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Maritime History

New Jersey's maritime heritage is rooted in the interdependent stories of trade, navigation, and coastal defenses.

The resources of the ocean, bays, adjacent rivers, and tributaries supported the fishing trades, which in turn sustained boat building and related industries. Navigable waterways and protected harbors encouraged intercity commerce. Lighthouses were built to warn mariners of hazards to their ships and prevent loss of crew and cargo. Defense of port cities ensured that maritime trade would continue.


The Barnegat Bay Sneakbox, a small, shallow draft, broad-beamed sailing boat, was designed in the 1830s to be easily poled into the reeds and camouflaged. Originally used as a duck blind, the design was so popular that it was adapted and produced in a variety of sizes for different uses. Examples of the Sneakbox and other boats native to the New Jersey coast can be found at the Toms River Seaport Society Museum.

Because of the relative abundance of lumber, boat and shipbuilding became major industries during the 19th century. Today, fishing-both commercial and sport-is the basis of the region's economy.

Fishing and boat building have been associated with the New Jersey coast since the days of the Lenape Indians. From Manasquan north to Sandy Hook and along the Raritan Bay to Perth Amboy, fishermen, clammers and oystermen thrived on the ocean's bounty. The Bayshore's modern fishing industry survives with Belford's Seafood CO-OP. Other commercial fishing fleets, such as Leonardo's have dissolved and the docks have evolved into recreational marinas. By the 1900s, boat building and other maritime industries were supported by the thriving oyster trade on the Delaware Bay. Shad, sturgeon, and crab fishing complemented the shellfish industry.

Cargo and trade ships carried New Jersey agricultural goods to ports up and down both seacoasts. Today, remnants of 19th and early 20th century maritime economies can be found in fishing vessels working the Bay and in small industries found along tidal rivers. Modern examples of traditional trades such as boat building still survive. Towns with evocative names like Bivalve and Shellpile support maritime industries, carrying the past into the present.

Tradition holds that on the island of Brigantine the Lenape Indians used the abundant clam shells to make wampum. Later, during the 17th century, Cape May's prosperous whaling industry encouraged pioneering settlers to build year-round communities. Although over hunting of cow whales ended this profitable venture by the mid-eighteenth century, the communities remained.

By the late eighteenth century, these coastal settlements began to rely on other forms of commercial enterprise: fishing, farming, cattle, and shipbuilding. As far inland as Mays Landing and Tuckahoe, boats were built along tidal streams and floated down to the bay and ocean. New Jersey's plentiful supply of good lumber supported this fast growing industry.

The population of the Absecon and Cape May regions boomed in the 1850s with the building of railroads and the development of resort towns, such as Atlantic City.

Sailboats and steamships, built in Keyport through the end of the nineteenth century, are remembered at Keyport's Steamboat Dock Museum. Trains and steamboats were a common sight along the shore, bringing visitors to summer homes and playgrounds. Fishing villages had become "resorts," and "tourism" was the new industry.


The Intercoastal Waterway, a series of protected passages hugging the shoreline, allows small ships to travel the east coast without being subjected to the perils of the open sea. The north entrance is located in Manasquan Inlet near Point Pleasant. It follows the Atlantic shoreline in protected back bays, south to Cape May and into the Delaware River.

Coastal trading and shipping routes were often hazardous, especially during winter storms. Lighthouses were constructed as early as the 1700s to warn ships of potential dangers. The Sandy Hook Light was built in 1764 by New York City merchants to ensure the safe arrival of their merchandise. It is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in the United States. Two lights existed at Navesink Heights as early as 1828, and were upgraded in 1862 with the construction of Twin Lights.

Lighthouses guide ships along the busy and often dangerous mid-Atlantic coast. Barnegat Lighthouse marked the entrance to Barnegat Bay and served as a reference point for trans-Atlantic mariners. Absecon and Cape May lighthouses directed ships north to New York City and south to the Delaware Bay for the journey to Philadelphia. Smaller lighthouses, such as the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, warned of shoals (where the water is shallow and difficult to navigate) and marked the openings to safe passage and harbors.

Sometimes, lighthouses were unsuccessful in warning ships of dangerous shoals and rocky reefs. In 1848, eight small huts were constructed from Sandy Hook to Long Beach to house small boats and rescue equipment. These were the nucleus of what would become the United States Life Saving Service (USLSS). Of the eight, the Spermaceti Cove Lifeboat Station survived and was moved to Twin Lights State Historic Site where it is on display. By the 1890s, the United States Life Saving Service had constructed stations every 3 1/2 miles along the New Jersey coast. These stations maintained crews and equipment to rescue shipwrecked victims. Today, the U.S. Coast Guard performs these emergency functions. Many of the 19th century Life Saving Service stations can still be seen, although some have been converted for use as private homes and offices. An example of a former Life Saving Service Station can be seen at Island Beach State Park. USLSS Station #2, at Spermaceti Cove on Sandy Hook, was built in 1894 and is now the park visitor center for the Sandy Hook Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area.

The Delaware River continues to be a major shipping channel for ocean-going vessels as well as local trade ships. Varying depths and channels in the river prompted the industry to develop navigational aids to guide and direct the increasing number of vessels. Dangerous shoals were marked with lights to keep ships from running aground. Many lights, such as the Ship John Shoal Light, though difficult to see from the mainland, are still used today. Range lights, used in pairs, allowed ships to pinpoint their location. The Captain would sight along the two lights, one taller than the other, and by maintaining their alignment, he could be assured that his ship was safely in the channel.

Tributaries opening into the Delaware Bay spawned small lighthouses for the many fishing and recreational boats. East Point Light is one of the few still standing. Its automatic light identifies the entrance to the Maurice River.


Ships sailing the coastal waterways, carrying trade goods, troops, and provisions, sometimes entered New Jersey's ports to load and offload their cargo. Coastal defenses were built to protect port cities, harbors, and critically located bridges and rivers.

During the Revolutionary War, the fledgling United States supplemented its small navy with privateers. New Jersey's secluded coves and inlets provided safe haven for many of these privateers who were encouraged to harass and capture enemy vessels. The secluded inlets and harbors of the New Jersey coast were often the site of skirmishes between British and American ships. In Port Republic, a marker commemorates the town of Chestnut Neck, burned by the British in retaliation for the many privateers who used its harbor to dart out, surprise, and then plunder British supply ships. Sandy Hook Light was a military target for both the American and British forces due to its strategic location at the entrance to the British occupied New York Harbor. Enclosed masonry forts became obsolete after the Civil War, so the United States Army built new fortifications to defend the harbor entrance.

British and American fighting ships engaged in a number of skirmishes for control of the Delaware River. Many coastal communities became involved in the War for Independence—Greenwich had its own "Tea Party," and Hancock House State Historic Site at Hancocks Bridge, has been preserved to commemorate the site of a 1778 massacre of colonial patriots.

Coastal areas were also a source of salt, a crucial commodity widely used for preserving food. Skirmishes for control of these productive saltworks occurred frequently during the war.

During WWI, the town of Tuckerton became famous when the U.S. Navy discovered an 820 foot high radio tower the Germans were building on Mystic Island. President Woodrow Wilson seized the tower for American use. The tall tower is gone now. but the concrete building still remains. The strategic importance of Cape May was articulated, when the Army built a large, concrete gun battery to guard against a possible naval invasion and constructed the Cape May Canal to provide Navy ships safe passage from the Delaware Bay to the ocean without having to face possible danger from enemy submarines.

The threat of war with Spain led to the 1890s construction of Fort Mott to protect the port of Philadelphia. Its big guns could be loaded, fired, and then "disappear" behind the protection of a camouflaged earthen and concrete wall that blended into the landscape. Enemy ships would generally never see the weapons firing upon them.

Sandy Hook, also developed guns that could load, fire, and "disappear" behind the protection of a camouflaged concrete wall that blended into the landscape. Nike missiles replaced the disappearing guns in the 1950s as our nation's first line of defense. Advances in technology led to the introduction of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, making coastal defense fortifications and Nike missiles obsolete.

Finn's Point National Cemetery was designated as a burial ground for Confederate prisoners who died in prison at Fort Delaware. Approximately 2,400 Confederate and 300 Union soldiers are buried in the cemetery.

Copyright © 2001-, Terry Muse
Revised: August 18, 2001
Contact: Terry Muse
Coastal Heritage Trail