LBI Beachcombing Leads to the Imperial

Courtesy of: Brenden and Debbie Coughlin The authors hold the timber they discovered on the LBI beach bearing the faint letters I M P E R. Could it come from the Imperial wreck?

Whenever we visit LBI we always leave a piece of our hearts behind on this lovely Island. One day this past March proved to be an extraordinary adventure. Here is our story:

As with many long-time vacationers and visitors to the Island, we have taken up beachcombing. We never know what treasure we will find. On this particular day, my husband noticed a shiny object protruding from a piece of timber. Further curiosity revealed a brass nail, approximately 5 inches in length and broken off at the bottom. When we arrived home later that day, we did some initial online research, which narrowed our find to a brass nail used in wooden ship building in days gone by.

A week later we visited Deborah Whitcraft at the N.J. Maritime Museum in Beach Haven to share our find with her. She immediately encouraged us to find the piece of timber that the nail was removed from. As we walked along the beach, my husband and I were determined to find the missing piece of this puzzle. A week had gone by – would the timber have been washed away by the tides?

An interesting piece of driftwood caught my eye. Could this be the piece we were searching for? I brushed the sand away and turned it over – why I will never know – but as I flipped it over, I noticed imbedded lettering that spelled out “I M P E R.” The remaining letters were indecipherable. They were lost along with the severed portion of the timber. Although this was not the timber we had originally set out to find, we were excited about where this discovery would lead us.

I had accessed the shipwreck files at the museum in previous years and on a whim checked out files that might have started with “I M P E R”. There were two! Of course, we sought out the expertise of the folks at the museum, and an entirely new journey began for us.

After consultation with the museum, we estimated that the timber could be from the Imperial, a three-masted schooner built in 1867, converted into a coal barge in 1894 and stranded three-quarters of a mile south of the Cedar Creek Station on April 1, 1896, on its way to Newport News, Va. The ship had been under the command of a Capt. Lewis, and all five people on board had been saved and returned to Boston. Capt. James E. Crosby, who had died in 1894, had been commander of the Imperial and also owned an interest. J. Henry Sears was the principal owner. The Imperial had also been the home of Capt. John Taylor and his family, and they made several voyages around the world.

Dave Swope, research volunteer at the museum, has reached out to archeologist Donald Shomette, James Delgado from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other expert friends of the museum to verify if indeed the timber was from the Imperial shipwreck. In the meantime, the piece bathes in a freshwater bath at the museum. Our continuing research, which includes correspondence with the Brewster, Mass., Book Store, Brewster Historical Society, Brewster Ladies’ Library and Thomas Crane Public Library, to name a few, has taken us on a seafaring adventure achieved through books, newspapers, email correspondence and archived materials.

Are you still with me? This is where it really gets interesting! As we discovered more and more about the Imperial and its travels to China, Ireland and throughout the U.S., at one point the figurehead called the “White Lady” had been removed from the ship and mounted on a bluff facing the sea near Capt. Sears’ beach cottage in Brewster, Mass. (If you want to hear exactly how I discovered this fact, please reach out to me; this is another story in itself!) The “White Lady” has since been restored and is presently on loan to the Cape Cod Maritime Museum in Hyannis, Mass.

Our curiosity got the best of us, and last month we traveled to Cape Cod to meet the “White Lady.” Chris Galazzi, executive director at that museum, informed us that he has been in touch with a descendant of Capt. Crosby. Memorabilia related to the Imperial hang on a wall at the museum alongside the “White Lady.”

A lot more has gone on in between the lines you’ve just read. We’ve learned much about life in Brewster, Mass., in the 1800s, and about ship captains and their families. We hope to write a book about our journey. In the meantime, we are looking forward to our annual vacation on LBI and, in particular, to attending the maritime museum’s fundraising event on Sept. 10. Needless to say, we are truly appreciative of the staff and volunteers at the N.J. Maritime Museum for their encouragement as we virtually navigate through a piece of maritime history.

Who knows, perhaps one day the “White Lady” may pay a visit to the N.J. Maritime Museum. You will have to stop by and see!

Brenden and Debbie Coughlin live in High Bridge, N.J.


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