The Brigantine shoals, feared by every ship captain who sailed the Atlantic coast in the days of canvas, were from two to three miles off the beach. Well over 300 vessels of all types have been wrecked on the shoals since the early 1700’s Records of these disasters were not well kept. One of the earliest wrecks of which there is a detailed account was that of the British Troop Transport Hastings which stuck on the shoals in the early part of October, 1775. In an effort to free the ship its master Captain Campbell ordered the cannon, muskets and powder thrown overboard. The effort failed and the British seamen and marines abandoned the craft and made their way to Brigantine beach. They were quickly rounded up by the militia – hastily summoned from inland – and taken prisoner to Philadelphia.
The British frigate Roebuck of 44 guns was wrecked off the south end of the island in 1780. Many of the most tragic Brigantine wrecks were in the 1800’s and were highly responsible for pressure on the federal government for lighthouse and life saving services. The first federal grant for life saving devices was made in August of 1848 through the work of William Newell, at that time Congressional representative of the district. Long an advocate of such a service for coastwise shipping Newell succeeded in gaining an appropriation of $10,000 to provide lifeboats from Sandy Hook to Little Egg Harbor. This was the first such appropriation to any state for this work. The following year another appropriation was made for six stations between Little Egg Harbor and Cape May.
Lighthouses had already come into being. In 1823, one was built at Cape May by the federal government. This was actually the second on the Jersey shore, the first being at Sandy Hook. The lighthouse at the Hook was erected in 1761 by New York merchants who considered it insurance against cargo losses on the Brigantine shoals and other treacherous spots along the Jersey coast. Barnegat light was erected in 1839 on the north end of Long Beach. The first Little Egg Harbor Light, near the south end of Long Beach, was built in 1848.
Dr. Jonathon Pitney, “Father of Atlantic City,” was responsible for the erection of the Absecon light after many years of battling; it was turned on January 15, 1857. Originally on the beach, the 167 foot high lighthouse is now several blocks inland as new land built up in front of it.
One of the tragedies laid to the Brigantine shoals was the wreck of the Scottish barque “Ayeshire” with 200 passengers during the night of December 29, 1849. This particular wreck is important in that it marked a milestone in the early history of life saving techniques.The rescue involved the employment of a breeches buoy with a special apparatus perfected by William Newell. A yoke of oxen was brought to the strand. A ball fired from a mortar threw the line over the vessel. Then a closed life car invented by Joseph Francis of Toms River, was attached and within three minutes the first survivors were brought safely ashore. John Maxen actually threw the line and was later given a gold medal for his part in the affair. There were 201 persons taken ashore by that method in a two-day period. The story of the incident would not be closed without mentioning that Newell went on to become governor of New Jersey and continued a strong advocate of life saving stations.
A far different tale is that of the packet ship Powhatan which on April 15, 1854, at 5 p.m. went aground on the shoals during a fierce Northeast storm. The vessel broke in two and all on board perished. Forty bodies washed ashore on the beach and were buried at Rum Point. Other bodies were found floating in the inlet waters, bays and thoroughfares. Isaac and Robert Smith of Smithville put many of the bodies on two boats and took them to Smithville on the mainland for burial. The bodies were placed in Isaac’s storehouse until the women of the neighborhood could make burial garments. The men made rough coffins and the bodies were placed in a long trench in the old Quaker cemetery at Smithville where a historic marker today calls attention to the tragedy.
Also on April 15, 1854, during the storm, a schooner Manhattan struck upon the shoals about half a mile south of the Powhatan. Nine persons including Captain Fields of Bangor, Maine, were lost. A George Griffiths was the only listed survivor.
Another tragedy of that year was the wreck of the “New Era” with 374 German immigrants in the steerage and eleven passengers in cabins. It ran aground on November 13 on the bar off Deal Beach. Personnel from three life saving stations gathered to help, but because of the extremely rough seas were unable to launch a boat. A lifeline was finally made fast and some of the crew were rescued by this method. However, 240 persons lost their lives in the wreck.
An unusual Brigantine shipwreck occurred in 1847 when the “Florida” hit the shoals. Part of the cargo consisted of 15 bales of ostrich plumes. These plumes became so plentiful that several residents used them to insulate their homes. When the John Turner house was torn down in 1924 many plumes were found in the walls.
Many shipwrecks have occurred since the Settlement of the Country of which no record survives, based upon figures furnished by the Research Division of the United States Coast Guard; and information obtained from all available sources the total would exceed four hundred.
It is recorded that during the decade from 1846-1856, sixty-four vessels were wrecked within a radius of 10 miles of Brigantine.