New Jersey Maritime Museum: Much More Than Exhibits

Jun 28, 2017

On a 1983 episode of the television program “Prime Time” on Philadelphia's Channel 6, , the late Jim O’Brien did a segment on New Jersey wreck diving, and one of the people he interviewed was Deborah C. Whitcraft. By that time, the Beach Haven resident was already an experienced diver and an authority on shipwrecks. 

During that interview, she spoke of her quest for knowledge about different wrecks and New Jersey maritime disasters. Whitcraft also stated that she had started collecting artifacts, newspaper clippings and other items pertaining to New Jersey maritime history.

“I told him that one day, I was going to build myself a museum,” she said.

That came to fruition on July 3, 2007, when the Museum of New Jersey Maritime History in Beach Haven opened it doors at 528 Dock Rd. There is no admission fee, but donations are requested. As the facility marks its 10th anniversary, Whitcraft said the museum and its 7,500 square feet of exhibit space remain “a work in progress.”

“To me, the museum is continually evolving,” said the former Beach Haven mayor. “We just can’t stand pat. We’re always looking to come up with new exhibits.”

Some of the newer exhibits are artifacts from longtime wreck diver Gene Peterson, and another on the history of the U.S. Merchant Marine.

One room is devoted to the Morro Castle shipwreck, with which Whitcraft is quite familiar. She and Gretchen Coyle co-authored a book titled Inferno at Sea: Stories of Death and Survival Aboard the Morro Castle. Christened in 1930, the Morro Castle was a luxury cruise ship that made runs between New York City and Havana, Cuba. In the early morning hours of Sept. 8, 1934, the ship caught fire and burned, killing 137 passengers and crew members. The ship eventually ran aground off Asbury Park.

Each exhibit room has DVDs that are constantly running programs on aspects of maritime history to punctuate the displays.

The museum features thousands of photographs, historical documents and vintage newspapers accounts of New Jersey shipwrecks, much of it from Whitcraft’s private collection dating back up to 45 years. It has a computerized database and user-friendly filing system of more than 7,200 shipwrecks and maritime disasters. The facility, easily noticeable with its sea-foam green exterior, has displays of artifacts recovered from wreck sites.

Its mission statement says, “The display of artifacts will encourage maritime research, historical instruction by guest lecturers and promote the education of the public about New Jersey maritime history.”

“We’re far more than a place to view exhibits,” Whitcraft said. 

One section she is especially proud of is her rare book collection and research area. She has the complete set of U.S Life Saving Service record books from 1876 to 1915, at which time the service merged with another agency into the U.S. Coast Guard.

“The records cover everything from big wrecks to swimmers rescued in the ocean,” sad Whitcraft.

Other prized possessions are an original copy of the Woolman and Rose History and Biographical Atlas of the N.J. Coast, dated 1878, and an 1846 volume about a commission investigating shipwrecks in Monmouth County.

“I was especially excited about having this museum used for research,” said Whitcraft. “That was one of my objectives. For example, there may be people here who had family members from earlier generations die in shipwrecks. They can look through these books, logs and reports and who knows, they might be able to track down something. There is a real need for this.”

She said the museum also has a lending library with approximately 1,200 volumes.

“The books are all related to New Jersey maritime history,” she said. “It has everything from shipwrecks (and) pirates to shark attacks.”

The museum also features a wireless internet café and gift shop.

Whitcraft said the museum relies on donations since its staff is strictly volunteer. To help defray costs, special membership packages are offered. Annual memberships range from $25 to $500, and lifetime memberships run from $1,000 to $25,000. 

Various educational programs are planned for the summer. Sherri Paris will be holding two Marine Science Camps. For elementary school students, there will be camps running Monday to Friday, July 10 to July 14, July 17 to 21, July 31 to Aug. 4, Aug. 7 to Aug. 11 and Aug. 14 to Aug. 18.  A camp for high school students runs July 24 to 28. Both camps run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Taught by marine biologists and environmentalists, topics include seining, plant and animal identification, water quality sampling and testing, plankton, microscopes, sharks, dissections and environmental awareness.

Through Aug. 25, there are children’s programs every Friday morning, beginning with an Alliance for a Living Ocean presentation at 10. The group talks about plants and animals that make up the ocean’s ecosystems.

At 10:30 a.m., the museum offers an hour of fun, educational activities for children ages 3 to 13, including scavenger hunts, beach bingo and shell decorating.

At 11:30 a.m., ReClam the Bay offers a hands-on presentation to learn about shellfish gardening and the Barnegat Bay watershed. 

The Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine also does a series of six Monday afternoon talks at 2, with the dolphins of New Jersey serving as the topic for the July 10 opener.

“I thought it was extremely important to partner with these organizations because we share many common interests,” Whitcraft said. 

In September, the museum will begin its off-season monthly talks from members of the diving community as well as other fields. Last year, Whitcraft said the programs were moved from the museum to Buckalew’s Restaurant and Tavern in Beach Haven

“At the museum, we can have 60 to 65 people, but at Buckalew’s we can get around 80,” she said. “I really want to thank them. While most of the time the talks involved shipwrecks, we also have had speakers who talked about wildlife or the environment. We’re open to anything that pertains to the ocean.”

Whitcraft said she is working on a succession program through Stockton University, which she said has one of the best marine science programs on the Eastern Seaboard.

“I want this museum to go on after I’m gone, and I think Stockton would do an outstanding job.,” she said. “I’m 62 and I’m not getting any younger. We’ve had plenty of Stockton students come visit us and work here,” such as Jenna Taylor, a Surf City resident who received a degree in English literature from Stockton in 2009.

“I was studying to become a librarian, and I was in an archiving class,” Taylor said. “One of the requirements was to visit a museum, and I fell in love with the place.”  

Whitcraft recalled how a student from another college used the museum for researching his thesis on the history of the U.S. Life Saving Service.

“When it was done, he presented me with a bound copy,” she said. “That meant a lot to me.” 

All through the summer, the museum will be selling tickets for the annual fundraiser on Saturday, Sept. 9, from 5 to 10 p.m. The theme is “Sailing Into the Next Decade: A Celebration” of the NJMM’s 10th anniversary that centers around Beach Haven’s 125th anniversary.

The indoor-outdoor event features a full-service cash bar, pig roast and pulled pork stations, salads, seafood and dessert station. Tickets are $55 per person and $50 for museum members. Gift donations from businesses for a silent auction, 50/50 raffle and a Chinese auction will be sought..

Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day;  beginning in September, the museum is open Friday to Sunday from 10 to 4. Special tours are available on request.

For more information, call the museum at 609-492-0202 or log onto NJMaritimeMuseum.org.

— Eric Englund

ericenglund@thesandpaper.net

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