200 Plus

Sumner Becomes Major Obstacle

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Apr 16, 2018

Most shipwreck stories end with the final count of those lost or rescued, but the story of the stranding of the U.S. Army Transport Sumner in December 1916 was only the beginning of its influence on Long Beach Island, its residents and the future. On April 4, 1917, the U.S. Army decided to abandon all attempts to salvage equipment from the ship as winter storms had broken it in two, and it was settling into the bottom only 300 yards from the beach at Barnegat Light.

On April 8, as Toms River’s New Jersey Courier carried headlines about the United States’ declaration of war on Germany, it also rekindled an old story about the infamous Barnegat Pirates, saying, “Among the wreckage from the steamer Sumner a large number of solid mahogany doors came ashore. Some of the beach combers with their piratical inspirations, for fear they could not get away with all of them, chopped and split them to pieces for the sake of a lock or a few brass screws or hinges.”

It appears the thought of local pirates prodded the federal government agents to act. The Asbury Park Press of May 18, 1917, reported on their actions.

“According to the story, the agents quietly drifted into Barnegat City several weeks ago and became friendly with the natives. After getting sufficiently acquainted with the townspeople, one of the agents asked how it was that none of them had gotten any of the metal parts of the wrecked ship. One man blurted out that he had salvaged more than half a ton of copper and had sold it to a junk man. The other agents reported that they had found where the brass door handles, railings and bath fixtures had been sold. Investigation disclosed the fact that more than $2,000 worth of metal had been sold.”

The sting operation was quickly followed by a raid.

“Reports coming from Barnegat City say the government agents have seized several tons of brass, copper and other metals which residents of that place had salvaged from the wrecked transport Sumner.”

A week later the Courier announced the raid was only the beginning.

“When the United States transport Sumner went ashore at Barnegat City last winter a watchman was placed in charge to represent the government. When it was learned that about $2500 worth of junk had been removed from the transport several fishermen at Barnegat and the watchman were among the missing. Already five arrests have been made. … The men under arrest are said at Barnegat City to be H. Wagner, the watchman, Walter Perrine, Harry Rogers, Borden White, Henry White. Some of the men were arrested at Maurice River, where they had gone for the sturgeon fishery.”

On June 22, the Courier noted there had been more arrested.

“On Friday last, Samuel Cohen, a Lakewood junkman, who is well known all along the shore as a buyer of junk, was arrested by a deputy U.S. Marshal, on the charge of buying up junk stolen from the wreck of the transport Sumner.”

The Courier explained the new arrests were “a sequel to the arrest of five fishermen and the watchman left on Sumner by the Government, on a charge of conspiracy. The Government holds that the men employed in wrecking the Sumner and taking valuables from her, had an understanding with the watchman, and carried off the brass and bronze fittings with his knowledge, when he left the ship for the shore, while in the Government, and that they sold this metal to the junk men for a small part of its real value. The ‘Courier’s’ Barnegat correspondent months ago told of the destruction of valuable mahogany doors and other woodwork, to get from them metal to be sold as junk.”

The same day, the Courier also pointed to a new, growing problem caused by the Sumner.

“One of the ‘ironies of fate’ it is that the United States Government should have entirely blocked off the inlet channel at Barnegat inlet, when it is the government’s job to keep the waterways open; but it was done by the wreck of the transport Sumner last December. The Sumner ran into the mouth of the inlet channel and struck the shoal on the seaward side, lying almost across the channel. The result was that a sandbar forming around the wreck, has entirely blocked the channel. So far no new channel has broken thru, tho the men who run in and out the inlet are looking for one to open directly opposite the lighthouse, from present indications. As it is, the fishermen have to go out and in over the bar, where there is only 18 inches of water at low tide.”

This appears to have accelerated the erosion near the lighthouse, which in 1917 was over 200 yards away from water. On July 5, the Asbury Park Press announced the changes were beginning to have major consequences.

“The mouth of the Barnegat bay at Barnegat inlet is being closed by a sand bar which is forming around the wreck of the transport Sumner, which came ashore last December. … The Sumner ran into the mouth of the inlet channel and lies crosswise, so that with the additional sand bar it is now impossible for most boats to get beyond except at high tide, there being only 18 inches at low water. This compels larger craft that desire to come into Barnegat bay to go down to Little Egg Harbor.”

While many local residents were in danger of losing their livelihoods, the Freehold Transcript of July 20 reported some good news.

“The indictments against Isaac Fisher of Long Branch and several other junk dealers for alleged conspiracy and stealing metals from the U.S. transport Sumner, which went ashore off Barnegat last December, was quashed in the U.S. District Court at Newark last week when it was shown that the captain abandoned the boat and would not attempt to salvage any more of it, inviting the junkmen to barter for the purchase of metals stripped from the boat.”

As local citizens begged the Army to do something to remove the Sumner, the Army was preoccupied with fighting a “war to make the world safe for democracy.” But on Sept. 10, the Sumner was again in the news. The Washington Herald reported, “Mystery surrounds the fate of the crew of the J.A. Holmes, a ... (schooner) which was driven ashore here this morning flying distress signals. No one was on the vessel when she struck. Coast guards rowed out through the surf, expecting to rescue the crew of the schooner, but they found not a soul aboard. There was evidence that she had been abandoned in haste, it was said. All her small boats were gone.”

The unmanned Holmes headed for the wreck of the Sumner.

“The schooner was driven in by a northeast gale which had been raging for two days. Singularly enough, in striking she poked her nose directly into the breach in the hull of the United States transport Sumner, wrecked last winter. The schooner’s bows became firmly wedged and her stern floated free. The gale, undiminished in intensity, gave her a tremendous buffeting, opening her seams widely. Soon after daybreak both masts were snapped off; she was torn loose from her cradle in the Sumner’s old hull, and flung broadside on the beach. … She sailed from Halifax for New York two weeks ago carrying a cargo of lumber. She is believed to have carried a dozen men.”

 As the Coast Guard searched for the crew of the Holmes, one thing was becoming clear; the Sumner had become a major problem. Unfortunately there was a war on, and solving it would have to wait.

Next Week: Blow her up!

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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