By Reilly Platten Sharp
The saga of Nat Ewer II and the Lucy Evelyn is as American as apple pie. It is a tale of setbacks and new beginnings, the chance to start again. When Nat and his wife, Betty, sat in a New Bedford, Massachusetts auction house in 1948 to bid on the ship, it was destiny that brought them together and would bind them for the rest of their lives. The Ewer’s son, Nat III, remembers how it was for his parents, his brothers, and sisters, and for himself with Lucy in their lives. The ship and the entire development that was centered on it was not just a business. It was family. “My father was very sentimental about the ship,” recalled Nat III. “[the day of the 1972 fire] It was hard to call him and tell him. That was his lifetime achievement.” A lifetime, indeed, was what it took to come to the radical idea of making a business out of a large ship pulled onto dry land. But it made simple and well-learned sense — Nat II needed a ship for those times when water flooded Long Beach Island, and the Lucy Evelyn needed land to stay away from the water that almost wrecked her several times over.
The three-masted schooner was built in Harrington, Maine in 1917 for Capt. Everett Lindsey of Machias for what would be 1.5 million dollars today. He chose the name to honor both of his little girls, Lucy, and Evelyn. And almost immediately she seemed to be a damned ship. The day of her maiden voyage, loaded and manned, was delayed for months at the last minute because of a sudden freeze that would trap her in the harbor for the entire winter. Things progressed in what became an all-too-familiar pattern of success and failure for her.
Her pearly white paint job gave her a glow in the Caribbean and Atlantic sun as she crisscrossed the ocean over the years, at times setting records for fastest crossings. But tribulation was never far from her horizon.
She nearly sank off Cape Cod and kept afloat in part because of her cargo of lumber. She grounded and lost her rudder another time. Later, a tug could not hold her on course, and she grounded yet again. Horrid weather supposedly blew her nearly to Africa just trying to round Cape Cod bound for New York from Maine. When she suffered the latest financially disastrous trip in early 1948, Capt. Lindsey had had enough. The Lucy Evelyn was tied up at port and he put her on the auction block in hopes of recouping his losses and making the crew of the last voyage whole. Nat Ewer II waited that day until her lot came up and made his move.
As Nat III remembers it, his father’s own professional trials and tribulations began about 1938 when he ran a little gift shop, he called the Sea Chest on the old Beach Haven boardwalk. When the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 roared by, devastating the Island, it also wiped out the last remnants of the once-lengthy boardwalk dating back to the 1890s and the heyday of the two grand old hotels, the Engleside and Baldwin. The Ewer’s Sea Chest was among those casualties marking the end of an era. “Everybody had good pickings on the beach,” Nat III recounted. “All the stuff that was in the gift shop was strewn 10 miles either side of it on the beach.”
Nat and Betty Ewer were faced with starting over. Although its best days were behind it, the Baldwin Hotel still functioned as a local institution, including storefronts that once included a pharmacy. Nat II grabbed a now vacant space on the ground floor and made his store anew. Like his equally unlucky future business partner, Lucy Evelyn, Nat II also suffered a series of Jobsian setbacks. The Baldwin suffered a fire that destroyed part of one whole wing in 1947 and suffered flooding another year that damaged the shop. Once again, Nat II rolled up his sleeves and rebuilt, relocating to a small building on the Boulevard.
“But it flooded,” Nat III ruefully said. “It flooded two seasons…. so we learned to live with that. And dad said, ‘darn it, the next time we hit a problem [the shop] is gonna float.’”
At the auction in New Bedford in 1948, Nat II was amazed at the price being asked for this white schooner that was one of several possibilities he was determined to bring back to Beach Haven to finally solve his war on flood damage. In the end after some last-minute bidding drama, Nat and Betty were the new owners of a $1,550 cat-infested, old refrigerator-filled, paint-peeling derelict being sold to satisfy the final meager debts of a frustrated and defeated old Maine captain. For the poor ship and her plagued new owner, this was another chance at redemption for both to chart a new course toward a future together. It was a match made in heaven. But it would take a little longer to be realized.
They say history is cyclical. Eventually it will repeat. Lucy’s false start at her beginning before she could live her life on the sea was decided by fate to be the same way she would be reborn for her new life as a land-locked ship sailing the ocean of dreams brought on board by all her guests as she was packed, summer after summer, for years to come by excited families. After careful planning, the Lucy Evelyn was towed down from New England up through Little Egg Harbor Bay and anchored off Beach Haven the summer of 1948. It was then that everyone discovered her draft was deeper than they thought and the water near spots where Nat II thought she could be berthed was far too shallow. So, she sat just offshore, within sight of her future home, for months until channel dredging by Harvey Cedars’s own Reynold Thomas and the right high tide could bring her home where she would stand tall for twenty-four years.
Nat III leaned into a back door of the Lucy Evelyn that terrible Tuesday morning, February 8, 1972. What he saw was a vision out of hell. “It looked just like the inside of a barbeque, bright red coals everywhere I looked — as far as you could see.” The ship caught fire late the night before and burned, not as a great towering inferno, but like a roast slowly cooking. The fire had started when the old heater just got too hot on a bitter cold night of a gale and kept trying to do its job to keep the place from freezing. The dried-out timbers above it, though, could not take the sustained blasts of fiery air and eventually turned to embers that spread around the ship. According to Nat III, the fire spread like a stalking predator between the inner and outer hull ship-wide, the spaces functioning like chimneys sending flames licking upwards toward the deck, making it very difficult for fire hoses from down on the street to reach. The Lucy Evelyn endured three days of what amounted to an Island-appropriate Viking funeral.
The words of the chief of the Beach Haven fire department still ring in Nat III’s ears today. “We might as well let it burn.”
The fire chief did not want to put his men in danger since there was no one on board and no one nearby in danger when the fire started. But he was worried the tallest mast would fall into the marina and take out some of the docked boats there. That was when Nat III sprang into action.
“I just went and tapped all the [mast] pins which are all now free and pulled the mast over with my little Ford Bronco.” For him, that was the moment the night hit home. “That was a heart breaker for me,” he somberly recalled nearly fifty years later. “That’s when I knew the Lucy Evelyn was lost.”
While sifting through the ashes and ruins that the Ewers debated how to deal with — cut it all down to what was stable and sell their wares on the now open-air lower deck, buy another boat somewhere, rebuild to code a concrete-form shaped like a boat — it was discovered that the timbers at and below ground level were badly deteriorated and soft. At some point the weight of everything above would have caused a catastrophic structural failure that could have led to injury or loss of life if it happened during a busy summer day when the ship was crowded. With that knowledge, looking back the family agrees it was possibly for the best that things happened the way they did, as painful as it was to lose the centerpiece of the family business and an old friend.
Nat and Betty had to begin again after so many years of good luck. But they were not starting from scratch like all the times before. They lost what they called “the World’s Most Unusual Gift Shop and Marine Museum,” a place selling everything sea-related and covered in pictures and relics washed up. A specialty were detailed hand-drawn maps telling the history of the Island sold on large hanging canvases hand-colored by Nat’s daughter-in-law Carol. But even without the original shop, by then they had added eight buildings on the sprawling bay-to-Boulevard property that offered a variety of fun items, from Christmas decorations and clothing to homemade candies and various sea flotsam in addition to what was sold at the Sea Chest. After the fire, Nat II did what he always did and put his efforts to the grindstone with his now older family, and together they grew what was called Schooner’s Wharf into something that could survive even without the storied landmark ship. And they did, with nearly a dozen shops lining the shopping strip ten years after the fire until Nat II finally reached the point where he had done all he set out to do and passed on what had become a legacy borne out of floods and dogged determination. In 1982 he told the Atlantic City Press that “at the age of 70, I decided it was time I slowed down a bit and let someone else take over.” He sold the entire enterprise for four million in current dollars to local partners who promised to carry forward what he had started. Like Nat II, they started over in order to move ahead by tearing the lots down to the sand and constructing a new expanded shopping center designed to emulate the classic seashore architectural styles, complete with a scale replica schooner ship at is center in honor of the Lucy Evelyn.
But nothing would ever replace the old ship that endured so much hardship to end up with the family that would give her peace. And she meant as much to the Ewers as she did to the Island and the swell of summer guests. “Barnegat Lighthouse and the Lucy Evelyn,” Nat II boiled it down in one interview with the Atlantic City Press after the 1982 sale, “they were the only two attractions on Long Beach Island then.” If not for being chronically flooded, Nat and Betty might never have been at that auction in New Bedford. Between that and a twenty-four-seven work ethic, “thousands and thousands of people did enjoy the Lucy Evelyn thanks to mother and dad,” according to Nat III.
Although she never set sail again, Nat and Betty were there to see the Lucy Evelyn float one last time and fulfill Nat’s prophecy that his last store would be inside something that floats, just in case. That day came during the five devastating high tides of the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962. On March 8 during the peak of the storm, the Asbury Park Press reported that they had heard from Betty who told them that “the red water line of the Lucy Evelyn is a good three feet above the broken sidewalk” that lay below the surface of flooded Beach Haven.
Nat II and the Lucy Evelyn were there for each other when they both needed it the most. A more unique business and personal relationship between one man’s determination and, of all things, a land-locked ship could not be conjured up. It is simply the stuff of dreams possible in Long Beach Island sand.