By Reilly Platten Sharp. Photography courtesy of Reilly Platten Sharp and the Barnegat Light Museum
In the 400 years since mariners first navigated the Barnegat shoals, man has fought nature there in a never-ending war for survival, a constant reminder that for all the technological advancements and the belief that humankind had conquered the seas, there remain forces beyond its control that vex and humble even the bravest. A beacon at the northern tip of old “Long Beach” has been one of the greatest weapons in humanity’s arsenal against the mighty sea.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, signal fires near Barnegat inlet were used to guide ships away from danger and lure them into it. Some of the most unscrupulous men among the so-called “Barnegat pirates” would use false signal fires to lead cargo-laden ships onto, rather than away from, the shoals to plunder their cargo for patriotic or personal gain. In 1834, after much com-plaint from sea captains, a lighthouse was constructed. Designed by Winslow Lewis, whose low-cost and quickly-built navigational aids populated the east coast in those days, the tower was woefully under-powered and undersized for the duties it would be expected to perform.
Standing barely fifty feet tall, the fifth-class light, powered by Lewis’ patented lamp which used metal reflectors to amplify lighted wicks, was cursed by these same captains almost immediately. In inclement conditions, which were often in the most dangerous winter months, its visibility was of little more benefit than the signal fires that previously toyed with mariners. The beacon did not flash, as would become the method by which vessels could easily identify one light house from another. Often captains could not be sure which inlet they were near when they sighted the Barnegat light. By 1856, the advertised cost-savings and speedy construction of the Lewis lighthouse began to show its shortcomings. The poorly constructed lighthouse had begun to deteriorate as stonework regularly fell from its sides. What’s more, it was under imminent threat of collapsing into the encroaching inlet, a fate to which it would eventually succumb. On the heels of its increasingly troubled legacy, Lt. General George Meade was dispatched by the federal government to inspect the inlet situation and make a recommendation. No mere local aid, the light at Barnegat inlet was critical to Atlantic traffic. Incoming ships from Europe bound for New York’s bustling harbor would reach America either on eastern Long Island or about the central New Jersey coast. A reliable and capable navigational aid at this entry point was essential to the future of the United States. While plans were already underway to replace this light that failed, it would not come soon enough for the packet ship New-York and the bark Tasso on the night of December 19, 1856.
Massive swells rolled across the ocean like mountains. Angry skies swirled just above the masts as a bitter, snow-driven northeast wind howled into the taught sails. Darkness surrounded the New-York and Tasso as they approached the island of Long Beach from the south that long winter’s night. Captain McKennon of the New-York, a three-masted schooner of the Black Ball line out of New York with 307 souls on board sailing from Ireland, recounted his ship’s arrival, one mirrored by Captain Goldsworthy of the bark Tasso and her fourteen passengers. Their stories were front-page news for over a week, most prominently in the pages of a new publication, The New York Daily Times.
McKennon told The Times, “Just before midnight on the 19th, we were sailing on [northwest by north] when I noticed several vessels’ lights. I thought we were about one hundred and thirty miles from land. Soon afterward we noticed a light, which proved to be the light-house at Barnegat. It came upon us all at once, and we thought it a vessel’s light. The mate and myself thought it might be a pilot boat.”
A few hours later, the Tasso was in the same position. In a letter to the owners, Goldsworthy admits the wreck was a result of the same Siren’s call. “I took the light at Barnegat for the New-York Lightship and tacked and stood to the [southwest]. About half an hour after we [tacked] saw breakers forward.”
Both ships fought the push toward the beach, but the force of the wind and swell soon grounded them on the outer bars. The New-York was about 150 yards from the beach two miles north of Barnegat inlet on Island Beach. The Tasso was about the same distance but three miles south of the inlet on Long Beach near present-day Loveladies. There they sat, passengers and crew of both ships, frightened and weathering the raging storm rocking the vessels while waves crashed onto the decks, waiting for sunrise and the possibility of aid.
Later that day, word reached New York that a wrecker from Manasquan, Captain John Maxon Brown, and the crew of life-savers from a nearby station led by his son, John Ashley Brown, had assisted evacuating all 307 from the New-York onto the beach.
“[John Ashley Brown] soon effected a connection with the ship by means of the mortar and line,” reported a Times correspondent who had raced to the scene, “at which practice he is said to be very expert. His own life-car was put immediately in use, and soon another was brought from the station next to the northward, when both were constantly plied in transporting the passengers from the ship to the shore; by this means the entire ship’s company were all landed without an accident, by midnight of Sunday.”
To the south, on the Tasso, local life-savers had similarly done their heroic duty, but, sadly, paid the ultimate price when a life-boat rolled in the frigid breakers, killing four from the ship and two of the rescuers. For the survivors of the Tasso — local shelter and provisions on Long Beach would bring an end to their suffering. The wayward 307 survivors from the New-York on deserted Island Beach would not be so fortunate. Theirs was just beginning.
“Nearly all the passengers,” according to Captain Brown, “were wandering about the beach – looking up shelter.” He reported that the station house was far too small to hold all of them and lacked provisions. The only other nearby house was a “miserable shanty” occupied by “Uncle” John Allen, a former keeper of Barnegat Lighthouse. “This poor old man is blessed with a large heart – out of his scanty stores he divided to the last with the unfortunates.” Amidst the deep snow and howling, biting wind, Capt. Brown went ahead of the party and harassed every home and wagon he crossed up the beach in search of anything to help the mass of humanity now in his charge.
In those days, the southern end of Island Beach was isolated from the mainland for nearly twenty-miles until one reached Manasquan. No bridges had yet been built. And no ships could cross the ice-choked bay, let alone amidst the storm which lasted into Saturday, December 20th, followed by another a few days later. The unfortunate combination of circumstances meant no help would be coming from New York. No rescue boat of any kind, as those on scene presumed would come.
What followed was a forced march for survival led by Capt. Brown and others. Stranded on the beach the poor passengers and crew had no choice but to walk to the nearest supplied shelter near Manasquan and, ultimately, the road to New York in Freehold, over fifty-miles from the wreck. Some did not survive the first day on the beach for cold and hunger. More still would not survive the march. Many of those who did finish their voyage to New York faced an uncertain future as Irish immigrants seeking a new life in America, now without anything but the wet clothes on their back. After handing off over 300 surviving passengers to others in Freehold who would guide them the rest of the way, Capt. Brown returned to the vicinity to complete his task of salvaging the wreck, if possible. He also made time for a pursuit.
Amidst the chaos of the rescue, several of the crew took to robbing the passengers and looting the Captain’s quarters. Upon returning to his ship after securing a landing spot on the beach, McKennon was brutally assaulted by the mutineers and nearly killed. “Capt. BROWN,” The Times reported, “is said to be in pursuit of the other hardened villains concerned in the assault.” One was found in the course of the evacuation to have frozen to death on the beach and hurriedly covered with sand.
The tragedies that unfolded those snow swept, bitter December days on both sides of Barnegat inlet drew calls for reform and expansion of the Life-Saving Service and the improvement of navigational aids such as the Barnegat Lighthouse. In a story on a resolution offered by New Jersey Senator J. R. Thom-son (D), The Times went further in identifying the problem, and did not hold back in doing so.
“A few days since 300 men, women, and children landing, in a storm, from the wreck of the New-York, were compelled to pass nearly three days on the beach near Barnegat Inlet, wet and chilled, without shelter, fire, or food. Many of them, after having escaped from their stranded ship, perished from hunger, hardship, and the severe cold, only because a few well-appointed station-houses have not been established by the Government, upon a coast which is known to be the most dangerous section of our seaboard, and to whose dangers every ship approaching New York, in the Winter season, is exposed.”
Because of the often-unforgiving weather and the frequency of such tragedies, the waters off Barnegat inlet earned a reputation as the “graveyard of the Atlantic.” But, following this latest loss of life, at long last calls for action had not fallen on deaf bureaucratic ears in Washington. Lt. Gen. Meade of the Army Corps of Engineers would be walking the dunes about Barnegat inlet a few months later devising not just a new lighthouse, but one of the first-class that would never again be the bane of vessels arriving to the new world at the Barnegat shoals. A light that would never fail. It would be a 169 feet-tall tower, equipped with a first-order Fresnel lens instead of the old Lewis lamps. Designed and approved for construction that same year, building began in early 1857. Erosion meant it would need to be constructed considerably farther south from the inlet than the first lighthouse, which finally fell into the inlet in 1858. The new location would require land to be purchased. This land would come from none other than the Manasquan wrecker, John Maxon Brown.
At the time he was salvaging the New-York, Capt. Brown bought much of the acreage that became Barnegat Light. He and his son, Ashley, fixed up a local hotel, leaving the latter to run it after he left the Life-Saving Service. Renaming it the Ashley House, the Browns lived and worked on the north end of Long Beach for several years. The area became so synonymous with the family that locals even took to calling it Brownsville. But, just as man battled the sea in those waters, winning as often as losing, so too did the Brown family come face to face with mortality. In September 1874, while sailing north off North Carolina, a storm, possibly tropical, caught up with a ship Ashley was commanding and was sunk. The Brown family and locals were devastated. Capt. Brown sold his remaining lands in Brownsville and retired from life by the sea for the rest of his days.
And so, the battle rages on to this day. It is a special kind of love-hate relationship humankind has with the ocean. A friend of Ashley’s, Thomas Applegate, whose family owned and managed the Barnegat Light general store for generations, eulogized his friend and summed up life by the sea at Barnegat inlet best:
“Down by the sea! Where the signal is flashing
Far out on the wave, the light from the tower
That tells me of the breakers of Barnegat, dashing
With merciless fury and pitiless power—
There my boy made his home; by the light of that beacon
He fought with the storm at the cry of distress;
No hurricane blast his courage could weaken,
And hundreds are living his efforts to bless.
Every sound from the roaring surf tells me of thee,
My brave-hearted boy that lived down by the sea”
The Barnegat Light Museum at 501 Central Avenue has documented this history and has more on the Brown family and lighthouses on display. For more information about the history and people of Barnegat Light please see facebook.com/groups/barnegatlightmuseum