A pleasant creek-and-bayside community with a long history, Tuckerton can’t boast of the boardwalk food, amusement rides, and sundry shops of Seaside or Ocean City — or even the oceanside pleasures of nearby Long Beach Island.
But Tuckerton has its charms, as well as a slower pace than the barrier island beach towns, especially in the summer.
Settled in 1698, the town’s former names include Andrew Mills, Middle-of-the-Shore, Clamtown, Quakertown, and Fishtown. The current name comes from prominent citizen and Revolutionary War veteran Ebenezer Tucker, who in 1789 hosted a feast for the residents who in turn changed the town’s name from Clamtown to Tuckerton.
Tuckerton became a port of entry of the United States, with Ebenezer Tucker appointed collector. His commission, which was signed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, bears the date of March 21, 1791.
The town’s rich seafaring and other maritime history has been preserved and is documented and celebrated at the Tuckerton Seaport and Baymen’s Museum, located on Main Street (Route 9) in the heart of Tuckerton.
This working maritime village and museum features some 20 historic and recreated buildings connected by a boardwalk, a maritime forest, and wetlands nature trail, and is a member of the Council of American Maritime Museums.
Officially opened in 2000, the seaport’s centerpiece today is the reconstructed Tucker’s Island Lighthouse, located at the museum’s entrance on Route 9. I headed to it for a self-guided tour, and if Jersey Shore maritime history is your interest, you easily can spend a couple of hours in the lighthouse building alone.
It has handsome light wood flooring, large windows that bring lots of natural light in, and well-constructed and marked exhibits. The first floor is devoted to the history of Tucker’s Island and in particular, the old lighthouse.
A replica of the lighthouse off the southern end of LBI and near the entrance to Little Egg Harbor Bay, it actually depicts the second lighthouse on Tucker’s Island. Re-modeled and upgraded, the lighthouse was relit with a Fresnel lens that could be seen 12 nautical miles away, filling the gap between Barnegat and Absecon lighthouses.
Like the current structure, the new Tucker’s Island lighthouse was a two-story white house with a large front porch. The lens was mounted in a tower, which was surrounded by a walkway.
Tucker’s Island — also known as Sea Haven — was basically a sand bar that the ocean reclaimed in the early 20th century. But in the 18th century it was a haven for fishermen, who had attempted to found a colony there.
New Yorker and sportsman Reuben Tucker Sr. came to the area in the mid-1700s, put up a small house, and invited his hunting and fishing friends to visit, and then decided to rent rooms to help meet expenses. This is where the stories about Tucker’s Island being the first Jersey Shore “resort” come from.
According to book “South Jersey Towns,” the Little Egg Harbor Life Saving Station was opened in 1869, with a professional staff. Crewmen and families moved in and additional buildings were erected, including a small schoolhouse, which also served as a church and community center, as late as the 1920s.
By then Tucker’s Island had been subjected to heavy erosion, and many buildings were lost to the sea. As for the lighthouse itself, it fell into a raging sea during a lengthy and severe storm on October 12, 1927. The ocean continued to wash away the island, and by the 1940s Tucker’s Island was barely visible, even as a sandbar.
Just inside the rear entrance of the Seaport’s lighthouse building you will see a dramatic series of photographs that show the lighthouse falling into the ocean. The photos were taken by Paul Rider, the great-grandson of Eben Rider, the first in the Rider family to tend the lighthouse and “keep” the lights.
There is also plenty of information about and artifacts that belonged to the Rider family, “The Keepers of the Light.” One piece that has withstood the test of time is Great Uncle Arthur Rider’s fiddle, on which he is said to have played such sea shanties and seagoing songs as “Over the Waves” and “The Jolly Coopersmith.”
Elsewhere in the main building, are sections devoted to Tuckerton’s history as a busy harbor, with thriving fishing and salt industries.
Tuckerton was also a great ship building town and exported large quantities of lumber. Early days were rife with saw mills, wheelwrights, and blacksmiths as well as many skilled carvers of duck decoys. In addition, castor oil was pressed and processed in the area, and the museum has a vintage castor oil press on view.
There is also a significant section on sailing, fishing, and hunting on the Barnegat Bay and its surrounding marshes. A “sneakbox” built by Josephus Seaman of West Creek (1860-1923) is featured prominently. This is a crafty little vessel invented in 1836 by Josephus’ father, Captain Hazelton Seaman.
Designed to be one-man duck hunting vessels, the boats can be camouflaged with reeds and marsh grass, and because of their lean construction and maneuverability, can “sneak” into the creeks and shallows. Fairly lightweight, they can be pulled onto a salt marsh, or across a frozen bay or other body of water.
However, sneakboxes can also move well in deeper waters and were designed to be stable in most weather conditions — they can even be used for racing. Die-hard Jersey duck-hunting enthusiasts still swear by the sneakbox.
What would a museum on the edge of the Pine Barrens be without a mini-exhibit featuring the Jersey Devil? On the first floor, there is a wonderful chainsaw carving of the legendary beast by local folk artists Terry Schmidt and Dan James, and a depiction of the Jersey Devil by found-object sculptor Terry O’Leary. This piece of folk art is constructed of what look like metal bed springs, kitchen and yard tools, with scrub pine twigs for its claws.
Tuckerton Seaport is also home to the Jersey Shore Folklife Center, which researches, documents, supports, and presents the diverse communities and traditions of the Jersey Shore and the Pinelands. Such artisan crafts as decoy carving, basket weaving, surfboard shaping, and boatbuilding are all supported by the JSFC.
The second floor has an extensive exhibit of the old Tuckerton Railroad, which has been put together with obvious care, craftsmanship, and the devotion of true railroad/model train enthusiasts. This fine exhibit, which marks the 145th anniversary of the Tuckerton Railroad, probably deserves its own article, considering the breadth of the history.
However, I came to see the more maritime-oriented exhibits, and I was not disappointed, as the second floor chronicles a variety of subjects, including life-saving, privateers, and especially ship wrecks.
Even I — who grew up at the Jersey Shore — never knew how many shipwrecks there were off our shores. According to the exhibit, there are so many wrecks off the New Jersey coast that it might be called “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
One map denotes all the known shipwrecks off New Jersey in the Atlantic Ocean, and it is detailed beyond belief. These include vessels that succumbed to storms and bad weather conditions, as well as ships that collided and sunk, and those destroyed by German U-boats, in both World Wars.
Many, many of the wrecks were loaded with treasure including:
• The Live Oak, a sloop that sunk off Squan Beach in 1869, with about $20,000 in coins.
• The schooner Ellis, which ran aground off Brigantine with some $100,000 worth of silver — in 1775.
• The Bethany, a bark carrying china and porcelain that sunk off Two Mile Beach in 1877.
• The Sindia, which, on its way to dock in New York, famously hit a sandbar off Ocean City, due to the officers and crew celebrating the end of a long journey that had taken them to China — so the legend says. From the Far East, she carried gold, silver, cases of fine porcelain and china, and an array of Buddha statues. The ship was never able to be moved and slowly sunk into the mud and sea. In fact, you could see the tip-top of its mast from the Ocean City Boardwalk as late as the mid-1980s.
• An ocean liner named Republic, which, in 1909 sank about 175 miles east of Ambrose Tower, carrying $1.5 billion in gold, silver, jewels and coins.
Special attention is given to the wreck and burning of the Morro Castle, off Asbury Park in 1934. The ocean liner, which weighed more than 11,000 tons, was part of the Ward Line, and made regular trips back and forth between New York and Havana, Cuba.
Named for the Morro Castle fortress that guards the entrance to Havana Bay, it was sometimes said to be a floating refuge for Cubans fleeing the rule of dictator Gerardo Machado.
The story goes that early on the morning of September 8, 1934, a fire broke out just as the ship was just eight nautical miles off Long Beach Island. The fire was thought to be sabotage, to protest the poor conditions the crew endured, especially the wretched food they ate — while the ship’s passengers (and probably top officers) enjoyed gourmet dining, the crew was either starving from lack of food or getting sick on rotten chow.
On the last night of the journey, the Morro Castle’s Captain Wilmott had a heart attack after dinner and died, and Chief Officer Warms assumed control.
Meanwhile, gale force winds were churning up the seas, and the fire quickly caught the ship’s veneered wooden surfaces and furniture, and subsequently raged. Power was lost, as was the ability to steer the vessel. The burning ship drifted along the shores as Warms attempted to beach it, and it eventually came to a stop near Sea Girt, then drifting to just off Asbury Park. It remained there for several months as a curiosity, and was then towed off and scrapped.
A total of 137 passengers and crew members died between burning to death and trying to save themselves by jumping into the stormy sea. This devastating fire sparked awareness for improved fire safety on ships. Today the use of fire-retardant materials, automatic fire doors, as well as greater attention to shipboard fire drills and other safety procedures are direct results of the disaster.
On the lighter side of things, for those who love the era of 19th century hotels and resorts at the central Jersey shore, there are pictures and memorabilia aplenty on the second floor. On display are vintage images of the Sunset, Atlantic, Oceanic, and Social hotels, all in Barnegat Light. Toward the southern end of LBI, you would find the Baldwin, Parry House, and the magnificent Engleside Hotel (1876-1946) in Beach Haven.
And to give viewers a sense of what one might have worn to wade or swim in the ocean back in the day, the museum has several bathing “costumes” and a variety of beach and sun hats on display as well.
Finally, I climbed the 41 steps to the lighthouse tower, which provides a great view of the whole seaport and beyond, as well as Lake Pohatcong across Route 9, to the west. However, it was a sultry day, and I didn’t linger in the hot tower — leaving to return to enjoying the balmy breeze blowing off the creek.
The Tuckerton Seaport and Baymen’s Museum is there to enjoy all summer, but it is definitely not just a summertime place. In fact, look out for the 34th annual Ocean County Decoy & Gunning Show, Saturday and Sunday, September 24 and 25, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s a free event with demonstrations, contests, seminars, crafters, carvers, vendors, food, and music.
And other special events and festivals are held frequently in the fall, including every weekend in October. (Check out the Haunted Seaport, October 20, 21 and 22).
There are even special celebrations to mark the Christmas holiday season. Then, on New Year’s Day, the Tuckerton Seaport will hold a special “Fire and Ice” party, featuring ice sculpture and ice-cutting demos, as well as crafts, food trucks, kid’s activities, and a big bonfire. The festivities will be capped with fireworks.
Tuckerton Seaport and Baymen’s Museum, 120 West Main Street, Tuckerton. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. $8; $6 seniors. 609-298-8868. www.tuckertonseaport.org.
Tuckerton is about 75 miles from Princeton. Take the Garden State Parkway south to Exit 58, then turn left onto Route 539 east to Route 9 (Main Street). Turn right at the light at the intersection of Main and Green streets and follow signs for the Seaport.