200 Plus

No Hope for Saving the Sumner

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Apr 11, 2018

In December 1916, the Army transport Sumner was stranded just beyond the breakers in Barnegat Light. Once called the most elegant transport in the Army, the 351-foot ship had served the nation in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and survived typhoons, hurricanes and collisions. Her service to the nation was quickly coming to an end, but her connection with LBI was just beginning.

 The New York Times of Dec. 17 announced the government’s failure.

“In an effort to pull the Sumner off Friday night the rudder post was torn out, doing considerable damage to the stern of the vessel. A few minutes later another hole was broken in the bow of the ship. There are several hundred tons of scrap iron ballast in the hold of the vessel, and the Coast Guard men fear that the pounding of this will ruin the transport beyond the salvage point.”

Two days later the Baltimore Sun reported, “The United States army transport Sumner, which went aground off Barnegat, N.J., a week ago today, will be a total loss, in the opinion of the officers of the wrecking steamer, Resolute. … The wreckers, who discontinued their work last night, said the next storm probably would destroy the transport.”

As the winter storms pounded the Sumner, the Army was deciding what to do, and in a report dated Jan. 23, 1917, “Captain W.J. Bernard … was sent to Barnegat City, N.J. on the 19th instant to make an examination of the Sumner. … He visited the vessel on the 20th and 21st and has submitted a report from which I quote as follows, ‘I was taken out to the transport Sumner by Captain Mitchell and crew of the Coast Guard Station #113 in power surf boat and Captain Mitchell took soundings all around the Sumner. We found nine feet of water in most places and in some spots less, and holes with more depth which is the condition of the bottom at Barnegat. … The ship is broken at her boilers, the bow is in fair condition and the stern is even with the sea; such is the outside condition. Aboard the Sumner I found the boat deck all caved away and is down on the Saloon deck from midship’s section aft.”

The Army decided it would rely on LBI residents.

“Captain Bernard reports that men can be hired ashore at the rate of 50 cents per hour; power launch to carry men to and from vessel at $5.00 per day; and a power schooner suitable for transporting the salvaged material. … It is, however, thought the cost for the schooner will not exceed $100.00 per day. … I recommend that I be authorized to send Captain Bernard to Barnegat city for the purpose of employing men and apparatus to salvage such property and equipment on the Sumner.”

Bernard explained, “As per orders I departed for and arrived at Barnegat City at 12.45 on January 26, 1917. From that time and until the present date, except from March 2nd to March 5th I have been in constant attendance at Barnegat City. ...

“The Norwegian steamship Bowden from Matanzus and St. Jago, Cuba, went aground last night on the southeast end of Barnegat Shoals during a fog and rough sea. … The Bowden went aground about a mile south of the point off the New Jersey coast where the United States transport Sumner was pounded to pieces on the rocks. … After trying all night to reach the steamship the men of the Barnegat Coast Guard Station at 6 o’clock this morning got a boat through the heavy surf and fog and went to the aid of the vessel. … The shrill blast of the ship’s distress signals aroused the residents of Beach Haven and Barnegat at midnight and the signals continued through the night while the coast guards were trying to get it out. The guards under Capt. Lewis E. Mitchell were the same men who aided the Sumner and they never stopped their efforts to get through the surf until they succeeded.”

The Bowden was more fortunate than the Sumner, and the next day, according to the Asbury Park Press, “The Norwegian fruit steamer Bowden was pulled from the Barnegat shoals, where she had stranded at midnight on Sunday, before daybreak this morning and resumed her journey unassisted. … The keeper and crew of the Barnegat City Coast Guard station went out to the Bowden early yesterday in a motor launch. They stayed aboard the ship until late yesterday afternoon.”

Back on the Sumner, Bernard had to deal with a harsh New Jersey winter.

“I was deprived of the services of the schooner Charles Harvey (it being frozen in the ice) thus leaving me without means of transportation for a period of 14 days – February 7 to February 21st inclusive. … I attribute my inability to save any greater amount of property from the Sumner to the change of her condition due to the severe Northeast storm which lasted from March 2nd to the 5th inclusive.”

The storm had done considerable damage.

“The bow listed to Starboard until the deck stood at an angle of 70 degrees. Then the foremast was carried away. … I was able only to work at dead low water and with a perfectly smooth sea. At high tide the forecastle head was awash. I succeeded in getting the high side (Portside) of the windlass but several recent storms have torn the forecastle head in such a manner that it was impossible for the schooner to lay close enough to be of service.”

By this time Germany had announced “unrestricted submarine warfare,” and ships were staying closer to shore. As the March storm was pounding the Sumner, nearby there was a crisis reported in the New York World of March 5th.

“After a night of terror for the passengers, during which the ship was pounded for half an hour on the sands off Barnegat while four other steamers stood by to give aid, the Coama of the New York and Puerto Rico Steamship Line arrived at her pier in South Brooklyn this morning. … Most of the passengers had retired and when the ship ran aground they ran from their staterooms scantily clad. Wireless calls were sent out and while the ship was pounded by the waves and driven by the wind, the passengers were ordered to dress and make ready for any emergency. A shift in the wind aided the steamer in getting off. … Five feet of water had been shipped from the breaking waves and during the rest of the trip most passengers remained dressed and ready for lifeboats.”

The Army finally gave upon the Sumner and on April 4, 1917, decided “… the present condition of the Sumner from which can be seen that nothing further can be done with her, and practically everything off that can be salvaged. In view of these facts, and that she is within the three mile limit, it is recommended that she be abandoned. … In the Sumner’s present position, she is a menace to navigation and should be removed.”

As the Army was deciding what to do with the Sumner, the U.S. Senate was voting to declare war on Germany. The Sumner problem would have to wait. But as they say, “Time and tides wait for no man.”

Next Week: Pirates and sandbars.


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