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Look! Up In the Sky!

Visitors to the Twin Lights during the spring of 1898 would have noticed a big uptick of activity out at Ft. Hancock, on the tip of Sandy Hook. War with Spain had been declared on April 25th and the Spanish battle fleet, led by Admiral Pascual Cervera, had departed from the naval base in Cadiz across the Atlantic to an unknown destination.

A network of mines was laid at the entrance to New York harbor the following day. They were controlled by electrical cables that came ashore on the Hook. The surrounding waters were patrolled at night by a group of lighthouse tenders—boats that normally delivered supplies and services to area lighthouses—forming them into an official harbor-defense unit. Orders from Washington arrived to extinguish the kerosene-powered light in the South tower of the Twin Lights, leaving just one beacon active for nighttime navigation.

In the run-up to war that followed the February sinking of the Battleship Maine in Havana harbor, military planners sought to gain the defensive advantages of elevation wherever they could. From Ft. Hancock, telephone cables were established across the inlet, through Highlands, up to the Twin Lights, where Army spotters would be stationed atop the towers, some 250 feet above sea level. This would afford the fort’s artillerymen crucial extra minutes to ready their guns if Cervera’s ships appeared over the horizon.

The US Signal Corps had a plan to quadruple this advantage. To them, the next move was obvious: It was time to call in the US Air Force!

Wait. What?

Kitty Hawk was still five years away. Wilbur and Orville Wright were still fixing bicycles in Dayton in 1898, weren’t they?

Indeed they were.

America’s “Air Force” in 1898 amounted to a single military balloon, which was tricked out with all the latest gadgetry, including a hardwired telephone connection that unspooled from a massive wheel, and a 23-man, six-wagon support team to haul its gas generator and 100-plus hydrogen cannisters into battle. The spherical, varnished-silk sphere had been handmade by Signal Corps Sgt. Ivy Baldwin and his wife a year earlier. It could rise to a height of 1,000 feet or more and represented the state of the art in early-warning and military reconnaissance technology.

With Cervera’s target a mystery, every city on the eastern seaboard was vulnerable and, understandably, citizens up and down the Atlantic were terrified by the prospect of Spanish warships suddenly materializing with their guns blazing.

Were the Spanish headed to defend Cuba from an American landing? Or would they strike the American mainland? If so, many believed the most likely place to be targeted would be New York City.

Which is why Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Maxfield was ordered to float his balloon out over the Atlantic, off The Hook. If Maxfield could spot the Spanish fleet before it spotted Sandy Hook, Ft. Hancock’s gunners could start blasting away before Cevera fired a shot.

There was just one problem. The “air force” was in Colorado…and, by the time Maxfield’s balloon reached New York, on its way to Sandy Hook, Admiral Cervera had steamed into Santiago harbor in Cuba!

End of story?


Maxfield’s balloon, support equipment and a Signal Corps detachment were sent down to Tampa by rail and then loaded onto the American invasion fleet, which was on its way to blockade Cervera’s warships.

On July 1, Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and thousands of US troops assaulted Santiago, Cuba’s second-largest city—with Maxfield and a fellow officer hovering over San Juan Hill, sending vital, real-time information to the generals…

…until its ropes became tangled in tree branches a few hundred yards from the Spanish lines, where it hung like a shooting-gallery target, 50 feet above the ground.

Eighteen Mauser bullets quickly tore through the balloon, ending its day. As it hissed harmlessly into the treetops, there was much relief on the ground—not on the part of Spanish defenders, but American attackers. In the post-mortem of the famous battle, many officers claimed Maxfield’s balloon cable gave away the position of ground troops hiding in the jungle, leading to unnecessary casualties.

As a result, the US military ended its air program and did not revive it until 1907.

A 26-year-old author-turned-newspaper-reporter situated atop the El Pozo heights during the Battle of San Juan Hill—in a long raincoat, casually smoking a pipe—remembered watching a “huge, fat, yellow, quivering thing” floating above him, and later disappearing into the treetops.

His name was Stephen Crane.

The New Jersey native would soon be evacuated with a high fever, having contracted malaria during his three months in Cuba. Despite having filed nearly two dozen stories, the New York World fired Crane—who had authored The Red Badge of Courage to great critical acclaim in 1895—because the business manager felt the paper hadn’t gotten its money’s worth.

With the Spanish Navy no longer a threat to New York City, the Twin Lights received the go-ahead to re-light the South Tower. It did so, bigger and brighter than ever. During the downtime, its lamp had been electrified, and now shone across more than 20 miles of ocean.

Just over a year later, Guglielmo Marconi set up a wireless array at Twin Lights to deliver real-time reporting on the America’s Cup races of 1899 for the New York Herald. While the Marconi team was preparing for this event, Admiral Dewey’s Pacific fleet steamed into New York harbor, having produced a heroic victory in Manila in those first uncertain days of the war. Marconi’s reports on Dewey’s arrival were the first commercial wireless broadcasts in history—making Highlands the “birthplace” of the technology most everyone has in their pocket today.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Twin Lights provided employment for Robert Blume as third lighthouse keeper. Blume had been awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic actions in Cuba, where he and more than two dozen other men rowed out under a hail of bullets to locate and then cut the submerged cable that enabled the defenders at Cienfuegos to communicate with Spain. Blume nearly won a second Medal of Honor a couple of years later when he risked his life to rescue shipmates who had been overcome by chemical fumes.

Although our area did not see any fighting during the Spanish War of 1898, there was plenty of action…as well as a long-forgotten, but still-unsolved, mystery.

On the evening of May 24th, the signal between the ordnance department at Ft. Hancock and the Twin Lights stopped working. There had been a storm earlier, but it “was not of sufficient violence to break down the electrical systems” according to technicians. They added that “no vessel could have disarranged the cables laid under the inlet.”

Later, they found that lines to the government lifesavings stations had also been disconnected. However, a line from the fort to Highland Beach, about a mile south, continued to function. It was a curious set of circumstances, to say the least.

Curiosity turned to deep concern later that evening, when the electrical wires running from the off-shore mines were found to have been tampered with—“cut in a mysterious way”—in the cedar forest near Ft. Hancock. All four of the communications lines in question ran through the stand of trees, where there was enough thicket to provide adequate cover to a Spanish saboteur. Electricians were dispatched to evaluate and repair the breaks.

They concluded that, if one or two of these lines had been interrupted, it would not be a shock.

But the “severing of every wire aroused the greatest suspicions.”

No perpetrator was ever identified or caught, and no official conclusion was ever reported in the newspapers in the weeks and months that followed.

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