“We have become an island of lost landmarks. Fire, storm, tide and general obsolescence have claimed nearly all of them. The big hotels, the boardwalk, the gunning clubs, the train, the old causeway and even Tucker’s Island itself have all vanished. All we have are photographs and the memories of those people who were here and who lived through these changing times....”

— from the Preface

Eighteen Miles of History
On Long Beach Island

By John Bailey Lloyd

The past is brought to life in this loving history ...”

— the first edition, as described by The Record of Hackensack

204 pages, 237 illustrations, photographs, and maps; index and bibliography
$38.00 hardcover
ISBN 0945582-17-X


THE RED HOUSES OF LONG BEACH

by John Bailey Lloyd

Excerpted from Chapter 8 of Eighteen Miles of History on Long Beach Island by John Bailey Lloyd. Copyright © 1994. All Rights Reserved.

All through the nineteenth century, accounts of shipwrecks fill the pages of eastern newspapers. Big storms, fog and navigational error caused so many vessels to run aground each year off the uninhabited Atlantic barrier beaches that government intervention finally became necessary. The movement began in New Jersey with its 127-mile coastline, where a combination of heavy traffic on the way to and from the busy port of New York and frequent northeast storms had made it a highly dangerous lee shore. New Jersey also lay directly in the path of the sea lanes from Europe.

Low-lying, nearly invisible barrier beaches were a considerable hazard in themselves, but what posed the real danger to wayward sailing ships was the system of continuous, submerged sand bars which lay anywhere from one hundred to four hundred yards in front of the beaches along the coast from Sandy Hook to Cape May. It was on these sunken and sometimes shifting reefs that most ships grounded and then broke apart before anyone aboard could be saved. Except at the highest tides or in natural cuts near inlets, sand bars and shoals were a constant menace to mariners in the coastal trade.

Many a fine ship, its sails blown to shreds, its hull and masts leaning, was discovered in the first light of a winter dawn settling into the sandy ridges out beyond the breakers. The faint cries of doomed passengers and crew rose and fell on the howling wind. There seemed to be no well-conceived plan in those years to get people safely from ship to shore without a boat, and usually the right kind of boat was not available. Those on the beach had no choice but to stand by and watch the ship break up in the crashing waves of the next high tide. Then the bodies would wash ashore. Some means, it was agreed, must be provided to get wreck victims safely through a quarter mile of churning surf before they drowned or froze to death. Not even a strong swimmer could survive a distance of three hundred yards in forty-degree water.

Aside from better lighthouses, perhaps, there really was not much that could be done in those years to prevent ships from running aground in foul weather. There were, however, ways and means to save lives when a ship became stranded. Volunteers could operate surf boats, and there was no shortage of local men who knew how to use them. There were other devices, too. Around 1840, a small cannon called a line gun had been perfected to shoot a projectile with a thin line attached, from the beach out to the stranded vessel. If properly aimed, the line fell across the rigging where a crew member could seize and use it to pull toward him a much thicker “hauling” line. When this was secured to the ship, a block or pulley and a cork ring called a breeches buoy could then be hung from the line to travel back and forth between ship and shore until everyone was safe. There was also a cumbersome and new torpedo-shaped device called a “life car” that could bring in several people at one time in its nearly airtight compartment.

What was needed along the nearly deserted barrier beaches, then, was a way to store the surf boat and all the other heavy and complex equipment so that they could be gotten to by volunteers and dragged down the beach to a site opposite the ship in distress. Such a building could also be used to temporarily house survivors until they could be taken to the mainland. Early in the century, the state of Massachusetts had experimented with this concept with shelters provided by the Humane Society.

Shipwrecks went on each year with a mounting loss of life and property. The winter of 1847 was so bad that Congressman William A. Newell of New Jersey was able to push through the first federal appropriation for lifesaving. It was only ten thousand dollars, but it was a start. Newell took the money provided by a reluctant Congress and in 1850 was finally able to buy boats, rockets and other newly invented rescue apparatus to be stored in several so-called “houses of refuge” which were to be built all along the Atlantic coast.

The first such house went up at Sandy Hook, and in a very short time there were others built, usually at intervals of twenty miles as they were in New Jersey where there were more ship strandings. There were two on Long Beach Island, one at Harvey Cedars and the other at the south end near Bond’s Hotel. Each unit was placed in the charge of a responsible local person, and each small, wooden building was stocked with the best modern equipment for lifesaving. Volunteers turned out in the event of an emergency. There was no provision for salaried keepers or crew; that would not be for another twenty years.

In case of washout, each house of refuge was built atop sunken pilings, and the building’s frame was strong enough to withstand relocation in case the pounding surf altered the shape of the beachfront. These early houses were not painted and had to be fairly close to the water so that they could be seen. Each house was about fifteen feet high, covered with cedar shingles on the roof and sides, and had big, barnlike doors on the lee side of the building so that equipment could be taken out quickly. Inside each building was a fully equipped boat on a wagon, a mortar apparatus with its lines, powder and shot, and the life car.

When there were no volunteers present, these early houses of refuge were not easy for shipwreck survivors to find. Signboards were placed at intervals in the dunes to aid them and were printed in several languages. Those who managed to get ashore in foul weather might have perished had they not been able to find these houses. There was straw in the bunks, wood for the stove, matches in a tin case, a barrel of hard bread, coffee, a cask of fresh water, salted meats, blankets and warm clothing. All of this was in addition to the equipment used by the volunteers in rescue work.

After the wreck of the Powhatan off Long Beach Island in 1854 with the loss of more than three hundred lives, it was clear that the volunteer system was not always dependable. The closest house of refuge at Harvey Cedars had not been close enough for the volunteers to drag the heavy equipment through deep snow in time to get opposite the wreck, several miles to the south. But Congress, facing the coming Civil War, was unwilling to spend any money to build more houses of refuge and nothing was done until 1870. It was then that Sumner Kimball, a lawyer from Maine, became chief of the Revenue Marine Service of the United States Treasury Department.

Kimball was in charge of all the houses of refuge then in existence, and he ordered an immediate investigation of them. There were only twenty-four on the whole coast from Maine to Florida, and they had been in use for twenty years. Kimball made an inspection down the coast and found the buildings neglected and dilapidated and much too far apart to be useful. Apparatus was rusty or broken, and portable items had been carried off. He persuaded Congress to vote twenty thousand dollars to reequip them and to enroll permanent crews who, he said, “would sleep right beside the boats the way firemen sleep next to their engines.” This was the beginning of the United States Life Saving Service.

The newly formed Life Saving Service provided for each station to be manned by six men and a keeper who lived in the stations from September through April, when there was the most danger from storms. Each was paid forty dollars a month, which was a good wage then for a bayman whose income was seasonal. The keeper got sixty dollars. These men had fished, clammed and gunned in local waters all their lives, and they knew how to operate boats in the surf. Besides their skills, they were chosen for their resourcefulness, courage and integrity. It was a proud service.

Along the desolate barrier beaches from Sandy Hook to Cape May, forty-one units were placed approximately three miles apart. These new station houses were of uniform design, eighteen feet by forty feet and windowless on three sides. They were painted reddish brown and, devoid of any ornamentation save a cupola, lightning rod and large white numerals on their seaward walls, they resembled big barns or garages in the dunes. Locally they were called “red houses.”

Inside the two-story, cedar-shake buildings there were a boat room, a mess room and a bunk room. The doors of the boat room always faced southwest so they could be opened easily in a howling northeaster. The boat room contained the boat and gun carriages and other equipment used in rescue work. Behind it on the same floor was the mess room with a big iron stove. Here the crew cooked, ate and lounged. Upstairs under the eaves was the long bunk room with one end partitioned off for the keeper or commander of the station.

When the Life Saving Service was active, from 1871 until 1915, there were six stations on Long Beach Island. They were Barnegat Inlet, Loveladies Island, Harvey Cedars, Ship Bottom, Long Beach at what is now Beach Haven Terrace, and Bond’s at what is now Holgate. Three miles south of Bond’s there was a seventh station on Tucker’s Island, the Little Egg Harbor Station. Of these stations, Loveladies Island, Harvey Cedars and Long Beach Station still stand today in their original locations. All the rest have been moved or torn down.
The exact distance from the Long Beach Station at Maryland Avenue in Beach Haven Terrace to Bond’s in Holgate was determined in 1910 with a huge, twelve-foot measuring wheel and proved to be three and three-fourths miles. This was when Bond’s Life Saving Station was still on the oceanfront at Inlet Avenue in Holgate at a spot that is now underwater. It had had an artesian well since 1887 when the station was rebuilt, and today the cap for that well sometimes appears out near the sand bar at extremely low tides. The original station, built in 1871, was a hundred yards farther east of that bar before it had to be abandoned: There is no clearer evidence to show how much the beaches of the south end have eroded in the last hundred years. Bond’s Coast Guard Station east of Inlet Avenue was moved in the 1920s a quarter mile south to Janet Avenue on the bay. It is now a private dwelling.

In all but one of the forty-two stations along the coast the government was a squatter on beach land which was becoming increasingly more valuable, and owners were, with some justification, asking to be compensated. But many of these titles were cloudy. Releases had to be obtained from heirs who had moved to distant western states. The title to Loveladies Island was never obtained.

For most of the men in the Life Saving Service on Long Beach Island in the 1870s and 1880s, it was a lonely existence and often a very dangerous one. There was monotony, but the men were seldom idle. They had their nightly watches to perform. Every four hours two men left the station house. One would walk north on the beach and the other south, meet the patrols from the adjoining station houses, exchange a brass token and leave. Then there were routine drills and the maintenance of buildings and equipment as the crews waited and watched. Living at the stations was very much like living in a firehouse. And just as old-time firehouses traditionally kept a Dalmatian dog for a mascot, the Life Saving stations had their Newfoundland retrievers, who often accompanied the night watches on their lonely beach patrols. In the nineteenth century the Newfoundland became the symbol of the Life Saving Service.

In foul weather it was impossible to see the entire beach from the tower, and patrols sometimes had to be run throughout the day as well as the night. The meeting and exchange of tokens was required only on continuous beaches. In a snowstorm all that could be seen to guide the patrol might be the blurry edge of gray water or white, churning surf or the hard sand at low tide. Many an obstacle — a ship’s mast, lumber, an old wreck, a huge dead fish — caused a patrolman to stumble in the dark.

For nineteenth-century vacationers who watched crews practice, launching a surf boat in heavy seas was a stirring sight. The two-wheeled boat carriage was backed into the breakers as far as possible with two men already aboard, the coxswain and the bow man. As the carriage was tipped, the four oarsmen, in knee-deep water, gripped the sides and ran with the boat, bow first, straight into the surf, swinging themselves aboard the moment it began to glide. Then, seizing their long oars, they pulled furiously with all their strength as every wave threatened to roll the boat back onto the beach. They kept their eyes on the coxswain, who was steering and giving commands.
Communication among the six stations on the island was by telephone, a welcome improvement over the old wigwag semaphore used in the early years. The single cable was strung on iron poles which ran along the sand hills on the oceanfront. Each pole was about eight to ten feet high and was usually sunk about three feet into the sand. There were crosspieces on each pole and glass insulators. It was a party line, and each station had a certain number of rings on the bell to indicate who was to answer it.

There were many happy times. In calm weather, families and friends of the men at the stations would sail over to the island for a surprise party, bringing with them cakes and pastries and good things from home. On these occasions the boat room would be used for dancing, but the watch was never neglected, and the surfmen would make their rounds accompanied by their wife or sweetheart. Weather permitting, every holiday was celebrated, especially Christmas, when all of the children would show up. The men in the service at the island’s six stations in the 1890s were all from the oldest families in the region: Perrine, Soper, Ridgeway, Inman, Truex, Cranmer, Sprague, Rider, Rogers, Birdsall, Gaskill, Shinn, Parker, Hazelton, Crane, Falkinberg, Pharo, Rutter.

In the early years of the Service, the men wore civilian clothing, dressing much like the fishermen and baymen that they were. In 1899, right after the Spanish-American War, the Service adopted a naval uniform, largely as a consequence of the recent role they had played in coastal defense acting as sentinels looking for the Spanish fleet. It was not that the enemy fleet was ever much of a threat, but the public perceived it as such.
By the middle of the 1880s, the railroad had come to the island and with it more people. The simple “red houses” became more ornate. There were overhanging eaves, fancy scrollwork and observation decks, and the buildings were painted with popular colors to blend in with the summer cottages. New stations built in the 1890s were required to have a seventy-foot flagstaff and a four-story tower.

All of this was happening just as the need for the Service was declining. It was the age of the steamship, and the old barks, brigantines and schooners were being phased out and turned into unrigged barges. They occasionally parted their hawsers and drifted ashore, but there were seldom any lives to save. Yet many old surfmen refused to retire and stayed on at the station, full of honor and stirring tales of the old days of thudding surf cannons, sleety gales and grateful survivors. With the formation of the United States Coast Guard in 1915, they, like the sailing ships they once rescued, became reminders of a passing era.

Copyright © 1994 Down The Shore Publishing Corp. and The SandPaper, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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