Sunday, August 5, 2012

Abondon Ship! The Powhattan Sinking

For every year of my life my family has packed up the car and headed down (that's south for my non New Jersey readers) the Turnpike and Parkway to Long Beach Island, and eighteen mile long sandbar off the coast of New Jersey. The island has a long history of being the main destinations for a true Jersey Shore experience, devastating storms, shark attacks, epic mini gold games and ship wreaks. But there is one ship wreak that stands out amongst the rest. In 1854, a typical nor'easter ran wild up the Atlantic coast. The storm tore up the eastern seaboard and wreaked havoc on any and all ships on the water. One such ship which would become part of LBI lore is the Powhattan.

There really was nothing special about the Powhattan. She was an averaged sized vessel for the times, 132 ft in length, three masted wooden schooner and used to transport  people across the Atlantic. She was built in 1837 in the Baltimore Shipyards. Between its launching in 1837 and sinking in 1854, only ten known trips were made between the states and European ports. The Powhattan transports immigrants from England, Ireland, Holland, France, Switzerland and Germany to the ports of New York and Baltimore. It would be the trip the Powhattan made in March/April of 1854 that would be the end not only of the Powhattan, but for all those on board as well.

The Powhattan left the port of  Harve, France in the beginning of March 1854 under the command of Captain James Meyers. Captain Meyers was a skilled captain and commanded 25 crew members and was entrusted with the lives of about 350 souls. As the ship reached the New Jersey coast she had sailed right into the midst of one of the worst storms of the 19th century. The storm was described as a "hurricane-like snowstorm." Mother nature proved to much for the crew and the Powhattan as the ship was forced closer and closer to shore until finally slamming into the Barnegat Shoals. The Powhattan was being pounded by thundering surf, wave after wave and finally was slammed so hard into the shoals the bow was busted open. As she took on water and continued to be tossed around the sea she quickly fell apart, tossing everyone into the water. A small crowd watched from the shore helpless, as a rescue attempt, from Harvey Ceders Lifesaving Station 6, was impossible due to the heavy snow and storm conditions. But as the bodies washed ashore, a rescue attempt would have been proven futile as most of the Powhattan's passengers were already dead.

The Mansion of Health was the main building on Long Beach Island. The mansion was a hotel and was run by Edward Jennings. The state of New Jersey had appointed Jennings and many others along the shore as "wreakmasters" who were responsible for dealing with the aftermath of an event like the sinking of a ship. It was Jennings job to collect anything of value that many wash ashore but more importantly he was to gather the bodies of the victims until burial arrangements were made. When the corner arrived to gather the bodies something didn't seem right. Upon inspecting the bodies he noticed none of the immigrants had any money, jewelry or items of value. Now this stuck out to him because immigrants would usually have their life savings with them as much or as little as it would be. Jennings was the immediately suspected of foul play, but he staunchly defended his innocence. It wouldn't be until several months later, after the burials that the truth would come out. After another storm, empty money belts and wallets were found under a tree stump next to the mansion. Jennings fled LBI and would die a few years later in San Francisco during a bar fight.

Out of the 300 or so passengers on the Powhattan only 140 bodies washed ashore and they would be buried in mass graves in Manahawkin under a monument that readers "Unknown from the Sea." So the story is said and done, the the Powhattan was caught in a storm, crashed, sank and all those on board were lost to the sea right? Wrong, this disaster would go on to develop into one of the greatest New Jersey legends of all time. After the sinking many guest of the Mansion of Health complained about hearing sobbing and people walking through the halls at night. There was even a recurring story of seeing a woman standing on the balcony looking out to the sea. Surely enough after the rumors of the mansion being haunted, people stopped going to LBI. Yet the most famous story comes from the summer of 1861 and from five young men's time at the mansion.

Hearing the story of ghosts five young men from the area decided to test their manhood and stay at the abandoned and haunted Mansion of Health. To their surprise nothing first. In the middle of the night a young woman was seen walking through the halls, the men then chased after her checking every room in the mansion. As the reached the balcony they found her there, looking out towards the sea with an infant in her arms. The men then terrified ran from the mansion back to the mainland. For the rest of the mansions existence sightings had been reported by those who dared to check it out. In 1874 the mansion burnt to the ground so it's pretty obvious the haunting stopped by the stories lived on. It is not only one of the top ghost stories of New Jersey but of the nation as well.

As a result of the sinking of the Powhattan and 64 other ship wreaks between 1847 and 1856 the Absecon Light House was built.  The lighthouse would then be responsible for keeping ships far enough from shore and prevent future sinkings. It operated until 1933 and stands almost as a monument to those who it helped guide to safety over its career. But as for the Powhattan, the legend lives on. For every new generation that hits the sands of Long Beach Island there is always a night when the legend of the Powhattan and the Mansion of Health is told. Even though there is nothing left on LBI to mark the sites of these tragedies it is still the most infamous legend. LBI has a long history of shipwrecks, storms the 1916 shark attacks  and hell it was almost whipped of the map during the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962. But she still survives all 18 miles of her with her stories and legends never fading to history, including the Powhattan and her victims. 


  1. Can you tell me more about Captain James Meyers? He was commander of the ship Garonne in 1848, that immigrants transported from Netherlands to America. Is there a drawing of the Garonne, or a picture of James Meyers?

    Ed van Sliedregt
    the Netherlands

  2. Hey Ed, I'll try to find out as much as I can for you and hopefully be able to help. If you don't mind my asking, why the interest in Captain Meyers?

  3. Hoi Mike,

    I wrote a book called Armoedzaaiers in Dutch, released the 20th of Januari 2013. It tells the story of Dutch twin brothers from wich the youngest sailed to America. More information on I'm searching for a publisher in the US.


    Ed van Sliedregt

  4. Thank you for writing such an interesting article about the storms off the coast of New Jersey, but especially about the fate of the ship Powhattan to be fascinating. My Welsh ancestors came to America on this ship arriving in New York on the 23rd of Aug 1837 so they must have sailed on one of the ship's first crossings. The Captain's name looks to be Robert McCerren.

    May I link this to my family tree on Ancestry?

  5. Jane,

    Thanks for reading, and the Powhattan was quite a popular ship during its time, making stops not only in New York, but Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

    I'd be honored if you'd link the story to your Ancestry tree.

    Also if you'd like, please send me a link to the ships manifest and I can take a look at the captain's signature if you;d like a second opinion.

    I spent every summer of my life on Long Beach Island and the story of the Powhattan is very special to me, again, thanks for reading.

    Mike Maring

  6. Mike,

    I have more info on the Powhattan. Please contact me at