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Along Our Jersey Shore Part 3

And now for the exciting conclusion of the travel tales (a continuation of part 2)….

The first advocate of the United States Life-saving Service was a Jersey-man, William A. Newell, who spoke in its favor before the Congress of 1848, of which he was a member, basing his argument on his own experience of shipwrecks along the shore; and in answer to the appeal an appropriation of ten thousand dollars was made, to which amount ten thousand dollars more were added the following year. As soon as the stations were built, their usefulness became apparent. In January, 1850, a terrible storm broke on the Jersey coast, strewing it with wrecks, and among the rescues made were two hundred and one persons from the stranded “Ayrshire” who were safely brought ashore in the life-car through a surf in which no boat could have lived. But the service was not thoroughly established until 1871, since which time it has been much extended and improved, now having one hundred and fifty-one stations in its system, each being supplied with life-boats, life- cars, and other apparatus for communicating with wrecks. It is divided into eleven districts, the first including the coasts of Maine and New Hampshire ; the second, Massachusetts; the third, Rhode Island and New York ; the fourth, New Jersey ; the fifth, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia from Cape Henlopen to Cape Charles ; the sixth, Virginia and North Carolina from Cape Henry to Cape Hatteras ; the seventh, Florida ; the eighth, Lakes Ontario and Erie; the ninth, Lakes Huron and Superior; the tenth, Lake Michigan; and the eleventh, the Pacific. New Jersey has thirty-eight stations – a larger number than any other district. During the fiscal year ending June, 1876, one hundred and eight vessels were wrecked within the limits of the districts, imperiling about one and three quarter million dollars’ worth of property, of which eight hundred and forty-seven thousand dollars’ worth was saved. Seven hundred and twenty-nine lives were saved, and twenty-two lost. On the Jersey coast alone thirty-six vessels were wrecked; two hundred and forty-eight lives were saved, and six lost.

During the year ending June, 1877, the total number of vessels driven ashore was one hundred and thirty-four, having one thousand five hundred persons on board, thirty-nine, or about two and a half per cent of whom were lost. The total amount of property saved was over one million seven hundred thousand dollars, and the total amount of that lost, over one million five hundred thousand dollars. A brief summary of the operations of the service since Mr. S. J. Kirnball took charge of it in 1871 will better show its usefulness, however. Four hundred wrecks occurred, imperiling over eleven million one hundred thousand dollars’ worth of property; nearly seven million dollars’ worth of this was saved, and of four thousand seven hundred and thirty lives imperilled only eighty were lost. Two thousand eight hundred and sixty-seven days of shelter were afforded at the stations t0 nine hundred and fifty- nine persons. During 1871-72 the operations of the service were confined to the coasts of Long Island and New Jersey; in 1872-74 they were extended to Cape Cod and Rhode Island, and in the next year they were further extended to the limits of the present districts.

The stations are nearly all alike – simple wooden houses, with steep gable roofs, the only projection about them being the lightning-rod, and the only ornament a coat of red-brown paint. From May until November they are unoccupied, though all the apparatus is ready for use; and the rest of the year each becomes the home of a keeper and six surf-men, who are paid forty dollars a month, and are chosen for their experience on the beach. Their duties are concisely stated in the instructions of the Treasury Department, to which branch of the government the Life-saving Service belongs. “During the winter months the beach will be patrolled by the surf-men every night. The patrol will consist of two men from each station, one following the beach toward the next station to the right, and the other proceeding toward the next station to the left, and each continuing his walk until the patrol from the adjacent station is met. Each patrolman will carry a beach lantern, also a red Coston hand-light; and when an inlet separates the stations, he will exchange signals with the patrolman on the opposite shore. On those parts of the coast where the two adjacent houses can not be seen from each other, the bench will be patrolled sufficiently to bring them in sight three times between sunrise and sunset. On the discovery of a wreck or a vessel in distress, the patrolman will immediately burn his red Costou hand-light, both to alarm the stations and give notice to the wreck that succor is near, then returning to the station and assisting in the preparation of the apparatus. Boats, etc., will be prepared for immediate service.” The discovery of a wreck is a matter worth a detailed description, however.

Suppose it is a December night; it is sure to be cold ; from the last of the equinoctials until the west ward- bound steamers from England begin to make good voyages again, there is no warmth to speak of along the Jersey shore. Let us suppose, too, that it is dark and blustering, so that we may feel with full poignancy what a surf-man’s experiences sometimes are. A big fire is blazing in the living-room of the station, and four of the men, with the keeper, are taking their ease around it, or lying in their bunks, while the two others are putting on their coats and mufflers, and looking longingly toward the hearth. The latter are going nut on patrol, and as they are human, they delay as much as possible, re-adjusting their dress, pressing their pilot caps over their heads, pulling their gloves farther on, and giving their neck-cloths a final twitch. The duty is inexorable, and with a last regretful glance at the fire, they shiveringly plunge into the outer night.

What a sharp transition it is! The wind is full of needle-points, and cuts them like a knife, and the darkness blinds them for a few moments, and extends in every direction, except around their feet, over which their lanterns cast a ring of white light, and in the window of the house, which glows with warmth. Above the moaning of the air is the loud heat of the sea, as the waves break on the shore and recede with sibilant sound ; and the spray is lifted and driven inshore by the wind in feathering streaks.

The two patrolmen say “good-night,” and separate ; one looks back to see the lantern of the other swinging to and fro on the sands, and decreasing in brilliancy until it is altogether lost behind a projecting bluff, and he then feels absolutely alone amid an unreal silence that would not be as awful were the waves and wind completely still. The stars are remote and merciless in their crystalline splendor, seeming to be fixed in that black firmament only to show how distant a thing heaven is ; and the sea – it is invisible; where the waves rush up the beach and leave a glazed surface on the sand, a few diamond points reflect the stars, and beyond these an impenetrable wall is built upward ; there is no sea at all; but, watching more closely, the patrolman discovers a vibrant cord of white, rhythmical in motion, like a taut string that is depressed near the middle and suddenly released, and that cord he knows to be, though he can not see, the frothing crest of the successive waves.

The walk would have many terrors for a nervous or superstitious man, or for almost any one of sensitive organization, and the patrolman is superstitions, but he is so familiar with the darkness, the loneliness, and the roar that he treads along the beach in a reverie – not a reverie on the deep secrets over which Nature is brooding, but on so prosaic a matter as the care of a small family who are now fast asleep on the main-land – until he fancies he discovers a light fastened to the black wall. He stands still and looks again; it has disappeared. Before him, as he looks seaward, is that blackness, which seems so solid that one would expect a pebble thrown at it to rebound, and he resumes his march, thinking that, his eyes have deceived him, or that the light has been a phosphorescent sparkle. But there it is again! And now the first light, which has stood at the masthead, is augmented by the flare of a rocket and the blue fire of a signal, which reveal a bark close inshore and in extreme peril.

According to his instructions, the patrolman instantly ignites his red light, which is done by striking the holder against his knee, that action exploding a percussion- rap, and he is surrounded for several seconds by a flood of crimson so vivid and so vigorous that no wind or rain is strong enough to extinguish it. When the light expires, he hastens back to the station with the news, and that quiet outpost is suddenly put into as tumultuous a state as the storm outside. The life-boat is placed on a carriage, the carriage having very broad tires to its wheels, so that they can not sink in the loose sand, and the life-car, with other apparatus, is placed in another vehicle, both being drawn to the point nearest the wreck, where efforts are made to obtain communications with it. There are three possible means of communication – by the life-boat, the life-car, and the life-raft. The first two are in use at all stations, and the last has been adopted at a few, but it is only under very favorable circumstances, or in extremities, that the boat is used. A line is thrown over the wreck either by a rocket or a mortar and shell, several efforts being made before success is attained, and the first line is attached to a stronger one that is secured to a mast of the vessel and to the shore. The life-car is suspended from the line and hauled on board the distressed ship; three or four persons are put inside it, and it is hauled back again, repeating the journey until all are safely landed. But the work is much easier in the description than in the performance. If the wind is blowing on shore, rocket after rocket flies on its meteor-like course through the tempest, falling miserably short, or being carried too far astern or ahead by the wind; sometimes the rocket fails altogether, and the boat or life-raft is the only resource left.

The life-car resembles a covered boat with a few air-holes in the top, the perforations having raised edges to prevent the water from entering, and a ring at each end, with a hawser attached, enables it to be drawn through the surf. The “boatswain’s chair” and the “breeches buoy” are similar, though older and less efficacious, devices. The former is a simple loop of rope hung from a taut stout hawser that extends from the stranded vessel to the beach, and in the loop a person sits and is pulled ashore. The latter consists of a common circular life-preserver, made of cork, with short canvas breeches attached, through which a man thrusts his legs, and, thus suspended, is drawn ashore, as in the chair. Both of these expose the passenger to the fury of the waves, and in the case of women and children, they are not suitable on this account, while the life-car lands its occupants without wetting or exhausting them, unless it capsizes, in which extremity it is liable to prove fatal.

Having seen the signal-man’s red light burning, the crew of the wrecked ship utter a glad cry of deliverance, and wait for the brilliant spurt of the rocket bearing the line to them – wait until the synonym of the word seems to be life-long agony. The ship lies heavily to the leeward, and grinds deeper into the sand as each sea strikes her and breaks over her decks, tearing away the houses and knocking the men off their feet. The sails hang loosely and in pitiable shreds from the yards, and the masts bend unwillingly in the fiercer blasts, and threaten to spring. The shore is invisible, but the thunder of the breakers tells the men that it is near; and presently a tire is lighted on the beach, which fitfully shows the dreary background of sand hills. A rocket is fired, and both those on shore and those on the ship watch it unfold its train of sparks; the wind sweeps it aside, and hopes go out like its own scintillations; another follows, and the breaths of all the watchers are held until it is seen to fall over the deck of the ship, when they are released in a cheer that the violent ill nature of the wind can not quell.

Bill’s brother Aaron came to Beach Haven for us on Sunday morning, and we embarked in his yacht on a cruise up and down the coast. Parting with Bill, who was most affectionate, he gave us an account of an unlucky venture which he once made in prunes. A vessel from the Mediterranean was wrecked, and a large part of her cargo of fruit washed ashore. The sands were strewn with prunes, several cart-loads of which were gathered by Bill and peddled through the country in a carry-all with great success, until he was arrested for selling without a license, and condemned to forfeit his earnings. “The shark’s a derned greedy fish, likewise the octopus, and the ‘skeeter in August,” he commented, at the end of his story, “but they ain’t nothin’ aside of an Ocean County constable.”

We sailed down the bay, and out on to the ocean through the Little Egg Harbor Inlet, which separates Long Beach from Brigantine Beach. It was a white, windless day, and the sea was only disturbed by a silent, sleepy swell; even the water over the bar was unruffled; and white as the day was, the whiter beaches cast dazzling reflections in the lucid air. A fleet of small boats were fishing, and two or three larger vessels were at anchor over the wreck of the steamer Cassandra, which foundered some ten or twelve years ago, and from which they were still taking iron. Now and then a picturesque sloop drifted past, and the captain’s wife projected her head above the cabin entrance to look at us; or a comrade of Aaron’s went sailing into the bay with a load of blue-fish, one of which he held up for our admiration.

Few other parts of the coast are as populous with food fishes as New Jersey. Nineteen different species are caught in abundance, and not less than one million dollars’ worth is sold annually, the principal market being New York and Philadelphia. The tautog or black-fish, weighing from one and a half to four pounds, is taken with bait in large numbers both in summer and winter; the porgee, weighing from one-quarter to two pounds, is taken with bait in July and August; the sheep’s-head, weighing from two to twelve pounds, is taken by hand and net from June to October; the weak-fish, weighing from one-half to two pounds, is taken by hand and net ; and about fifty thousand mackerel a day are caught during June and July. The other varieties that are more or less common include the drum- fish, the Lafayette fish (so called from the fact that it first appeared on the coast during the revisit to America of the French marquis), the blue-fish, the sword-fish, the cod-fish, the haddock, the winter flounder, the oblong flounder, the salmon, the anchovy, the smelt, the fall shad, the herring, and the menhaden or moss-bunker.

We went southward to Atlantic City, the popular watering-place of Philadelphia, with whose homes it is connected by two steam railways, the distance being about fifty -four and a half miles. Seen from the ocean it is quite captivating, the striped tower of the Absecom Light rising to a stately height from a low belt of foliage, and only the handsome turrets of the leading hotels being visible. But, the beauty vanishes on closer acquaintance, and we find a hot noisy flat covered with buildings and devices for the entertainment and recreation of multitudinous excursionists. The streets are wide, straight, and well paved. A praiseworthy effort has been made to line them with trees, but the desert-like heat and aridity coat the leaves with yellow early in the season. The hotels, saloons, restaurants, and boarding cottages of all sizes are innumerable; and along the beach, which is semicircular, there are photograph galleries, peep-shows, marionette theatres, conjuring booths, circuses, machines for trying the weight, lungs, or muscles of the inquisitive, swings, merry-go-rounds, and all the various side shows which reap the penny harvest of holiday crowds. These extrinsic attractions, which are so familiar in the second-class watering- places of England, make Atlantic City much gayer than the popular seaside resort s of New York, such as Coney Island and Rockaway Beach ; and were it not for the enormous beer pavilions, inestimable flow of lager, the gilded signs of Gambrinus, and the Teutonic waiters, one might easily fancy himself to be on the other side. Admirable precautions are taken for the safety of bathers. Some men with life-saving apparatus at their control are stationed in a tower from which they can observe the movements of the people in the water, and boatmen, whose duty it is to avert cases of drowning, paddle watchfully along the outer line of surf. A plank-walk extends along the beach; and there are many other things that commend Atlantic City to us, and place it above the resorts of excursionists near the metropolis.

A fair wind carried our little yacht seven or eight miles north in an hour, and at sunset -we were gliding, with a faint ripple at the bow, through a narrow “thoroughfare” of the bay. The marshes were on each side of us: behind and ahead a motionless sea, varying from a most vivid emerald to a dusky cedar grey. A curtain of gray concealed the city, but a flash of gold suddenly emblazoned the western windows, and the light -house, whose tower rose in pathetic isolation against the horizon, set forth a pallid ray. A heron projected itself in silhouette against a sky of red, gold, and amber, in which the sun has left a sinuous trail of fire, and a flock of plovers whistled mournfully us they winded themselves home. The water was like a mirror, except where a school of small fish broke it into a thousand ripples, and our boat was inert, the sail hanging loosely from the must. As the sun fell closer to the blue line of the main-land woods from a heaven of unspeakable color, the evening star and a crescent moon were growing more radiant in the pale gray-blue east, and cast a reflection on the water while it still held the imprint of the more passionate orb. We were alone in the world at that moment, and the world was motionless. There was a wan, pitiful look on the meadows, which, lying in a death-like lull, gave the scene its salience, and despite the rosy ardor of the western sky, Nature desponded and fell into a sad sleep. Sunsets at second-hand are not satisfactory, but those that we saw night after night along the Jersey coast were so individualized in their contrasted splendor and melancholy under-tone that they really seemed to belong to its topography.

The wind fell altogether at dark, and as we drifted through the winding reaches of the thoroughfare, our ecstasies were overcome by a plague of mosquitoes and gnats, which attacked us so seriously that one member of our expedition was threatened with delirium. We had to propel the boat with poles. From time to time we grounded, and it was after midnight when we reached Bond’s – a summer hotel south of Beach Haven.

The next day was cloudy and gray, and a variable wind took us through the bay to Barnegat Inlet, off the Barnegat Shoals. It was sunset when we reached our boat, and great flocks of birds flew out of the reeds, uttering wild and melancholy cries. A schooner lay at anchor near the inlet, and the wreck of the steamer Mediator was visible. One wreck is no sooner out of sight than another happens, and in such terrible evidences the few inhabitants of the settlement at the inlet are constantly reminded of how inhospitable a coast theirs is. Barnegat Light is famous, and we stood under it as it was ignited. The shaft towers from a bed of sand, which has formed a ridge twenty or thirty feet high around the base, and out of which a few cedars grow. The great brilliancy of the lantern, which makes it visible to vessels some twenty miles away, is lost to people standing at the base, and the only indication of it is in the prismatic glass. The keeper’s house is near by and the children sleep while the father watches and works in that radiant crown on the tower.

Farther northward the wind was now in our favor and we ran up to Tom’s River past Waretown, where an old grave yard sadly overlooks the sea, and past Seaside Park, another of the fashionable places which have appeared within the last three or four years on the outer beach. Tom’s River is charming, and the village is one of the prettiest in America. Then we took the railway again and went to Seabright, where we spent a happy day with the fisherman. There is no settlement more picturesque or interesting than this along the shore, although summer boarding-houses and hotels are crowding the old huts away. Small boats, white, green, and red, line the beach, their bronze sails flapping idly in the wind. Here an old fisherman sits mending his nets; there a boat with a load of shining mackerel has just been beached, and a lot of tawny men bare-legged and bare-armed, are transferring her cargo to small hand-carts. The huts are built among the sand hills, and the peculiar, conical roofs of the ice-houses give the village a foreign look.

When we reached Pier No. 8, North River, where we ended our journey, we landed with faces as brown and weather-beaten as Bill Pharo’s.