200 Plus

Ships Bottom Station’s Unusual Recruit

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Dec 12, 2018

In the early 20th century, what is today Ship Bottom was part of an unnamed, deserted stretch of the New Jersey barrier island known as Long Beach. During January 1903, the U.S. Life-Saving Service, from its Station Number 20, captured the front pages of the nation’s newspapers with two daring rescues.

During this period, Charles Francis Bourke had been the editor of Collier’s magazine and one of the best-known short story writers in the country, writing about topics from the Pinkerton detectives to muckraking stories about high society. In March 1907, he began a series of stories in what became Appleton’s Booklovers Magazine and others that would help with placing part of LBI on the map.

“(He) is an able-bodied member of the United States Life-Saving Service, attached unofficially to Ships Bottom station, at Barnegat Bay. … Furthermore, he is the only Government life saver out of the twenty-five hundred professional storm fighters whose picture – in oils, and in a rich mahogany frame – hangs upon the walls of a life-saving station at Ships Bottom which is in violation of all departmental regulations.”

This volunteer was a dog.

“With all his honors Breeches-Buoy Pontiac is the youngest member of Ships Bottom crew. It was in the winter time that he came to the station; that dreadful winter, two years before, that the whole fishing fleet, a hundred and thirty sail, made a sandy graveyard of The Atlantic seaboard, from Hatteras to the Hook. … The same storm, slamming the wrecking out of the Howling Forties, fierce enough to pull the plates off a battle ship, piled a foreign bark at Harvey Cedars, south of Ships Bottom station, and made match wood of her, leaving not a soul to tell her color or creed or what port she hailed from.”

In Bourke’s story, Big Jem Casco was in charge of Station 20. The day after the storm he and one of his men were “on the sandy beach, leading from the water’s edge to a sand dune forty yards back. Behind the dune, sheltered from the wintry blast, they found a dead man, dark-faced and earringed, and a big black Newfoundland dog. The dog was nearly gone himself. He was lying with his big paws and his black shaggy head on the breast of the man’s pea-jacket, in the vain hope of holding the warm blood of life in the body. The collar and shoulder of the pea-jacket and the smudgy mark trailed across the beach told them plainly that the Newfoundland had dragged the man from the water.

“They buried the earringed man, unknown and unsung, among the musty Barnegat churchyard, and they adopted the big black Newfoundland. At Ships Bottom station, Pontiac – for that was the name they found on his brass collar … subsequently did some adopting on his own account.”

Pontiac would not become an ordinary mascot.

“All that bitter winter he fought the ravening sea with the men of Ships Bottom and played his part in saving other lives. He learned all the wondrous and useful ways of rockets and blue lights, of bomb guns and breeches buoy, and lent a strong mouthful of teeth in hauling out the big white lifeboat when storm-driven craft (met) their death on the ‘Graveyard of Ships,’ the lurking Gridiron shoals that ribbed the waters off the station on the sand spit.”

Newfoundlands are known as the gentle giants.

“It was when the bad weather was beginning to break, and duty was slack, that the big Newfoundland adopted Captain Casco’s baby, the three-year-old toddler who came from the village across the bay, on fine days. From the first it was Pontiac who extended the hospitality of the station to little Jem and took him under his own especial charge. … He cheerfully submitted to be taken apart by the boy, chiefly as to the matter of eyes and teeth and big red tongue, and his idea of big-brotherly bliss was to lie on the floor beside the Vesuvius heater and let little Jem pound drum on his shaggy black head with rowlock, hammer, or marlin spike.”

But all good stories need an exciting climax, which came when little Jem and Pontiac were aboard a British ship grounded on the bar off LBI.

“‘She’s wedged fast. God! There’s a mort of people on her, and women,’ one of the men cried. ‘She’s a big clipper from her lines. God, but she’s far out!’”

“Far out as the ship was, the life savers knew without orders that it was a ‘breeches-buoy job’ and a dozen brawny hands set up the hawser platform, while others planted the sand-anchor and unlimbered the gun and shot lines.

“A flare was burning on the stranded ship when the gunner was ready, answering the blue lights on the beach. The line hissed out of the box like an angry snake, but they saw that it had fallen short, from the shore end that lay limp and lifeless. ‘Coil in and run that line gun down to the water,’ Casco shouted. ‘By God, if it don’t go out the next time, I’ll swim out with it!’”

All attempts to get a line to the ship had failed; then, “There’s a brass-buttoned chap up the main shrouds. Seems to be paying out something. He’s watching the water in a dazed way under his shading hand. Suddenly a terrible cry issued from his lips. The big rollers struck him as he sprang into the surf, and tossed him back, but he had grasped up a black object and plunged ashore, panting, uttering strange cries. A big black dog with a line trailing from its brass collar madly struggled in his arms and lifted his head to Jem’s face with shrill yaps of joyful greeting, and a cry of amazement went up from the crew.

“‘It’s Pontiac!” they yelled. ‘He’s brought in a line from the ship.’”

The lines were secured, and the breeches buoy was used under the direction of Captain Casco, who had gone out to the ship to retrieve his child … “when father and son crossed the swaying hawser on the breeches buoy and fell into the arms of the chanting, joyful life-saving crew of Ships Bottom, of who the loudest chanting and most joyful was Pontiac, the big, black Newfoundland.”

Over the next seven years Bourke would return to the Ships Bottom station, with stories of the bravery and daring of its crew making them legends. When the deserted spot became a town in 1925, its name became Ship Bottom, so if you’re on the beach this winter and see a big black Newfie running loose, don’t complain. His breed helped to put your town on the map.

Next Week: The test.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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