America’s Storm Warriors: MB Chapter
In the mid-1800s the 10,000-mile U.S. coastline — between Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras — had the most terrible record of shipwrecks. Of this region, the New Jersey shore was notoriously the worst, known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
A growing American population and demand for goods increased the need for shipping vessels, both American and European back then. Between 1880 and 1900, the coast off Monmouth Beach alone had 10 recorded shipwrecks. During those times transatlantic shipping was at a record high and all sorts of vessels traversed the waters off New Jersey. Sailors then navigated by the sun, stars, moon, and horizon. Thousands of passenger and commercial ships moved up and down the coast and naturally an alarming number of shipwrecks occurred.
In March 1849, Henry Wardell, descendant of the first settler of Monmouth Beach, deeded a lot on the beach (across from today’s Park Road) to the U.S. government. An informal lifesaving society built a one-room beach structure, 16-by-28 feet.
According to U.S> Representative William A. Newell, who wrote the law to create the lifesaving service in 1848, there were more than 120 shipwrecks just along the N.J. coast from 1846 to 1848. Congressman Newell, who represented the shore area from Sandy Hook to Little Egg Harbor, had witnessed a shipwreck himself, shortly after his graduation from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1839. During a storm that summer he had watched helplessly from the beach as the Count Teresto was wrecked and all hands aboard were lost. Seeing the dead bodies washed ashore the next day had a profound impact him. A physician, NJ governor, and friend of President Abraham Lincoln, Newell later became the superintendent of the U.S. Life-Saving Association, NJ District.
An informal life-saving service was organized after the infamous wreck of the New Era off Asbury Park in November 1854; nearly 300 German immigrants drown in that nor’easter. In the ensuing years life-saving service crews, men who patrolled the beaches day and night and in all weather, would routinely risk their lives in grand maritime rescues.
In 1871, the service was reorganized and the first station was built on Sandy Hook and then one every five miles down the coast. By 1878, the U.S. Life Saving Service was officially formed. In 1880, a two-story Monmouth Beach station, known as #4 at Galilee (across from today’s Seacrest Road), was built. Six men manned the station and they were required to drill regularly, maintain the equipment, and patrol the beach at least three times a night. The surfmen, as they were called, would patrol until they met up with another surfman and exchanged brass tokens (called “checks”).
“You have to go out, but nothing says you have to come back.”
—U.S. Life-Saving Service motto
A life-saving service pioneer in Monmouth Beach was Major Edward Wardell, who served as Keeper from 1857 to 1875. Keepers were paid $700 per year and a surfman made $50 per month. Charles H. Valentine, Keeper from 1875 to 1884, led a team that earned the illustrious Gold Life-Saving Medal (the service’s highest honor for valor), for his “display of indomitable courage” during the one-day wreck of two ships, the E.C. Babcock (a 288-ton schooner) and the Augustina (a 300-ton brig), off Monmouth Beach during a February 1880 blizzard.
Surfmen Garrett White, Nelson Lockwood, Benjamin Potter, William Ferguson, and John Van Brunt also received Gold Medals. In a hand-written note, U.S. Treasury Secretary John Sherman, the brother of famed Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, recognized the acts and awarded the medals. The crew battled 85 mile-per-hour winds, furious surf, and freezing cold.
After damage from a brutal Spring 1894 storm, service operations were moved to the west side of Ocean Avenue and a Duluth-style station designed by George Tolman was constructed. Wealthy industrialists George Fisher Baker and Edward Walton donated the land. The original structure still stands today, as the Monmouth Beach Cultural Center.
Revered as heroes of the Atlantic Coast, the surfmen motto was “you have to go out, but nothing says you have to come back.” Using things like a beach-apparatus cart, lifeboat, Lyle Gun and breeches buoy, life-saving crews unwaveringly risked their lives in epic maritime rescues. Their work was remembered in story and song back then, but today’s society has largely forgotten about the great sacrifice and dedication of these men who risked all to save others.
The true measure of heroic performance is amazing — from 1871 to 1914, the U.S. Life-Saving Service aided 28,121 vessels, rescued or aided 178,741 persons, and lost only 1,455 casualties. That some real “life-saving.”
In later years, after the invention of the Marconi wireless telegraph and reliable steamships, wrecks were less common. Still, for 60 years, shipwrecks and the U.S. Life Saving Station shaped the history of the state’s coastline.
In 1915, the life-saving service was incorporated into the U.S. Coast Guard. The Guard remained on Ocean Avenue in Monmouth Beach until the 1950s. The N.J. State Marine Police acquired the building and property in 1962 through a Green Acres grant and remained there until a December 1992 nor’easter badly damaged the building. It stood dormant and decaying for many years. Facing a wrecker’s ball in April 1999, townspeople rallied to save the building.
Leaders from a newly reconstituted MB Historical Society were able to convince borough philanthropist Jay W. Ross to fund a $110,000 large-scale rehabilitation effort, and Pat McConville managed the project with great care. In May 2000, the MB Cultural Center was opened under volunteer director Richard L. Keller. Today, a Board of Trustees and dedicated volunteer staff oversee a very popular seashore facility.