People often wonder why we took on Robbins Reef Lighthouse, the small sparkplug station at the entrance of the Kill van Kull one mile off the North Shore of Staten Island. One of the many reasons is because of its critical role in navigation through New York Harbor and its importance in American maritime history. But Robbins Reef also has a connection to Sailors’ Snug Harbor: Alexander Hamilton.
In 1789, the first session of the United States Congress in 1789 passed the Act for the Establishment and Support of Lighthouses, Beacons, Buoys, and Public Piers, more simply referred to as the Lighthouse Act, which was only the ninth legislative act and the first public works bill passed by the new government. The Act created the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment and placed it under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Treasury. After the Act’s passage, Congress began to assume control of the twelve active lighthouses situated throughout the former colonies, but, wary of the central government, the new states did not complete this transfer until 1798, nine years after the bill’s passage. The government also explicitly commissioned the construction of a station at Cape Henry, Virginia, near the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, in the Lighthouse Act. Prior to the ratification of the Constitution, the Virginia colony had declared its intention to build a lighthouse at Cape Henry because it was a vulnerable and strategic point on the eastern seaboard where 50 vessels had been lost. The lighthouse was completed in 1792.
As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, with characteristic attention and concern, oversaw the absorption of existing lighthouses by the federal government, the design and construction of Cape Henry Light and all the lighthouse projects that followed during his tenure with the department.
Hamilton was a strong advocate for the passage of navigation-related federal legislation and was a driving force behind the Lighthouse Act. He believed that lighthouses should be under the control of the central government, rather than under the jurisdiction of individual states or municipalities, to ensure their financial stability nationally. The growth and development of the economy and the nation’s financial institutions were core tenants of his work as Treasury Secretary, and he firmly believed that the strategic placement of lighthouses would create additional port cities and superior trading conditions that would allow the federal economy, still in its infancy, to flourish. The construction of guiding lights was also a major part of Hamilton’s plan to ensure safe conditions in all major American ports.
Hamilton had a history of interest in the sea and the protection and safety of sailors. In 1769, a New York-based committee of mariners and attorneys gathered to create an organization to care for widows and orphans of mariners and to promote general maritime knowledge. The following year, King George III granted the charter, formally establishing the Marine Society of the City of New York. During the Revolutionary War, loyalists and patriots alike held membership in the Society, including Hamilton and the patriot group, the Sons of Liberty. Among its first members were Captain Thomas Randall and his son, Robert Richard. Hamilton had close ties to the Randall family as friend and attorney, and, in 1801, as he was dying, Robert Richard summoned Hamilton and asked him to write his will which ultimately established a free, democratic haven for “aged, decrepit, and worn out seaman” named Sailors’ Snug Harbor. Over the 140 years of its existence on Staten Island, the Harbor provided free care to over 10,000 people.
The museum is organizing an exhibition about Hamilton’s ties to the marine industry and to Cape Henry and changes in the Treasures of Sailors’ Snug Harbor exhibition that include the conservation of three more paintings in the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Trust’s collection. The Luce Library has finished cataloging some of the scrapbooks of portraits of mariners who came to Sailors’ Snug Harbor—each man who was admitted was photographed—and we will exhibit them as well.