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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.

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New Video! Curiosities of Ocean Grove NEWS: October 2015

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BoardwalkWe put together this quick “news update” for viewers of our video series, “Curiosities of Ocean Grove”. In it, we give a shout-out to some of our fans who’ve posted on Facebook and our blog, and introduce a brand new museum exhibit on the “Summer of 1890”, curated by Dell O’Hara. Some of you may already know Dell from her fantastic women’s history walking tours of Ocean Grove. (And she’ll be doing a talk on the suffragettes of Ocean Grove on October 25th. Don’t miss it!)

Camera and editing: Mary Solecki
Writer and host: Kim Brittingham
Funding has been provided by the New Jersey Historical Commission. 

Video: Mrs. Wagner’s Pies and Ocean Grove, NJ

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wagners house

By Kim Brittingham

What’s the connection between music duo Simon & Garfunkel and a lady from 19th century Ocean Grove, New Jersey who loved to bake?

It started in the 1870s when a certain Mr. and Mrs. Wagner came to make their summer home in Ocean Grove.

Mrs. Wagner was an energetic woman. She liked to stay busy and she was a fantastic baker, so she offered to do baking for her Ocean Grove friends and neighbors. Pretty soon word got out that Mrs. Wagner’s pies were heavenly, and she started to sell them. In those days, she baked on an old-fashioned wood stove in her small kitchen on Webb Avenue. It probably looked similar to the one pictured below. Her husband delivered the pies in a large wicker picnic basket.

5Mrs. Wagner’s pies became more and more popular. So popular that by 1890, the Wagners traded in their wicker basket for a horse-drawn pie wagon, and they moved from Webb Avenue to the house pictured above at 124-126 Mt. Tabor Way. (That’s Mrs. Wagner on the porch with the cat.) In the basement of that house they built a 20×20-foot coal-fired brick oven which could bake between 150 to 200 pies in 45 minutes. They also had a small shop on the basement level. When the neighborhood kids smelled the mouth-watering aroma of those pies wafting over Ocean Grove, they’d press their faces against the window to get a glimpse of the fresh pies coming out of the oven. Years later in the 1950s the house was torn down to make way for a new cottage, and the builders had to excavate the street to get that huge oven out of the basement.

Mrs. Wagner made her pies from fresh fruit that was delivered daily from nearby farms on horse-drawn wagons. She also received 40-quart cans of fresh milk from local dairies. In those days, the milk already had the cream in it, which may have been one of the reasons Mrs. Wagner’s pies were so decadently delicious. We know that she did not use starch to congeal the pie fillings — just good fresh eggs, and plenty of them. The secret to her light and flaky crust was supposedly a ratio of 12 ounces of pig lard to every pound of flour.

Around 1890 Mrs. Wagner was making 12-inch pies that cost 25 cents each, and single serving pies that cost a nickel. The big pies came in a metal pie plate like the one pictured here. You can see the pan is embossed with “Mrs. Wagner’s Pies”, and you can still sometimes find one of these on eBay.pie pan

Mr. Wagner served as the first pie delivery man, until business got so big that the Wagners had to hire a second driver. Each driver would cover one half of Ocean Grove. They’d drive around slowly, twice a day, calling out “Pieman, pieman!” Customers would hear the call, come out to the wagon, and buy pies. Sometimes the customer returned the metal pie plate. But sometimes the Wagners ran low, and in those instances, the customer would bring her own plate out to the truck and a fresh pie would be slid right onto it while it was still warm.

For at least part of the 1890s the Wagners also had a home in New York City, in what we now call Tribeca. They lived across the street from the Washington Market. Washington Market was established in 1812. By 1900 it was the largest market in North America, stretching about a dozen blocks around Washington, Fulton and Vesey Streets. Mrs. Wagner sold her pies there at least part of the year, when she wasn’t in Ocean Grove. She left the Grove in January and returned in the spring. As the popularity of her pies grew, Mrs. Wagner opened additional bakeries in Newark, Jersey City, and Brooklyn.

Joseph Walker was a baker who joined Mrs. Wagner’s Ocean Grove operation in 1904. He was interviewed for a local newspaper in 1965. He gave us a peek into what it was like working in the Wagner’s Ocean Grove bakery. The day before baking at 11:00 a.m., six bakers gathered in the basement on Mt. Tabor Street to prepare the fresh fruit. Then the pie crust would be made and left to stand all day in lard tubs. Meanwhile, the bakers ate and slept upstairs in the house. At 1:00 a.m. the following morning, with Mrs. Wagner supervising, they rolled out the dough on a table that was 4 feet by 40 feet long. The bakers worked on both sides of the table. One would roll out the bottom crust, another the top crust, while yet another would fill the shell with freshly prepared apples, peaches, pineapples and blueberries, and in winter, pumpkin and mincemeat. The bakers worked 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week.

The Ocean Grove bakery was probably at its height of production in 1907. That year, the bakery turned out 201,746 pies, an average of 650 pies a day. All in a basement in Ocean Grove!

After World War I, production in Ocean Grove stopped and pies for the Jersey Shore were delivered from the Newark plant. The company continued to grow. Mrs. Wagner’s pies were featured at the 1939 World’s Fair, and by then they had loading stations across the country: in Toledo, Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Chicago, Atlantic City. 40,000 stores and restaurants bought their pies from Mrs. Wagner. Some of those stores and restaurants kept Mrs. Wagner’s pies in handsome pie safes like the one shown here. You can see the Mrs. Wagner’s label at top center.pie safe

By the way, the lady on the label isn’t Mrs. Wagner. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, the model for the label was a lady named Clara Louise Bissell.

Sometimes when I’m giving tours at Centennial Cottage in Ocean Grove, I’ll get visitors who grew up in Brooklyn and they still remember going to Mrs. Wagner’s bakery at 283-301 Fourth Avenue between 1st and 2nd streets. On certain days you could buy big restaurant pies with broken crusts for just a dollar. Today it’s an artist and craftsman supply store.

Mrs. Wagner’s pies went out of business in July 1968.

Also in 1968, Simon & Garfunkel released an album called Bookends, which included a song called “America”. Here’s are some of those lyrics:

So we bought a pack of cigarettes

And Mrs. Wagner’s pies

And walked off to look for America.

Below, watch an episode of our video series Curiosities of Ocean Grove about Mrs. Wagner’s pies.

 

 

Camera and editing: Mary Solecki

Researcher, writer and host: Kim Brittingham

Funding has been provided by the New Jersey Historical Commission.