Daddy Kept the Light On

The daughter of the last keeper of the Twin Lights Lighthouse
recalls a girlhood of night watches, white-glove inspections, and joy-riding in the giant rotating lens.

Elsie Jane Rockette’s home wasn’t like those of her playmates. It stood on a 200-foot-tall bluff overlooking the Navesink Highlands and had two 40-foot towers connected by a long, low stone structure that made it look like a fortress or a castle.

The homes of her friends—even those who lived by the water or who had mysterious Victorian attics to explore—could not hold a candle (let alone a 25 million-candlepower beacon, at the time the most powerful in the nation) to the 360-degree view afforded by the glass observatory atop the South Tower of the Twin Lights Lighthouse, where Elsie Jane (or E.J.) grew up. The nine-foot-tall beacon that rotated inside that glass cage cast its penetrating beam twenty miles. Night or day, in clear weather E.J. and her friends could see as far as lower Manhattan.

When her parents said they’d leave the light on, they meant it. But it took much more than flipping a switch. In 1917, the original electric generator wore out and was replaced by a kerosene-oil vapor lamp. In 1924, her father’s third year on the job, electricity returned in the form of three 500-watt incandescent bulbs.

Like a monumental grandfather clock, the ten-ton Fresnel lens in the South Tower was rotated by means of a system of gears, long heavy cables, and a 700-pound counterweight. “He had the night watch,” E.J. recalls, “and every two hours he had to go and wind the cable for the mechanism that turned the light in the South Tower. I can remember him saying, ‘You never let the cable run out.’ My mother also stayed up all night to make sure he wound the cable.”

E.J.’s father, Murphy Lee Rockette, served in the Army and Navy and attended college before taking the Civil Service test for the U.S. Lighthouse Service. He scored so high, E.J. says, that he was given his choice of assignments. He chose Twin Lights to please his wife, who wanted to be stationed on land rather than on an offshore lighthouse.

Rockette was the last active keeper at Twin Lights, serving from 1921 through his retirement in 1953. “I was born there on September 1, 1929, in a room on the second floor,” says E.J., a 79-year-old National Park Service retiree who now lives in Naples, Florida. “I was delivered by the local midwife, Jenny Parker, and Dr. Offerman.”

When the family moved in, there was no electricity. They read by kerosene lamps and cooked on coal stoves. Water came from an outside well and a hand pump in the kitchen. Bathroom? An outhouse out back. Modern utilities were installed around the time E.J. was born.

Her father started as an assistant keeper. During the day, Rockette repaired equipment and buildings, and maintained the grounds. The French Fresnel lens—then state-of-the-art in lighthouse optics—“had to be cleaned every day,” E.J. says. “If there was one fingerprint on it, it would hinder the reflection.”

The U.S. Lighthouse Service was run with military precision. “An inspector came down every month from district headquarters in Staten Island to inspect the towers, the lights and mechanisms, as well as our living quarters, to make sure they were clean and tidy and up to standard,” E.J. says. “He used to wear white gloves and run his finger across the top of the windows to see if dust was there.”

Winters were the toughest time of year, she recalls, especially when nor’easters piled snowdrifts so high they couldn’t open the lighthouse doors. Snow and ice also made the steep, winding cobblestone access road virtually impassable for automobiles. “I would take a sled and walk to the local A&P, then pull it back up the hill loaded with groceries,” she says. “But you learn to get on in a place where you don’t have anything. You just accept the fact that that’s the way things are.”

Being isolated at Twin Lights, away from town, brought the Rockette family closer together and taught them to do things on their own.  “We made our own fun,” E.J. says. “We played pickup sticks and penny-ante poker and listened to the radio.”

The lighthouse also provided unusual places to play. During the day, when the light was extinguished, E.J. and her sister, Virginia Lee, used to climb into the nine-foot-tall lens and ride it as it rotated. Did her father know? “I don’t think so,” she says.

When the access road was snow-covered, it provided the best sled riding for miles around. “We could go all the way to the Highlands-Sea Bright Bridge,” a distance of about half a mile, she says.

In summer, the Rockettes had the beaches of Sandy Hook almost to themselves, and autumns were spent on her father’s boat servicing buoys in the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers, part of his keeper’s responsibilities. “I loved the water and the freedom of being out there,” she says.

During World War II, the Army occupied the lighthouse as an observation post. E.J., a teenager then, learned to drive in a military jeep. The soldiers screened her dates before letting them enter the complex. “At the fork in the road, the Army had the guard booth,” she says. “When boys came to take me out, they were stopped, and the guards would call the house to see if they were expected.”

In 1948, E.J. married Robert L. Horan. Their reception was held at the lighthouse, with an accordianist playing. E.J. and her husband took over as caretakers until 1959, when the State of New Jersey assumed responsibility for the facility.

“It was sad to leave,” she says. “All the good years we had there, we cherished them. But I’m so happy and proud I had that opportunity. There aren’t too many people today who can talk about having grown up in a lighthouse.”

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