200 Plus

Deadly Time Off the LBI Coast

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Apr 03, 2019

As you drive down Long Beach Boulevard on LBI in early spring you see signs of suburbia coming to life. It’s hard to imagine this place as ever being described as deserted or isolated and remote, but in the 1800s it was just that. This was the period of the “Lure of Long Beach,” when stories of pirates and shipwrecks were as much fiction as fact. Some of these stories seem so bizarre that they deserve some investigation.

In March 1884, the short-lived Long Beach News ran an interview with William A. Crane, a former Manahawkin coroner and Ocean County clerk. This was just three months after the Elmina broke up on the bar off the Island with the loss of all hands on board.

Crane told of the Manahawkin Baptist Church.

“The church yard is over one hundred years old and probably as many bodies are laid away in it. Going back some years I remember the wreck of the ‘Powhatan’ from Bremen. She stuck fast just opposite this place and went down with three hundred aboard. Of this number, 28 were buried in this yard.”

Why did so many victims end up in this place?

“The length of the Beach is more than twenty miles and the width of the Bay from two to seven miles. It is very difficult in bad weather, or ice as we have it now, to cross from the mainland to Long Beach. At this place the Bay is at its narrowest part and has a shoal bottom. In case of wrecks on the coast we can cross the Bay when others at points north and south of us cannot. By an understanding with parties living on the beach, in case of a wreck, word is sent here and I telegraph the authorities. I have reported in one week’s time as many as seven wrecks on this beach. At one time I had to go all the way to New York to report since we had no telegraph then in this section of the State.”

Finally, Crane made a plea.

“In conclusion I would state that this burying ground of the Baptist Church is filled up, it being small. Something should be done by our State, County or Township authorities to procure a piece of land from persons owning land near this churchyard and have it set apart and nicely fenced in. There all those cast way on the beach between the two named inlets could be buried, and there should also kept a full description of the ship, etc., by the Coroners.”

In Trenton, the state Legislature responded and passed a bill to purchase land to be set aside for the burial of shipwreck victims and naming Crane to help locate the site. In late spring 1885, a section was dedicated in Manahawkin for this purpose.

In June, the Toms River paper New Jersey Courier reported another interview with Crane when he remembered, “At that time I lived in and owned the old Ferry House and farm near the bay shore, some ten miles from the village, fronting the bay and ocean and giving a fine view of the twenty miles of coast between Barnegat Inlet and Little Egg Harbor. This Ferry House is well known to all sporting men in New York and Philadelphia. The first hotel and boarding house here were built on the beach opposite this place some fifty years ago between Sandy Hook and Cape May, and visitors were then ferried across the bay in sailboats. The name of the hotel was the ‘Mansion of Health.’”

This would put his farm near the present-day site of the Surf City Hotel. What event did he remember? “…the disastrous period of stormy weather between the 28th of March, 1864, and the 10th of April of the same year. … I shall never forget that time. Between those two dates there were wrecked on Long Beach, ten miles south of Barnegat Inlet, the English ship Sultana, Captain Archibald, the brig Hunter, the brig George, the brig Lizzie Bliss, the brig Hannah Spaulding, of Rogers River Company, from South America, the Schooner Joseph W. Webster, and lastly the bark Amelia, Captain Jenkins, from Demerara for New York.”

1885 was 21 years after the event; was this fact or a trick of someone’s memory? With this a search begins.

In 1864, Ocean County had only one newspaper, the Ocean Emblem. On March 24 of that year it ran “For several weeks we have had the most delightful weather, – neither too warm or too cold, – just such weather as to tempt the frogs to peep a little, and to call forth the first songs of the spring birds, the blue birds, robins, black birds, sparrows, &c, – but alas! For the poor little birdies. The piercing North winds have come and driven them to Winter quarters. It is to be feared that some of the poor little fellows have met the fate indicated in the following most beautiful touching stanza: The first bird of the Spring attempted to sing, but ere he sounded a note, He fell from the limb – a dead bird was him – The minute had frizz in his throat.”

It would appear the weather was in fact turning. But there is another detail. In the 1860s the life-saving stations were not manned by crews. Each was a barn-like arrangement that housed the government-purchased boat and life car along with other equipment. It had a paid keeper whose job it was to protect and maintain the contents, but when it came to using the equipment, it was left strictly to local volunteers who might arrive on the scene of the shipwreck. Under this volunteer system there was little or no paperwork filed with Washington, D.C. about any rescue. To complicate matters more, 1864 was the height of the Civil War, and a large number of the county’s able-bodied men had joined company D of the 9th New Jersey volunteers.

At the time of Crane’s shipwrecks, the regiment was camped near Williamsburg, Va. Their officer, James Madison Drake, had published a letter in the Emblem dated April 5 saying, “We started a few evenings since, on hearing a ‘salute of fifteen guns’ from Fort Monroe. We knew that our Commander-in-Chief – Lieut. Gen. Grant – had visited us. ‘What had he come down here for.’”

Drake made special mention of his regiment and their loyalty to the Union.

“Our regiment now numbers nine hundred and eighty-three men. Since our organization we have had a grand total of between 1,700 and 1,800 men, and yet we have lost but a dozen or two from desertion.”

In the letter he does make a comment about the weather on the coast of Virginia. “We have had stormy weather during the past two weeks, and everything is wet and muddy. There are a good many complaining with the chill and fever.”

The same day that Drake wrote his letter, a Tuckerton correspondent wrote to the Emblem.

“The ceaseless strains of the past week have made more than usually sad work along the New Jersey coast; and especially is this true of three miles of coast opposite Manahawkin and Barnegat, which now presents a strange scene of ruin and desolation. Within that distance are to be found the wrecks of five fine vessels.”

Two days later in the paper, “It is many a month since the dwellers along the Atlantic coast have heard old Ocean groan and lash the Beach as it has for the last ten days. It comes upon storm. Numerous disasters are reported along the coast.”

It would appear that Crane’s memory is something you can bank on. If so, the storm still had five days to go.

Shipwrecks are more than just numbers. Each is a tragedy; some are remembered and some are forgotten.

Next Week: Details.


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