By Muriel J. Smith
HIGHLANDS – For six decades, the Twin Lights Historical Society thrived where other organizations sometimes struggled, drawing a steady stream of visitors with the spectacular panoramic vista from its two towers, as well as a superb small museum and eclectic museum store.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020 and state officials ordered the lighthouse in northern Monmouth County to shut its doors, the society found itself adrift, with no obvious way to remain relevant and engage new visitors.
During the first few months of the pandemic, trustee Mark Stewart dug into the society’s immense collection of nautical, lifesaving and New Jersey cultural artifacts and began posting several images each week on Facebook.
The society’s curator, Joanne Sutton, and her volunteer corps had photographed and catalogued every item, so there was plenty to choose from.
The effort was purely experimental, Stewart admits.
“I wanted to see if people actually valued what we do here,” he explains. “From mid-March to the end of June, we had 50,000 views and a ton of shares, so obviously that told us people wanted to stay connected to us and to one another, which was gratifying. But there did not seem to be any rhyme or reason to what people liked.”
At the Feb. 17 board meeting of the Twin Lights Historical Society, Stewart, an author and historian with a background in branding and marketing, reported what happened next: The society launched a daily Facebook series titled “Twin Lights People,” which featured mini-bios of individuals with a connection to the lighthouse — often direct, yet just as often tenuous.
“That was part of the fun,” he says, “seeing how people from Babe Ruth to Thomas Edison to Robert E. Lee to Isaac Asimov were linked to Twin Lights. The guy who invented the Vulcan ‘live long and prosper’ greeting for ‘Star Trek’ hung out in Highlands. Just a ton of great stories.
“People also rediscovered dozens of local legends and shared their memories. No surprise, the bootleggers around here were especially popular. We received a lot of help and input from the legion of historians who live in the area, which was very helpful,” Stewart said.
The “Twin Lights People” series drew more than 350,000 views between July and October, not including the hundreds of “shares” it generated, and the society’s social media following increased by more than 25%, enabling the organization to keep in touch with its fans and update them as reopening day approaches.
In November, the society began devoting its Facebook page to lighthouse keepers around the world and their remarkable stories in a series entitled “Jeepers Keepers.”
That campaign is closing in on 100,000 Facebook views and, according to Stewart, winning new followers in the broader lighthouse-lover community. The “Jeepers Keepers” posts will continue every few days at least through summer.
Since Twins Lights closed its doors to the public in March 2020, people have “visited” the lighthouse via social media about a half-million times.
Needless to say, when the site reopens, the society will continue to engage fans with fun facts and photos and compelling storytelling. Next up?
“What do Madleine Albright, Tom Carvel, Johnny Weissmuller and Albert Einstein have in
common?” Stewart asks. “They all watched the Twin Lights poke above the horizon as they entered New York harbor as immigrants.
“That’s a powerful common denominator and we want to tell the stories of the immigrant experience as it relates to this area.
“I know they are worth telling because I have seen how emotional people get when they climb the towers here and realize they are looking down on the moment their ancestors knew they had ‘made it’ to their new home.”
At the February board meeting, the society agreed to launch this as-yet-unnamed Facebook series in the spring or summer, and is planning to involve local schools in the research and writing of these mini-bios.
This initiative will be a small piece of the society’s larger plan to involve more young people in the site through new interactive exhibits and family activities.
The entire “Twin Lights People” and “Jeepers Keepers” series can be found on the society’s Facebook page or by searching for the hashtags #TwinLightsPeople and #JeepersKeepers
A link to the Facebook page can be found on the new twinlightslighthouse.org website.
Muriel J. Smith is a local historian and author. Her books include “The ABCs of Highlands.”