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Sumner Continues to Cause Havoc

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Apr 25, 2018

As World War I raged in far-off France, Ocean County residents were dealing with a growing problem – the hulk of the once-elegant Army transport Sumner. The ship had stranded in December 1916 and been abandoned by the government. Over the next months it began breaking up, but not before it created a sandbar that threatened to close Barnegat Inlet and caused the channel that ran through it to shift its location.

Meanwhile, the wreck itself was causing problems for navigation. The New Jersey Courier reported that on Sept. 10, 1917, there was a collision with the wreck.

“The schooner poked her nose in the breach which the sea had made between the fore and aft section of the transport. The schooner itself broke in two yesterday.

“The Barnegat coast guard who went out (to) the schooner at daylight yesterday found no one aboard, and conjectured that she was abandoned by her crew in the recent heavy weather.

“Coast officials report that British schooner J.A. Holmes, which stranded off Barnegat on Sunday last, will prove a total loss. The Holmes’ underwater hull has opened up and is now sandlogged. The upper hull is fast falling apart.”

The Associated Press solved the mystery when the Barnegat Coast Guard Station reported, “Advices have come to the coast guard station here of the rescue of the crew of the schooner J.A. Holmes, which drove ashore Sunday between the split bow and stern of the old wreck of the United States transport Sumner. They were picked up at sea by a steamship that had just docked at an Atlantic Port. Estimated at first as being about 12 men, the crew proves to have consisted only of a captain, mate and two seamen.”

As fear of German U-boats drove shipping closer to shore, there were other incidents. The Washington Evening Star of April 22, 1918 explained, “The Norwegian steamship Vindal, from a South American port for an Atlantic port with 15,000 bags of coffee, came ashore on Barnegat shoal during a heavy fog early today. The stranded ship lies almost on top of the United States transport Sumner, which was wrecked in December, 1916. The coast guard brought ashore the Vindal’s crew of fifteen men.”

Once the rescued crew was on shore, things got out of hand. According to the Courier, “After the crew got ashore they got hold of some whiskey, and the result was that Mayor James V. Jones phoned to Sheriff Chafey at Toms River, demanding protection for the borough. Supt. John C. Price of the Tuckerton Railroad also phoned up, asking that officers be sent to Barnegat City (now Barnegat Light). … They motored to Forked River and Capt. Wm. Wilbert set them across in his powerboat. When they arrived the row was all over, and the coast guards had the ship’s crew in charge. It seems that the ship’s crew wanted to board the railroad train to leave for the city, and the captain didn’t want them to go. Some of them had been drinking, and it was alleged they threatened to take forcible possession of the train.”

The Vindal was pulled off the shoals by a tug after jettisoning most of the coffee.

With the end of the war in November 1918, the federal government finally decided to act on the problems caused by the Sumner. The News Journal from Wilmington, Del., told of a local hero on Dec. 26, 1918.

“The wreck of the United States transport Sumner which ran ashore on Barnegat Shoals, New Jersey, December 12, 1916, has been broken up with dynamite by Frank J. Rhein of this place, a diver employed under the United States Engineer Office, Wilmington. … The wreck lay about a mile below Barnegat Inlet and three-eighths of a mile off shore and has been a menace to fishing and other craft entering or leaving Barnegat Bay ever since she went shore. About four tons of dynamite was used in breaking up the wreck.”

The DuPont Magazine would later fill in some of the details.

“The most troublesome phase of blowing up a derelict at sea is to find it when you want to – but not unexpectedly. Sometimes only a spar is visible above the water to indicate the presence of the submerged hull that any passing ship may ram to its own destruction. Wind and waves, tides and ocean currents frequently carry such derelicts hundreds of miles before the wrecking crew can locate it. … But demolishing wrecks along the Atlantic coast is equally important and no less interesting, even if the position of the unfortunate ship is known. Frank J. Rhein, of Delaware City, Delaware, will tell you so if you ask him. He is a deep-sea-diver and submarine blaster.”

Each shipwreck has its own story.

“Take the case of the U.S. Transport Sumner, a ship 351 feet long. … Dynamite was brought in from Barnegat City in December, 1918, but weather conditions were unfavorable for the work at that time, so the explosive was buried in a huge sand dune until the weather cleared, whereupon it was exhumed, placed in position and detonated with perfect results. A charge of 13,450 pounds of 60 per cent gelatin dynamite was used to break up this vessel, which was of heavy construction. On account of its position directly in Barnegat Inlet, in comparatively shallow water, the vessel had to be destroyed completely.”

As 1919 began, one could no longer stand on the beach and look out at the bones of the once-proud ship – but there is something called the butterfly effect. The Sumner had been stranded for two years, and on April 9, 1919, the Asbury Park Press took notice of the after-effects.

“Storms have cut into the sand at Barnegat Inlet so severely that the foundations of the famous Barnegat lighthouse on the south side of the inlet, are threatened. In two years the tides have cut away 250 yards of the sand and the big lighthouse now stands only 75 feet away. The ocean is now up to the retaining wall. … The last storm cut in 50 feet. The Barnegat light stands 157 feet above sea level. It is one of the oldest marks of navigation on the Atlantic coast and is a famous beacon in history and fiction.”

Over the next months, experts argued over whether or not the lighthouse could or should be saved. The question of why the erosion was happening was not considered until Dr. Howard Frick of Philadelphia, a summer resident of Barnegat City, was interviewed by the Philadelphia Ledger on March 26, 1920.

“Recent storms, Doctor Frick asserts, have swept away a number of houses, and residents of the borough have raised a fund to build a jetty which will in a measure protect their homes, but not the lighthouse. The present condition has resulted in a reduction in valuation of $50,000 to properties, Doctor Frick says.”

What did the local residents think?

“Indirectly, Doctor Frick declares, residents of the borough hold the government responsible for the present condition. During the war the transport Sumner was wrecked off Barnegat City and large quantities of dynamite were used to blow her up. The action has had a considerable effect in changing the current in the inlet, Doctor Frick explains, with ensuing damage to the foundations of the lighthouse and those of many houses in the borough.”

Today the wreck of the transport Sumner is forgotten, but the lighthouse is still there, despite what was once called “the most elegant ship in the Army.”

Next Week: 1918, a War Year.


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