park)
The graves of Thomas and Mina Edison.

Inside the large greenhouse on the premises. I seriously want a greenhouse like this.

Monmouth Battlefield

There are several places in New Jersey that served as sites of American Revolutionary War battles. Monmouth Battlefield is the site of the June 28, 1778 battle. During this battle, the Americans attacked the British while they were attempting to retreat to New York. While the battle ended as a draw between the two sides, it did help to boost the patriots’ morale. The battle featured famous players of the Revolution including George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, and British Generals Henry Clinton and Charles Cornwallis. The Battle of Monmouth is also where the legend of Molly Pitcher was born, in which a woman (possibly Mary Hays McCauley) helped the American troops by bringing them water and firing one of the cannons.

The site of the battle is situated on a long hill that provides picturesque views. There are bridges at the bottom of the hill that cross over a small stream and lead to farmland. At the top of the hill now stands a visitor’s center where you can learn more about what occurred at the battle as well as other facts about the American Revolution. Lectures are also held at the visitor’s center and there is a gift shop where you can buy books on American history and recreated artifacts. Every year in June, The Friends of Monmouth Battlefield group holds a reenactment of the June 28th battle complete with actors in full costume and cannon blasts.

For more information go to: https://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/monbat.html

East Jersey Old Town Village and the Cornelius Low House

Located in Johnson Park in Piscataway, East Jersey Old Town Village is a collection of relocated historic buildings. These buildings include a tavern (where some of the Founding Fathers stayed), barn, blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, and church. The Runyon House holds an exhibit showcasing the history and artifacts of Raritan Landing, a no longer extant colonial port town on the Raritan River. The village is also the setting of an American Revolutionary encampment event and Middlesex County cultural workshops. Living history interpreters are often present at the village and dress in historic costume and give presentations of trades and crafts. The village also holds Christmas and Halloween events annually that include horse and buggy rides, history inspired entertainment, crafts for the kids, and refreshments. Be sure to stop by the gift shop for treats, candles, and souvenirs.

Inside the schoolhouse

The tavern at Christmas
Take a holiday carriage ride

Down the road from the village is the Cornelius Low House, the former home of a colonial Dutch merchant for whom the house is named. The house dates from 1741 and underwent extensive restoration in the 1990s, but architectural elements original to the house can still be seen. The house is now a museum that holds temporary exhibitions related to NJ history.

The Cornelius Low House

Visiting Tip: Go and feed the animals at Johnson Park when you’ve had your fill of history.

For more information go to: https://www.middlesexcreates.com/historic-sites/east-jersey-old-town-village/

(All images, except for the one of the stained glass in Glenmont, are my own pictures and are meant for educational purposes. Please do not use them for your own content without my permission and without crediting me.)

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