Historical Context & Identifying the Shipwreck

Historical Context

Barnegat Inlet North Jetty 1937
Photograph: Lewis D. Crowell, 1937; under the North Jetty

Archival research was undertaken with several objectives in mind. First, a general background history of Barnegat Inlet and the surrounding area, including a detailed maritime history and shipwreck inventory, was compiled to provide historic context for the wreck site. Further research was also undertaken to establish a baseline history of the jetties and their history of construction and maintenance. But paramount to the research was identifying the name of the vessel, and subsequently the history of the vessel from construction to sinking.

Geographically situated adjacent the entrance to the Port of New York, one of the world’s busiest shipping ports, the coastline of New Jersey furnishes the unwary mariner with a multitude of hazards in the form of rocks, shoals, and sand bars — all the worse to meet up with in treacherous weather. There is no major port along the coast of New Jersey from Delaware Bay to New York Harbor; however, a consistently high amount of ship traffic between these two ports occurred during the Historic period. Lesser ports along the New Jersey shore, including Absecon, Barnegat, and Manasquan inlets, were used primarily by commercial fisherman up through much of the twentieth century.

Barnegat Inlet provided an access point to the many settlements surrounding Barnegat Bay. As early as 1684, the area was recognized for its rich fishing grounds, which were exploited as the area’s main economic staple well into the twentieth century. Settlement in the area increased after the inlet closed naturally in 1812, and vessel traffic was directed through Barnegat Inlet. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Barnegat became known as a beach resort community, with construction booming after the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Historically, and even today, Barnegat Inlet has never been used as a port for larger commercial shipping. The abundance of maritime activity outside the inlet lies in the fact that Barnegat rests 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) south of the 40th parallel. This critical spot signaled the change of course for transatlantic vessels. Ships sailing from Europe journeyed south to 40 degrees latitude and then sailed west until land was visible. Once Barnegat Light was in sight, ships bound for New York would sail north following the lights at Sea Grit, Navesink, and Sandy Hook. The lighthouses acted as beacons to guide the vessels toward New York Harbor.

For over three centuries, mariners have known Barnegat as a place of potential disaster. The inlet and shoals of Barnegat have claimed many shipwrecks and lives, with their first known wrecks being in 1705. The constantly changing shoals and channels of Barnegat have presented difficult challenges to sailors passing along the way. It is believed that between 400 and 500 lives have been lost on the shoals of Barnegat and an estimated 40 ships per year wrecked on the shoals prior to the introduction of the steamship, easily earning the coast of New Jersey the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Part of the danger for traversing the Barnegat area stems from the extensive erosion and movement of the shoreline this area has suffered, a major concern since 1835. Only through small-scale attempts was much of the beach protected from erosion prior to the building of Barnegat Inlet’s jetties.

Identifying the Barnegat Inlet Shipwreck

Extensive research was conducted in attempting to identify the Barnegat Inlet North Jetty shipwreck. A review of shipwreck losses and a compilation of shipwrecks, which might be located at Barnegat Inlet, using the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Automated Wreck and Obstruction Information System database, New Jersey Maritime Museum database, response records from LLS Stations, various publications, and previous archaeological investigations of the Project Area was thoroughly examined. Archival research and interviews with locals in Barnegat, Island Beach State Park, and Seaside Park were also conducted, however those were unsuccessful at identifying the shipwreck at Barnegat Inlet’s northern jetty.

Unfortunately, it is easier to understand which shipwrecks the North Jetty Shipwreck is not, instead of which shipwreck it is or could be. Archival research indicated one of the best shipwreck candidates for the Barnegat Jetty Shipwreck was a schooner barge named Dixie. The deciding factors were the vessel’s size, time period in which it was constructed, and reported location when lost. Of all the surrounding shipwrecks, this was the largest vessel to have come ashore at North Beach and was responded to by both nearby LSS Stations. Lost on 20 April 1893, Dixie had a length of 160 feet, a 23.6-foot beam, and 11-foot draft. She was built as a schooner barge in 1890 at Portsmouth, Virginia by D.B. Isham & Son and was owned by Frank N. Isham. She was constructed from oak and pine, and had iron fastenings. Although one of the best candidates for the Barnegat Inlet North Jetty wreck, the use of oak and pine for vessel construction is at direct odds with the analysis of Larch, Tamarack, and Birch, all northern species identified from the wood recovered from the wreck site.

While the Dixie is ruled out as a candidate, three other vessels are a possibility due to their size, construction location and date, and vessel type. These include schooner barges No. 20, No. 21, and No. 28, all of which sank off Barnegat on the same day, 4 February 1926, carrying cargos of coal heading to Boston from Norfolk. No. 20 and No. 28 had been built in 1899 at Bath, Maine, and No. 21 was built in Baltimore in 1901. The construction time period, identified wood types, and vessel length are all in line with what has been determined from the Barnegat Inlet wreck.

While the identity of the North Jetty Wreck may never be absolutely certain, we do know it was constructed somewhere in the Northeast between the last quarter of the nineteenth century through the first quarter of the twentieth century, it was a fairly large vessel probably approaching the 200-foot range, and the best candidates for the wreck are the Schooner Barges No. 20, No.21, and No. 28. This is not surprising given the fact that the schooner barge was an uncelebrated, ubiquitous workhorse of the period, hauling mundane cargos of coal and lumber, with untold numbers passing just offshore Barnegat Inlet during any given year. That many of them wrecked at the inlet is known, that one of them represents the North Jetty Wreck is likely.


Nicole Cooper Minnichbach 
Environmental Resources Branch
100 Penn Square E.
Philadelphia, PA 19107