Shipwreck Museum showcases artifacts found off Jersey Shore
Deep in the recesses of a cluster of one-time Army buildings in Wall Township, a 900-pound piece of history sits crusted and rusted in a trough of water, waiting to take its place among other relics once lost in maritime disasters.
Like many artifacts recovered from shipwrecks by deep sea divers, the 210-year-old cannon was a closely guarded secret. Plucked in 1996 from a wreck off the coast of New Jersey, it sat for most of the time since then in a vat of water in the backyard of a Manasquan home.
But a group of New Jersey divers, eager to share their finds with the public, have opened a portal to history by showcasing objects like the 5-foot long iron cannon and other items that date back to a time when ships were the primary mode of transportation.
“A lot of these items were stored in people’s garages, houses and basements,” said Dan Lieb, president of the New Jersey Historical Divers Association. “We had collected so much information over the years we felt it was incumbent on us to open it to the public.”
The divers don’t just retrieve items. They research each piece so they can tell its story: who owned it, why it was aboard the ship, where it was going, what role it played in the evolution of society.
Sometimes those stories take a couple of hours to piece together. Sometimes they take years.
The stories bring to life relics displayed in three rooms of a decaying complex in Wall Township that played a key role in the development of wireless communication in the early 1900s. Taken over by the military during World War I, the former Camp Evans was decommissioned in 1992 and today is the home of InfoAge Science and History Center, a coalition of nonprofit groups working to save the historic buildings.
The complex was built in 1914 by Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, who developed the wireless communications designed for the maritime trade and used on the Titanic. Despite the 1,500 lives lost when the ship sank in 1912, the federal government attributed the 705 lives saved to the wireless device.
In the aftermath of the Titanic disaster, all trans-Atlantic voyages were required to carry the technology, making Marconi a fortune he used to build the complex.
Lieb said that rich maritime history is the reason the divers located the shipwreck museum there, and InfoAge director Fred Carl agreed it’s a good fit.
“It’s fantastic,” Carl said of the shipwreck museum. “It shows New Jersey’s shipwrecks. People don’t realize the perils at sea and how many disasters occurred at sea because of the lack of communications.”
Not nearly as many people would have perished on the Titanic had other shipping companies invested in Marconi’s wireless device, he said. There were other ships closer than the steamship Carpathia — which picked up survivors — but they didn’t have the equipment to hear the doomed ship’s transmissions.
No one knows how many ships wrecked off New Jersey, with nor’easters helping earn the state a reputation for being among the top 10 most dangerous passages in the world. Lieb said he’s seen estimates as high as 7,200 wrecks but figures the remains of only 2,500 remain on the ocean floor.
The museum opened April 1, 2006, as a one-room display of a few artifacts. With the expansion, it’s now a five-room display Lieb hopes will double or quadruple in size in two or three years.
The museum contains information from about 24 wrecks gathered over 40 years of diving, Lieb said. There’s 300-pound millstone taken from the 1859 wreck of the Adonis, which, Lieb said, was transporting 124 of those sandstone disks to market when she sank off Long Branch. There’s a set of earthenware from the Aurora that wrecked in 1827 off Sandy Hook as she was taking her cargo from England to New York.
The 210-year-old cannon was pulled by divers David Haines and Tom Fagan from the Amity, a packet ship which wrecked off the coast of Manasquan in 1824. They figured it was aboard either as a collectible of one of the crew members or as insurance against pirate activity, Lieb said.
The display is open to the public through a shipwreck symposium sponsored by the historical divers association on Saturday between 2 and 6 p.m. InfoAge is open on Sundays between 1 and 4 p.m.
“As we expand, we’ll be able to accommodate larger and larger crowds,” Lieb said. “That should make us quite a valuable asset to the community.”