Telling tales of ships wrecked at sea
Lifesaving stations played critical role in successful rescues

By sherry conohan
Staff Writer

Telling tales of ships wrecked at sea
Lifesaving stations played critical role in successful rescues
By sherry conohan
Staff Writer

PHOTOS BY JERRY WOLKOWITZ  Tom Hoffman, a park ranger and historian, shares his knowledge of shipwrecks and advancements in lifesaving.PHOTOS BY JERRY WOLKOWITZ Tom Hoffman, a park ranger and historian, shares his knowledge of shipwrecks and advancements in lifesaving.

The lifesaving stations of the New Jersey coast and the derring-do of the men who manned them in their effort to save lives and property from shipwrecks offshore have been something of an obsession for Tom Hoffman.

The longtime historian for the National Park Service at the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway National Recreation Area knows the ships and where they sank and what the relevant developments were as the U.S. Life Saving Service evolved into the U.S. Coast Guard.

Fortunately for the rest of us, Hoffman enjoys sharing that acumen in lectures such as one he delivered earlier this month at the Monmouth Beach Cultural Center on Ocean Avenue.

In the days of sail, when ships were made of wood, there was no machinery — no engines — to keep them from crashing ashore in the shallows, he said. With words and slides, Hoffman presented a vivid account of the early rescues from inside one of the original lifesaving stations.

Now the Monmouth Beach Cultural Center, this lifesaving    station played a critical role in maritime safety for the region.Now the Monmouth Beach Cultural Center, this lifesaving station played a critical role in maritime safety for the region.

"This station was a standard plan," he said, referring to the cultural center building. "Sandy Hook had the same style station. It had two lifesaving stations, one at the end of Sandy Hook and another 31/2 miles away at Spermaceti Cove."

Hoffman said one of the first shipwrecks off the New Jersey coast was of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon in 1609, long before there were lifesaving stations and surfmen to help.

He said he believes that it was in Sandy Hook Bay that Hudson, an Englishman hired by the Dutch to try to find a passage to the Far East, started exploring what would become America.

Hoffman said Robert Juet wrote that a northwest wind blew the Half Moon into shallow shoal water, but they were able to refloat the boat in the morning. He said Juet reported the spot had a sand and mud bottom so the ship "took no hurt," making Hudson very lucky indeed.

Hudson spent six days anchored in Sandy Hook Bay and also explored what is now the Hudson River. "He started sailing up the Hudson River to about Albany," Hoffman said.

Sailing in those days was hard, back-breaking work — and dangerous, according to Hoffman.

"It wasn’t a romantic thing at all," he said. "In rough seas, if a ship was pushed too close into shore, it could be wrecked."

A shipwreck in August 1839 at Long Beach Island, just 300 yards offshore — the distance of three football fields, Hoffman noted — in which all the crew drowned while attempting to swim to shore, made a lasting impression on William A. Newell, a medical doctor born and raised in Allentown who witnessed it and would go on to become a congressman from Monmouth County.

Hoffman said that at that time, Monmouth County included what is now Ocean County and had 80 miles of shoreline.

Another shipwreck — of the John Minturn — off Manasquan on Feb. 15, 1846, set the stage for establishment of the U.S. Life Saving Service, Hoffman said. Of the 51 people aboard, 38 perished, either through drowning or freezing to death in the rigging, he said.

In 1848, Newell reported to Congress that 158 sailing vessels had been lost off the New Jersey coast between 1839 and 1848 and asked for an appropriation of $10,000 to build eight "lifeboat stations," Hoffman said. Congress agreed, and the stations, spaced 10 miles apart from Spermaceti Cove on Sandy Hook south to Long Beach Island, were completed in 1849.

Hoffman said the stations were initially manned by volunteers who used a small cannon to shoot a line with a hook out to a ship over which those stranded aboard would be hauled to shore.

He said that was followed by a metallic "lifecar," created by Joseph Francis, which was a metal-covered boat that would be hauled out empty to the ship and then pulled back to shore with up to six people in it under a locked hatch.

The metallic lifecar was first used in a rescue in Manasquan in January 1850. Of the 201 people aboard the ship, there was only one fatality — a man who panicked and jumped overboard as he saw a group of people being pulled away, Hoffman said.

"Because he panicked, he drowned," Hoffman said.

After the Civil War, Hoffman said, Sumner I. Kimball, a U.S. Treasury Department employee, was put in charge of reorganizing the lifesaving establishment. Kimball, according to Hoffman, found that it was falling apart.

In 1971, Kimball obtained $200,000 from Congress to rebuild the lifesaving stations, and the 28 old ones on the Jersey Shore were replaced with larger ones that were painted red for visibility from the sea; the federal government hired full-time staff with six-man crews assigned to each station, Hoffman continued. Each crew consisted of the keeper, who was in charge, and surfmen, he said.

The Sandy Hook lifesaving station, at the tip, was named station No. 1, and the Cape May station was named No. 40. The station at Monmouth Beach was No. 4.

In 1878, the lifesaving system was officially named the United States Life Saving Service, and it was an agency in the Treasury Department.

Jonathan "Captain Jack" Edwards remained the keeper at the Spermaceti Cove station No. 2 for 20 years, from 1879 to 1899, when an injury he suffered in a boat drill forced him to quit, Hoffman explained.

He said a major development was the long-range line-throwing gun invented by Lt. David Lyle, an officer in the Army’s Ordnance Department, from Springfield, Mass.

Lyle fashioned a 170-pound bronze gun on a wooden carriage that had a useful range of 450 yards. He tested the cannon at the Army’s Sandy Hook Proving Ground in 1877, and what became known as the "Lyle gun" was officially put into service the following year.

Hoffman said the gun would be used to shoot a line to a shipwreck, and the crew would then use that line to bring heavier lines to the ship.

Then a breeches buoy in which a person could sit would be hauled out to the ship and back to rescue those aboard. A breeches buoy-type rescue was illustrated in a painting by Winslow Homer, he noted.

A new station design was introduced in the 1890s with a tower, and the lifesavers would scan the sea with a spy glass to watch for any ships in distress, Hoffman explained.

At night through the years, he said, the surfmen would patrol the beach back and forth, meeting with surfmen on patrol from the neighboring station and exchanging brass plates before returning to their bases.

Hoffman told of the 1896 wreck of the Jason, a three-masted cargo ship, which broke in half. Of the 26 men aboard, there was one survivor, who saved himself by burying himself in the sand to keep warm, he said. A lifesaver stumbled upon him when he saw his head.

The incidence of shipwrecks declined with the arrival of steam-powered iron-hulled ships that could stay out off the shore, Hoffman continued. He said the steamships of those days still had masts, however, just in case the engines failed.

In a historic match, Hoffman said, the clipper ship Cutty Sark raced the steam-powered Britannia from China to California in 1893.

"The sailing ship won," he said. "But it was the last hurrah for the age of sail."

In 1915, in an effort to reorganize and modernize two government agencies, the U.S. Life Saving Service was merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to create the U.S. Coast Guard.

Hoffman said that from 1871 through 1914, the Life Saving Service had a "splendid" record of aiding 28,121 vessels and rescuing or helping 178,741 persons, while only 1,455 people lost their lives.

"Today, New Jersey has the most surviving lifesaving stations in the United States," he noted. "This includes the one built at Spermaceti Cove in 1849, the only known survivor of the first eight federally built lifeboat stations. It is preserved at the Twin Lights State Historic Site in Highlands."

Hoffman said the 1894 Spermaceti Cove station has been preserved and open to the public since 1974, when Sandy Hook became a national park.

The lifesaving station that now serves as the Monmouth Beach Cultural Center was built at its present location at Ocean Avenue and Seacrest Road in 1895.

The Coast Guard remained in the structure until the late 1950s.

"The tradition of lifesaving is still carried on by the U.S. Coast station at Sandy Hook," Hoffman said. "The Coast Guard’s official motto, ‘Always prepared,’ echoes the spirit of the unofficial motto of the old Life Saving Service: ‘Remember, you have to go out, but nothing says you have to come back.’"