New Video! The Rjukan Shipwreck of 1876

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By Kim Brittingham

Did you know that there are the remains of a shipwreck underwater where Ocean Grove and Bradley Beach meet? I just found out about this and I had to go digging for more information. Here’s what I learned.

The newspaper known as the Philadelphian and Ocean Grove Record called it “a first class sensation.” It was the day after Christmas 1876. At around 6:30 a.m. an Ocean Grove citizen named Louis Rainear was taking a walk when he was surprised to see a 160-foot long ship running aground on a sand bar about 200 feet off the beach. It was a Norwegian vessel – a barque. The three-masted barque was the most common type of deep water cargo carrier in the middle of the 19th century. The vessel was named Rjukan, after a town in her native Norway. She was headed from London to New York in ballast when a northeasterly gale blew her towards the beach.

She hadn’t always been a cargo ship. Earlier in her career the Rjukan carried immigrants between Norway and Canada, and Great Britain and New York. As a matter of fact, I managed to find this passenger list from the Rjukan when she sailed in 1868:

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When the Rjukan struck the sand bar her mainmast fell, and then her foremast. Her sails and spars were hanging over her side. It must’ve been a dramatic and frightening sight, especially with crew members scrambling on deck, shouting and waving desperately for help.

Mr. Rainear did call for help. A messenger was sent to a nearby station of the U.S. Life Saving Service – Station No. 7 located on the Shark River. The U.S. Life Saving Service would eventually join with similar organizations to become the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915.

I was able to piece together what happened from eyewitness reports. A surfman from the Shark River Life Saving Station showed up, but he hadn’t brought a lifeboat with him. He said the wagon they used to pull their lifeboat had gotten stuck in sand. Then he took one look at those rough seas and decided he’d better get someone from Station 6 in Asbury Park to help him out. So he started to run off.

But by this time, a number of citizens had gathered on the shore and one of them asked the surfman, where was he going? And why wasn’t he doing anything to save the men on that ship?

Supposedly the Shark River gent replied, What, in that surf? No way will a boat make it through those breakers! (or something to that effect).

Just then, the onlookers saw a capable-looking man running down the beach. According to one newspaper account, a gentleman in the crowd pointed and bellowed, “Now there’s a man that will go to her!”

The running man was Russell White, with his brother Drummond White following close behind. The Whites had been part of the community for a long time. In fact, Ocean Grove was built on their land. The Whites had sold tracts of their property to the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association and to James Bradley who developed Asbury Park.

Russell and Drummond White — or Drum, as he was known locally — were both experienced sea men. As they ran to the scene, Russell spied a yawl boat on the beach and immediately put it into service.

Eventually the keeper from the Shark River Life Saving Station came back, and this time he brought a lifeboat. But he wasn’t interested in being a hero. Instead, he handed the boat over to the White brothers and said something like, You guys look like you’ve got this. I’ll just watch from back here.

People from the neighborhood came out to watch. About 500 of them, causing someone to remark that even though it was the wrong time of year, it looked like the camp meeting was having a surf service. Throughout the afternoon, the beach became strewn with debris from the wrecked ship, including pieces of joiner work, rigging, chests, bedding, tools and clothing. Some men and boys came out to scavenge for valuables and souvenirs. This would not have been a strange sight to Drum White. When he was a boy in 1854, a ship called the New Era wrecked off the coast of Asbury Park and 300 German immigrants lost their lives. Among the debris washed ashore from the New Era, Young Drum found a brush, the kind used to brush lint from clothing. Its bristles were white, except down the center where some black bristles spelled out the German surname Koch. It was probably similar to the brush shown below spelling Chilvers. Drum White kept and used the brush for the rest of his life. I can’t help wondering if finding such a personal item from such a tragic shipwreck had a lasting effect on Drum White, perhaps motivating him in his adult years to save as many lives as possible.

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On the day of the Rjukan shipwreck, the White brothers worked eighteen hours straight without food, making perilous boat trips back and forth between the wreck and the shore. They saved the lives of all twenty crewmen on board.

This wasn’t the first rescue for Russell White. Earlier that same year, Drum had taken two visitors from Abner Allan’s boarding house in Asbury Park on a fishing excursion. The three men got tangled in fishing lines, but fortunately, Russell saw what was happening from shore. He set out immediately and rescued them, and he was given a gold medal for it. A year later, Drum would assist in the rescue of the brig Etta M. Tucker, which was carrying a cargo of coffee from Rio de Janeiro to New York. And when Ocean Grove added a steam launch to carry passengers over Wesley Lake, Drum White was put in charge. Of course, that was only a 15-minute voyage round-trip, providing fewer opportunities for Drum to demonstrate his bravery.

Just a few days after the wreck of the Rjukan, on January 6, 1877, what was left of the ship’s wood was auctioned off. The lucky bidder was G.W. Patterson and Company of Asbury Park, which paid $140. Some of the Rjukan’s wood was used to build a wooden plank sidewalk in front of Dr. Kinmonth’s pharmacy on Cookman Avenue in Asbury Park. Dr. Kinmonth’s was right about here, at the corner of Cookman Avenue and Kinmonth Alley:

rjukan century jewelers

The Rjukan rescue was a source of controversy in the coming months. The Asbury Park Journal criticized the men of the Shark River Life Saving Station for their “tardiness and inefficiency at the scene of the disaster”. That prompted a member of Shark River Station to burst into the office of another newspaper, the Red Bank Standard, and complain to a reporter there that his crew had been unjustly treated in the columns of the Asbury Park Journal and that he was greatly aggrieved. The Asbury Park Journal stood by its criticism.

In the meantime, Captain Merryman, a big wig at the U.S. Life Saving Service, made an investigatory trip to Ocean Grove. There was a hearing. Affidavits were taken from eyewitnesses, and the Rjukan’s Captain Hansen was questioned. He blamed everything on the pilot, Phillips. Life Saving Station No. 7 from Shark River was exonerated from all charges of tardiness and inefficiency.

Today what’s left of the wreck has settled underwater off of the jetty just south of Newark and Ocean avenues in Bradley Beach. Here you’ll see a map of the wreck by Captain Dan Berg. He runs charter diving cruises to the sites of New Jersey shipwrecks. Here you can also see underwater photos of Captain Dan Berg investigating the remains of the Rjukan. He says there are still some ballast stones scattered around the wreck site, as well as wood planking held together by brass spikes.

 

Below, watch an episode of our video series Curiosities of Ocean Grove about the wreck of the Rjukan.

Camera and editing: Mary Solecki

Researcher, writer and host: Kim Brittingham

Funding has been provided by the New Jersey Historical Commission.