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It’s worth the trip! About eight miles south of the Causeway entrance to Long Beach Island, not far from the bay near the end of Dock St. in Beach Haven, there is a charming, history-packed, fascinating storytelling museum that is the pride of Long Beach Island, Ocean County, and certainly the state of New Jersey.
The Museum of New Jersey Maritime History is the work of historian/diver and author Deborah C. Whitcraft and her husband, former commercial fisherman now charming and knowledgeable executive director (translation janitor and all-around maintenance guy) Jim Vogel. It is an official 501(3) c non-profit historical museum with a board of directors as dedicated as the founders require of those who all volunteer for what is the founding couple’s magnificent gift to those who love maritime history and want to see, touch, and feel it up close and personal.
The museum building itself is an architect’s dream, with its many windows, multi-levels, and two or more floors of museum with an apartment on the top level. Whitcraft and Vogel, apparently, never want to let the building and its tens of thousands of artifacts out of their sight!.
Whitcraft is the true brainstorm behind the museum. A diver on sunken boats, ships, and anything else fascinating several feet under the ocean, she and Vogel’s collection got so large with all the artifacts she found she had no choice but to open a place to store and display them. A busy lady, Whitcraft, besides being a certified diver, is a former mayor of Beach Haven, one of the several small communities that comprise the 18 miles of Long Beach Island. Fastidious to the core, and proud of her town and the people there and throughout the island, she and Vogel wanted to bring something special as well as educational and fun.
The mission of the Museum is multi-faceted. Both a museum and a research facility, its purpose is exclusively educational and it accomplishes that purpose by providing this facility for public display of historic maritime artifacts, photographs, books, documents, artifacts from sunken ships and donations from families who had owned them for very personal reasons.
They also offer special programs for children, to entice another generation into the charm of the past and the importance of remembering it. Their Marine Science Camp for both teens and elementary school-age children is taught by marine biologists and environmentalists, and their website, www.NJMM.org is a treasure on its own, complete with shipwreck databases and maps. photos and their newsletters, together with how anyone can become a member or benefactor of the Museum.
With neither the founders, Whitcraft is president of the Board of Trustees, nor any of the board members or the executive director, taking any salary at all, all money raised through donations, grants, or memorialization’s on engraved brick paving the sidewalks surrounding the museum, are the sole sources of income to keep this unique building and museum thriving. Whitcraft pointed out many of the towns on Long Beach Island have followed Beach Haven’s lead and present the museum with annual grants, and a small gift shop which includes several maritime books, including Whitcraft’s own, also contribute to the upkeep costs, especially since the author takes no gain from her own books.
Clearly, however, the most popular and most comprehensive room of the many specialty rooms in the museum is the one dedicated to the Morro Castle, the luxurious liner that ferried wealthy and hard-working Americans from New York to Cuba for a week’s reprieve from the 1930s Depression. The Morro Castle went ablaze during the early morning hours of Sept. 8, 1934, and eventually floated into public view of the Asbury Park beach, drawing thousands to that city and starting it on the road to fame and fortune through the plethora of food vendors, photographers, newspaper reporters and plain thrill-seekers who wanted to see the smoldering remains and hear the intrigue that surrounded the ship.
In the next several issues, Jersey Shore Scene will bring you closer to the stories of the Morro Castle, from the shock of the captain of the ship who died seven hours before the blaze, to the families who jumped terrorized into the ocean, their feet burning from the flaming floors of the wooden decks to the heroic Bogan family who was first and foremost in rescue efforts and kept the death toll as low as it was. Even the death toll, officially recognized as 137, is in doubt because of the unknown number of Cubans who were regularly smuggled aboard for safe passage to America.
The Museum is open from 1- a.m. to 4 p.m. daily until the end of this month, and weekends, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at the same hours beginning in September.