July 4, 1776? Fuhgedaboutit! The date every New Yorker should know is Nov. 25, 1783, the day the British evacuated Manhattan at the end of the Revolutionary War.
"When they left, we won. It doesn't get much bigger than that," said Deke Hazirjian, a Brooklyn-born lighting designer who's helping New York state commemorate the evacuation's 225th anniversary by placing powerful spotlights at five locations in the Hudson Valley.
Those lights, along with seven others located in New Jersey, will be turned on Tuesday evening, creating a 108-mile string of illumination from Mount Beacon in the Hudson Highlands to Princeton, N.J. Organizers say it will symbolize the system of beacon fires Gen. George Washington's forces used in the Hudson Valley and New Jersey to quickly communicate between units spread over a wide area.
"It was really a form of strategic communications," said retired Army Col. Jim Johnson, a former history professor at West Point and military historian for the Hudson River Valley Institute, one of the organizations staging the event.
Hazirjian's company, Manhattan-based New York City Lites, will haul truck-mounted, 2,000-watt xenon spotlights to five locations in the Hudson Valley, including four mountain sites. Hazirjian, whose studio clients typically include ESPN and MSNBC, said the outdoor gig has its own set of challenges.
"You don't normally light by the mile," said Hazirjian, who lives in Cornwall-on-Hudson, near West Point.
The other Hudson Valley sites taking part in the beacon project are Bear Mountain State Park, Storm King Mountain State Park in Cornwall, Washington's Headquarters State Historic Site in Newburgh and Spy Rock in New Windsor.
New Jersey's Crossroads of the American Revolution Association came up with the beacon lighting idea. Organizers said SkyTracker spotlights will be located in New Jersey at Oakland, South Orange, Morristown, Summit, Green Brook and Princeton, with the Navesink lighthouse in Highlands adding its illumination to the project.
The New Jersey lights will be turned on at 5 p.m., with the New York spotlights to follow at 1-minute intervals. All the lights will remain on until 9 p.m. and organizers said they would be visible for miles, depending on weather conditions.
All of the locations chosen were known to have been used as beacon sites during the Revolution or are near such sites, including Mount Beacon, which derives its name from the bonfire signals that could be seen in nearby Connecticut.
In Manhattan, Revolutionary War re-enactors will mark the anniversary by mustering Tuesday at Federal Hall on Wall Street. Organizers expect about 70 re-enactors dressed in period garb and carrying muskets to take part in the Evacuation Day ceremonies. Afterward, they'll have dinner at nearby Fraunces Tavern, where Washington delivered his farewell address.
The beacon project commemorates the day when the last British troopers boarded ships and sailed out of New York Harbor, relinquishing England's final major holding in the original 13 colonies. The evacuation came more than two years after Washington's Continental Army defeated the British at Yorktown, Va.
Washington was at Princeton when he first received word on Nov. 1, 1783 that the Treaty of Paris had been signed two months earlier, officially ending the war. He and the English commanders had already discussed details of evacuating about 10,000 British troops and more than 30,000 loyalists from the region.
"It must have been a staggering thing — horses, wagons, equipment — and this was a major logistical effort to get loyalists, baggage and troops out of New York City," Johnson said.
Seven years after he and his defeated army retreated from the island, Washington led his Continental soldiers on