History of Brigantine New Jersey
The rich heritage of Brigantine Beach began in the 1500s when the Lenape Indians called our island their "summer playground" or "Watamoonica."
The Dutch were the first Europeans to explore the Jersey coastline searching for a waterway through the New World to the Orient. The log book of Henry Hudson's ship "Half Moon" recalls the first observation of Brigantine Beach on September 2, 1608: "This is a very good land to fall in with, and a pleasant land to see..." The legendary pirate, Captain William Kidd is said to have buried treasure under Brigantine Beach sand.
The name "Brigantine" came from a type of 1600s ship; perhaps one of the first of over three hundred vessels wrecked on the notorious offshore shoals - during a two hundred year period.
In the 1700s several families, whose large landholdings were known as "plantations," owned the island. During the American Revolution, American privateers (patriot - pirates) hid in our north and south inlets and would suddenly streak to attack unwary or disabled British ships. Shipbuilding and salt manufacturing (from sea water) became important industries during the war.
Whalers used Brigantine Beach to launch attacks on migrating whales from New England. Today our Marine Mammal Stranding Center assists sick and injured Whales, dolphins, seals and sea turtles. The Brigantine Wildlife Refuge on our north end is a state protected haven for birds, rabbits, and foxes.
Turn of the 19th Century
Several attempts were made during the late 1800s to develop Brigantine on a significant scale. In connection with one of these attempts, made by the Brigantine Improvement Company, the island's name was briefly changed to "North Atlantic City."
During this period, a railroad was built to connect Philadelphia to Brigantine; 16 trolleys ran the length of the island; and steamboats carried people to and from Atlantic City during the "Gay Nineties." Hotels sprang up and some served as getaways for important people including U.S. President Grover Cleveland. Hard times and harsh storms ended this boom in the early 1900s. In 1917 the City had only 54 full-time residents and an operating budget of $5,400.
During the 1920s, with the advent of automobile access to the island, Brigantine
became the object of a large scale development effort by the Island Development Company, which had succeeded to title to most of the island from the Brigantine Land and Transportation Company. In 1924, a bridge was constructed linking Atlantic City and Brigantine, and a land boom ensued. A boardwalk, a school and a golf course became realities. The Brigantine Lighthouse was built as an attraction and landmark, not as a navigational aid.
The City also undertook a variety of infrastructure improvements, such as streets and sewage and water facilities, for which it issued bonds. With the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, the island experienced a cessation of demand for homes and the Island Development Company ceased operating, deeding its remaining properties to the City.
World War II to Present
Brigantine Beach bounced back again and again, and survived major storms in 1944 and 1962. The Brigantine Inn was the site of the Coastal Warning Service of the US Army during World War II when local citizens made extraordinary sacrifices.
After the war our island grew steadily, building up to our present day year-round population of 9,500. The maintenance of controlled, primarily residential, development of the City is mandated by the City's 1992 Master Plan and by state control of types of development in barrier islands such as Brigantine. The advent of legalized casino gambling in Atlantic City (1978) has caused an increase in certain of these trends, but in the experience of City officials, the basic pattern of orderly growth has continued.
The Brigantine shoals, feared by every ship captain who sailed the Atlantic coast in the days of canvas, were from two to three miles off the beach. Well over 300 vessels of all types have been wrecked on the shoals since the early 1700's. Records of these disasters were not well kept. One of the earliest wrecks of which there is a detailed account was that of the British Troop Transport Hastings which stuck on the shoals in the early part of October, 1775. In an effort to free the ship its master Captain Campbell ordered the cannon, muskets and powder thrown overboard. The effort failed and the British seamen and marines abandoned the craft and made their way to Brigantine beach. They were quickly rounded up by the militia – hastily summoned from inland – and taken prisoner to Philadelphia.
The British frigate Roebuck of 44 guns was wrecked off the south end of the island in 1780. Many of the most tragic Brigantine wrecks were in the 1800's and were highly responsible for pressure on the federal government for lighthouse and life saving services. The first federal grant for life saving devices was made in August of 1848 through the work of William Newell, at that time Congressional representative of the district. Long an advocate of such a service for coastwise shipping Newell succeeded in gaining an appropriation of $10,000 to provide lifeboats from Sandy Hook to Little Egg Harbor. This was the first such appropriation to any state for this work. The following year another appropriation was made for six stations between Little Egg Harbor and Cape May.
Lighthouses had already come into being. In 1823, one was built at Cape May by the federal government. This was actually the second on the Jersey shore, the first being at Sandy Hook. The lighthouse at the Hook was erected in 1761 by New York merchants who considered it insurance against cargo losses on the Brigantine shoals and other treacherous spots along the Jersey coast. Barnegat light was erected in 1839 on the north end of Long Beach. The first Little Egg Harbor Light, near the south end of Long Beach, was built in 1848.
Dr. Jonathon Pitney, "Father of Atlantic City," was responsible for the erection of the Absecon light after many years of battling; it was turned on January 15, 1857. Originally on the beach, the 167 foot high lighthouse is now several blocks inland as new land built up in front of it.
One of the tragedies laid to the Brigantine shoals was the wreck of the Scottish barque "Ayeshire" with 200 passengers during the night of December 29, 1849. This particular wreck is important in that it marked a milestone in the early history of life saving techniques.The rescue involved the employment of a breeches buoy with a special apparatus perfected by William Newell. A yoke of oxen was brought to the strand. A ball fired from a mortar threw the line over the vessel. Then a closed life car invented by Joseph Francis of Toms River, was attached and within three minutes the first survivors were brought safely ashore. John Maxen actually threw the line and was later given a gold medal for his part in the affair. There were 201 persons taken ashore by that method in a two-day period. The story of the incident would not be closed without mentioning that Newell went on to become governor of New Jersey and continued a strong advocate of life saving stations.
A far different tale is that of the packet ship Powhatan which on April 15, 1854, at 5 p.m. went aground on the shoals during a fierce Northeast storm. The vessel broke in two and all on board perished. Forty bodies washed ashore on the beach and were buried at Rum Point. Other bodies were found floating in the inlet waters, bays and thoroughfares. Isaac and Robert Smith of Smithville put many of the bodies on two boats and took them to Smithville on the mainland for burial. The bodies were placed in Isaac's storehouse until the women of the neighborhood could make burial garments. The men made rough coffins and the bodies were placed in a long trench in the old Quaker cemetery at Smithville where a historic marker today calls attention to the tragedy.
Also on April 15, 1854, during the storm, a schooner Manhattan struck upon the shoals about half a mile south of the Powhatan. Nine persons including Captain Fields of Bangor, Maine, were lost. A George Griffiths was the only listed survivor.
Another tragedy of that year was the wreck of the "New Era" with 374 German immigrants in the steerage and eleven passengers in cabins. It ran aground on November 13 on the bar off Deal Beach. Personnel from three life saving stations gathered to help, but because of the extremely rough seas were unable to launch a boat. A lifeline was finally made fast and some of the crew were rescued by this method. However, 240 persons lost their lives in the wreck.
An unusual Brigantine shipwreck occurred in 1847 when the "Florida" hit the shoals. Part of the cargo consisted of 15 bales of ostrich plumes. These plumes became so plentiful that several residents used them to insulate their homes. When the John Turner house was torn down in 1924 many plumes were found in the walls.
Many shipwrecks have occurred since the Settlement of the Country of which no record survives, based upon figures furnished by the Research Division of the United States Coast Guard; and information obtained from all available sources the total would exceed four hundred.
It is recorded that during the decade from 1846-1856, sixty-four vessels were wrecked within a radius of 10 miles of Brigantine.
Captain Kidd : In the late summer of 1698 – according to tradition and scattered evidence available – the barkentine that served as flagship for the notorious Captain William Kidd of Greenock, Scotland, anchored near the mouth of Brigantine Inlet. Kidd and his first mate, Timothy Jones, accompanied by several of his crew came ashore in a long boat, on the bottom of which rested a heavy leather and brass-bound sea chest. This chest was buried among the dunes. The men were sent back to the ship and, according to the story, the chest was dug up by Captain Kidd and his mate and reburied at a new spot… To this day that final burial place has remained hidden and elusive to all. The story also relates that, following the second burial, a fight ensued between Mate Jones and Captain Kidd during which Jones was killed and buried beside the chest of loot. Captain Kidd then sailed away to further adventures.
A more romantic story concerning the famed pirate captain is that he became enamored with an Ocean County lass known only as Amanda. She persuaded Captain Kidd to abandon his uncertain, although colorful, career and settle in the wilds of South Jersey. In preparation for this move he decided to divide much of available loot with the crew and bury the rest on Brigantine. His ship was anchored in the mouth of the Mullica River when he was betrayed by a dissatisfied crew member and had to make a run for it out to sea. Captain Kidd made good his escape, but was captured in the vicinity of Boston in late 1699 and sent to England for trial. Charged with piracy and murder, Captain Kidd was found guilty and hanged in London on May 24, 1701, protesting his innocence to the last. If these additional buried treasures actually existed, Amanda and her captain kept their final resting place an external secret. The cache has never been found.
Blackbeard : Another visitor of Brigantine's pirate days was the legendary Captain Teech, better known as Blackbeard. When things became too dangerous in the Caribbean, he sailed up the coast to the Little Egg Harbor, making one of the small islands to the back of Brigantine his headquarters. It was while there that the British sought his capture, but he escaped by sinking himself in the waters of the meadows, breathing through a thin reed until the searchers had passed. He immediately departed the coast and was finally on the Spanish Main.
Captain Kidd burying his treasure, an illustration by Howard Pyle.
Information courtesy of "The Annals of Brigantine" by Paul C. Burgess.