HIGHLANDS, NJ >> How do you bring people together when everyone is encouraged to stay apart?
One of the unlikeliest success stories during this the COVID-19 crisis is the Twin Lights Historical Society, which has discovered that a powerful magnet for engagement is the common denominator of local history.
The Society’s fun and informative social media campaigns generated more than 75,000 post views in June and July alone. The current campaign, entitled #TwinLightsPeople, is a series of daily posts that focus on prominent figures with ties to the area. Every morning, thousands of people check their Facebook feeds to see which figure from the past deepens their connection to one another, and to Twin Lights. #TwinLightsPeople will run through August and into early September.
“That’s when we run out of people,” smiles Jeff Tyler, the group’s president. “If you think about it, though, that’s pretty impressive. We’ll have profiled more than 70 local legends at that point. This corner of the Jersey Shore has produced or played host to some really interesting headline-makers.”
Given the response to #TwinLightsPeople, Tyler adds, the profiles will be folded into the twinlightslighthouse.org web site, which is undergoing a revamp while the lighthouse is closed. The goal, he says, is to enhance website visitor experience and better engage and inform Society members. The morning mini-bios have been compiled by Society trustee Mark Stewart, with generous input and help from fellow history buffs from Highlands, Atlantic Highlands, Sea Bright and Navesink.
“There has been a fair amount written about some of the characters we’ve featured, but in other cases it’s taken a lot of digging to tell their stories,” he says. “You know, not everything is on the Internet; some of this was old-fashioned research. We’ve collected their stories over the years and now we have the prefect place and time to tell them.”
Stewart believes that fans of the Twin Lights appreciate learning new things about familiar names and also reading stories about important local figures they’ve never heard of. A lot of people are hitting the ‘Share’ button, he adds.
The Twin Lights Historical Society maintains a large collection of artifacts on-site and staffs a museum and museum store with volunteers, who interact with thousands of visitors every month. Like other friends groups and organizations that partner with the state, the Society was dealt a potentially crippling blow when the lighthouse closed to the public in March. Yet, as the coronavirus was pulling everyone apart, the Society hit upon the idea of using what lighthouse volunteers call “shared history” to strengthen existing bonds and create new ones between people who were previously connected by their love of Twin Lights.
“This group was quick to realize and appreciate how history has its own way of connecting people,” observes Muriel Smith of the Monmouth County Historical Commission. “It is not too much to hope that, if other historical groups follow their lead, each could play a role in the collective effort of keeping us together as one American family—proud of our history, reminding us how much we have in common through the stories and experiences of those who came before us.”
Given the limited appeal of the subject matter and the size of the budget (“zero dollars…and we’ve spent every penny”), Stewart thinks the audience size has been nothing short of amazing.
“We did a short post on Henry Hudson, who anchored off Atlantic Highlands and sent some of his men ashore to fetch drinking water…and it got 4,700 views in a few hours, plus dozens of shares,” he says. “I mean, that was 1609. He’s kind of old news, isn’t he? We profiled two of our keepers—Murphy Rockette and Ole Anderson—and 7,000 popped on to read about them. Marconi is the current leader with more than 8,000 post views in just a few hours. The numbers are a little crazy, but they grow each day”
Among the other #TwinLightsPeople profiled with mini-bios are:
• Harold Zahl, who spent years perfecting radar at Twin Lights during the 1930s.
• Mad Jack Percival, who used a local fishing boat to capture a British warship anchored off Sandy Hook on the Fourth of July in 1813.
• Robert Blume, the Medal of Honor winner who worked as an assistant keeper at Twin Lights.
• Herb Hunter, who brought baseball All-Stars to Japan and Babe Ruth to Atlantic Highlands.
• Francis Bellamy, who led the crowd in reciting his Pledge of Allegiance at the 1893 Liberty Pole dedication at Twin Lights.
• Estevao Gomes, the Portuguese cartographer who first identified Sandy Hook as Cabo de Arenas (Cape of Sands) in 1525.
• Robert E. Lee, who as a young captain in the 1830s designed the first fortifications on Sandy Hook.
• Gertrude Ederle, the Highlands resident who became the first woman to swim the English Channel.
• Tommy Gifford, the charter boat operator who pioneered the sport of big-game angling in America during the 1920s.
• Matthew Perry, who brought America’s first Fresnel Lenses to Twin Lights, in 1841.
• Stephen Pleasanton, the Washington bureaucrat who fought against Fresnel lenses for two decades.
• Granville Perkins, the landscape artist who produced the iconic 1872 image of Twin Lights for Picturesque America.
• John Gunnison, the legendary military explorer now known more for the clothing-optional beach named after him.
“In times like these, especially, sharing our common history and finding out things about ourselves, each other and our neighborhood brings us together,” says Sheila Weinstock, president of the Historical Society of Highlands. “That’s what history groups do. No one has done it better than the Twin Lights Historical Society with the Twin Lights People series on Facebook.”
Previous to #TwinLightsPeople, in the spring, the Society posted dozens of images from its collection—some of which had never been shown to the public—and also featured a series of local souvenirs it called “Postcards from the Edge.” Perhaps predictably, since the COVID-19 shutdown, the Society’s web page has seen traffic slow down somewhat. However, the number of people actively following its Facebook page has surged over 4,000—with more than 100 new adds since summer began.
“In the end,” Tyler points out, “we are all Twin Lights People, aren’t we?”
Future Facebook campaigns will celebrate the lighthouse’s connection to America’s immigration story, and also promote upcoming blogs that will be added to the organization’s web site. For now, Tyler says, you can go back and enjoy the current series by typing the hashtag #TwinLightsPeople into your Facebook search window.
With the additional need to socially distance, sharing history with visitors became very difficult for onsite State and Society staff. In response, the Society turned its attention to improving its online presence. The results, so far, are quite encouraging.
For more information on the Society visit twinlightslighthouse.org or call (732) 872-1814.
The Twin Lights Historical Society is a 501c3 non-profit friends group.
The Twin Lights State Historic Site is owned and operated by New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Parks & Forestry. For more information, contact Nicholas Wood, RIS-History at nicholas.Wood@dep.nj.gov.
Although visitors can now enjoy visits to the grounds at the Twin Lights State Historic Site every day from 9 a.m. until the gate to the parking area closes at 4:30 p.m, the lighthouse towers, indoor exhibits and gift shop remain closed to the public.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to storm damage assessment and cleanup due to Tropical Storm Isaias the park is temporarily closed! Check website and FaceBook page for updates.