It seemed fitting that Dan Lieb’s lecture on “Shipwrecks off NJ Coast” occurred on a dreary and stormy night. With a coastline of 126 miles, 7,200 shipwreck accounts have been recorded in New Jersey. This equates to a little over 7% of the nation’s maritime incidents. The expression “wreck” constitutes a rather broad category in itself. “Wreck reports” throughout the state’s history described everything from the nautical versions of “fender benders” to ships sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Exploration of the latter became a popular diving pursuit after the Pinta sank in 1963.
The Elizabeth Tuttle Fund along with the cooperative effort between the Historical Society of Moorestown and the Moorestown Library hosted this event on November 16th. It took place at the Moorestown Library.
Mr. Leib serves as the President of the NJ Historical Divers Association. The group studies wreckage off the Jersey coast and identifies from what ships it originated. They also “map” wrecks so one can see the location and layout of the remaining sections of sunken ships. The organization incorporated in 1995. On April 1, 2006 it opened a museum which it plans on expanding within the next two years.
Mr. Lieb recovered his first artifact during a 1977 dive. He located a large bronze valve that he wittily referred to as “plumbing” at the site of the Rusland and Adonis wreckage sites. This atypical location includes two ships that went down in the same place. They didn’t collide, however. The former ship wrecked in 1877 on the wreckage of the latter; the Adonis having sunk 18 years previous.
While two ships sinking in the same area doesn’t occur often, it’s not improbable. The Millville and the John H. Winstead sank approximately 1000 feet away from each other. These wrecks occurred during the same storm in December of 1927.
New Jersey’s seas don’t experience the same volume of hurricanes as North Carolina or Texas. They still encounter deadly storms. Weather has caused myriad disasters throughout the state’s history. In 1854 both the Powhattan and the New Era wrecked because of storms. These two incidents caused a combined loss of over 500 lives. 1846 saw a host of weather related catastrophes. The John Minturn and nine other vessels wrecked due to bad meteorological conditions.
Mr. Lieb discussed the most unusual find he’s encountered. While exploring off the Long Branch coast, divers discovered locomotives on the sea bed. Historians do not yet know how these trains arrived at their watery resting place.
Aside from the interesting facts regarding actual ship wrecks, the speaker added a bit of miscellany to enhance the discussion. He explained that at times organizations will intentionally sink boats. They do this in order to create habitats for sea life. Muscles and other underwater denizens thrive in these artificial additions to their environment.
Following the advent of lighthouses, over 40 life-saving stations operated along the New Jersey coastline. People who worked in these buildings performed a rather unique service. During bad weather, such as hurricanes, they would be tasked with walking from one station to the next and back again while looking out at the sea for shipwrecks. These brave souls would carry two tools. They held a lantern so they could see through the heavy rain. They also carried a flare in order to signal those on a stranded ship that help would soon arrive. The person would then return to the station and get assistance. In essence, sea rescue would entail tying a line to the shore and the other to the boat. Using whatever in vogue device preferred at the time, rescuers would ferry passengers from the ship to the shore amid dangerous seas and heavy gales.
In several pictures of wrecks Mr. Gelb displayed, a row of large black boxes appeared across ships’ exteriors. He explained that from a distance these painted figures would be mistaken for cannon holes. They deterred pirates from attacking. Fear of these sea marauders caused the dark squares to appear on ships until the early years of the twentieth century.
On land we know New Jersey as the Garden State. Beneath the waves the sea also takes on a verdant hue. Mr. Gelb animated the “emerald world” he encounters off the coast. Now other states can really feel “green.” Not only does New Jersey have a rich history on land, we’ve got one to inspire jealousy under our coastal waters as well.