On February 15, 1846, a severe storm caused a number of horrifying shipwrecks along the northeast coast that were a shock even to a nation long accustomed to maritime disasters.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, large sections of the eastern seaboard were sparsely populated. In a storm, ships that ran aground on the shifting and unpredictable sandbars were often destroyed with full loss of life and freight, sometimes in full view of aghast onlookers ashore. Few people could survive a swim of any length in near-freezing water with huge breakers and high winds. Those who managed somehow to reach the beach in winter often died from exposure on the largely uninhabited shores.
The John Minturn was a three-masted packet ship that had departed New Orleans for New York City, with 51 passengers and crew and a reported $80,000 in cargo. The ship sailed into bad weather that turned into howling gale. While attempting to make it to the narrow channel that leads past Sandy Hook, the John Minturn was blown further south and west. The ship’s sails were torn from masts and spars, leaving the vessel at the mercy of wind and wave. The captain headed the ship for the beach in an attempt to enable the passengers and crew to escape, but ran hard into a sandbar offshore that breached the hull. In such circumstances ships often were smashed to pieces by breakers in just hours. The ship carried just one dinghy, and no lifeboats for passengers. Ultimately, 38 people perished that day from the John Minturn, and other shipwrecks from that storm resulted in another 22 lost lives.
At that time, the Massachusetts Humane Society had founded the very first lifeboat station at Cohassett, Mass. These stations were small shed-like structures, holding rescue equipment that was to be used by volunteers in case of a wreck. In New Jersey, one person who had witnessed such horrifying tragedies was a young doctor living near Barnegat Bay, in Ocean County. Dr. William A. Newell began to form the idea for dedicated resources similar to those in Massachusetts to be deployed in the high-risk area for shipwrecks around Sandy Hook, to try and minimize the loss of lives and goods from shipwrecks. When he was elected to Congress to represent New Jersey, Dr. Newell succeeded in getting an amendment added to the appropriations bill that provided the impetus for the new U.S. Life-Saving Service.
Timeline 1700’s-1800’s (sic). (2020). United States Coast Guard Historian’s Office. Available: https://www.history.uscg.mil/Complete-Time-Line/Time-Line-1700-1800/
Means, Dennis R. (1987). A Heavy Sea Running: The Formation of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, 1846-1878. Prologue Magazine, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Winter 1987, Vol. 19, No. 4. Available: https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1987/winter/us-life-saving-service-1.html#SL4
Public Acts of the Thirtieth Congress of the United States. (1848) August 14, 1848, P. 114. Available: https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/30th-congress/c30.pdf
Noble, Dennis L. (1994). That Others Might Live: The U.S. Life-Saving Service, 1878-1915. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1994.