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SS Morro Castle. Photo courtesy of Rare Historical Photos

Historic Havens: Shipwrecks of the Jersey Shore

By Lori Draz

In addition to many happy memories, the Jersey Shore has seen its share of tragedies. Most of the sorriest tales are those about shipwrecks, and the sad truth is our coastline is the final resting place for hundreds of ships and thousands of souls. 

Certainly among the most notable is the SS Morro Castle. The American ocean liner caught fire and was beached along the shore of Asbury Park on Sept. 8, 1934, claiming the lives of more than 130 passengers and crew members who died on that fateful day. Asbury Park has a lovely memorial to these victims on the boardwalk, near the entrance to the Paramount Theater, so take a moment to reflect. 

Not all shipwrecks were lost at sea. Many were able to be salvaged, and we’ll visit Middletown for this Revolutionary War tale which begins in Sandy Hook.     

Sandy Hook has always played a vital role in the safety and defense of New York Harbor. Both the patriots and British troops took advantage of its strategic location. The Patriots controlled the surrounding shoreline, but British ships also used it for bringing supplies to their troops, all while patriotic observers monitored and reported the movements of ships in the bay. 

Maureen Foster of the Middletown Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution continues the story. 

“Both sides had many privateers (vessels authorized to capture enemy ships), one being the brigantine Britannia. Captained by Jonathan Stout, the Britannia was outfitted with 20 guns, both 6- and 12-pounders, and it was loaded with cargo, probably obtained during a raid on an American vessel. The ship was moored in Sandy Hook Nay, when a nor’easter blew up the coast.

“On the night of Dec. 28, 1779, in the midst of the storm, the Britannia broke loose from her mooring and was windswept to the western shore. Hampered by ice in the harbor, assistance could not reach the brig’s exhausted crew who were not able to save their ship.

“To American observers on the high ground of Middletown, this was a welcomed sight. A British ship dragging its anchors meant an interruption of British shipping both troops and supplies. It also meant a big windfall if the brig could be captured and its cargo and the ship sold.

“News of the brig’s condition spread to the commanders and men of the 1st Regiment of the Monmouth Militia. By the early hours of Dec. 29, the 1st Regiment, commanded by Colonel Asher Holmes, assembled, and by the next day, they gained control of the Britannia somewhere near Shoal Harbor (current day Port Monmouth). They towed it from the bay to the quieter waters of Cheesequake Creek, so it could be unloaded.

“The militia men worked in shifts to unload the ship and guard it at night. The Monmouth County Historical Association has original pay slips of those workers, dated January 1780. Each received 1£ for each day worked, plus the promise of more to follow from the anticipated sale proceeds. But before the militia men collect their extra earnings, the New Jersey Court of Admiralty was required to determine if the militia men had the right to sell the captured cargo and dismantled ship’s parts. The Admiralty Court ruled in favor of Colonel Holmes and his men on Feb. 24, 1780. Over the next few weeks, sales of various lots of the Britannia’s cargo and infrastructure were advertised for sale in the New Jersey Gazette and conducted in the Middletown area. One sale was held at the home of Garret Schank in Middletown who sold beef, pork, bread, coffee, sugar, powder, lead, muskets, swords and water casks, along with the hull of the Britannia. 

“On March 5, 1780, the commander and officers of the 1st Regiment agreed to distribute the proceeds of the sales according to the rank of each participant. Colonel Homes was to receive 11 and one-quarter shares of the proceeds. His officers received between three and nine shares. The enlisted men received two-thirds of one share. 

“To the Monmouth Militia men who were mostly farmers, their share of that prize money was a welcomed addition to their family finances. Though it was an opportunity for financial gain, the more important factor was that these men risked their safety during that December nor’easter to perform patriotic service by capturing the British brig. In fact, many members of the Daughters of the American Revolution can trace their ancestry to one or more of these brave men.” 

The Daughters of the American Revolution has been dedicated to promoting historic preservation, education, patriotism and honoring the patriots of the Revolutionary War since 1890, and they invite anyone who can trace their ancestry to the Revolutionary War era to join this dynamic and progressive chapter based in Middletown by emailing middletowndar@gmail.com.  

There are many, many stories of shipwrecks along New Jersey’s coast. Long Beach Island is another treasure trove of stories and tales of undiscovered pirate’s treasures. We’ll set sail to see more shipwrecks in another Historic Havens, but in the meantime, if you would like to learn more about the many stories of shipwrecks on the Jersey Shore, the definitive resource is New Jersey Maritime Museum. It houses the most extensive collection of maritime history and artifacts in New Jersey. It’s located just a short drive away at 528 Dock Rd. in Beach Haven. You can also study so much about the maritime history of New Jersey at NJMaritimeMuseum.org. 

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