Welcome to Week 9 in the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks’ writing challenge. This week’s theme is Disaster. When I saw this writing prompt, the first thing I thought was “large loss of life” and “extreme weather.”
Sadly, the disasters I will be sharing involve both. However, before I address this week’s theme, please allow me a moment to explain how my family came to be in an area where these tragedies occurred.
In 1667, my 9th Great-Grandfather William Layton, a Baptist from Rhode Island and one of the early settlers of Monmouth County, was granted lot number 14 in Middletown, New Jersey. Through the generations, the Layton family has resided in Monmouth County, spreading from corner to corner of this 665 square mile area.
Five generations after our Layton progenitor came to New Jersey, Allen Layton, my 4th great-grandfather, was born on 29 September 1806, in Jerseyville, less than 20 miles from Middletown.
Circa 1830, Allen Layton married Hannah Dilatush. The couple settled in Howell Township, where they raised their four sons and two daughters. They were still residing there on 13 November 1854, when a nor’easter slammed into the Jersey shore.
While the Laytons were taking shelter from the storm in the safety of their home, approximately 12 miles away, sailing on the choppy coastal waters was a clipper ship named New Era, carrying nearly 360 men, women, and children—most of whom were German immigrants bound for New York. During the storm, the ship became stuck on a sandbar near Deal Beach (now Asbury Park Beach). In 1854, the area near where the New Era ran aground was a sparsely populated place covered with sand dunes and scrub pines. The town of Asbury Park did not exist yet.
So, as the New Era was being relentlessly pummeled by the storm surge, very few people were nearby to mount a rescue. And the ones who were on hand were stymied by the high waves and intense winds. Consequently, 240 of the German passengers perished.
Sadly, this was not the greatest loss of life along the Jersey shore in Allen Layton’s lifetime. Earlier that year, about 50 miles south of his home, the ship Powhatan, carrying 340 passengers, mostly German immigrants, ran aground on the Barnegat Shoals during a hurricane-like snowstorm on 15 April 1854. The ship remained afloat until the following day, 16 April 1854, when the hull split open; all on board perished. The victims’ bodies were washed onto beaches as far south as Atlantic City and were buried in unmarked mass graves. Fifty-four were interred at Smithville Methodist Church, 45 were buried a cemetery in Absecon, and about 140 bodies washed ashore on Long Beach Island. Many others were lost at sea.
Three generations later, Hannah Anna (Layton) Marriner, my 2nd great-grandmother, witnessed the aftermath of another history-making wreck. On 8 September 1934, Hannah and her daughters Thelma and Belva were safe in their home at 210 1/2 Brinley Avenue, Bradley Beach, New Jersey, when (yet another) nor’easter hit.
Less than two miles north of the Marriner residence, the S.S. Morro Castle, a 508-foot ocean liner, caught fire. The high winds fanned the flames, engulfing most of the ship. The crew struggled to extinguish the blaze and transmit an SOS signal but soon realized that the fire could not be contained. Many of the crew abandoned ship, leaving the passengers to fend for themselves.
Blinded by darkness and dense smoke and without an adequate number of lifeboats available, many passengers jumped into the ocean to escape the conflagration. Some suffered broken bones, some were paralyzed, and others were knocked unconscious when they hit the water. Because of the storm, rescue ships had difficulty responding to the distress call and struggled to reach the survivors. All along the shore, residents retrieved both survivors and victims from the surf. Of the 549 passengers and crew on board, 135 died.
Ironically, the next morning, the now-empty, still-burning ship ran aground at almost the exact spot as the New Era had 80 years before.
For the next five months, people from all over came to Asbury Park to see the remains of this once glorious ship and mourn those who died. Unfortunately, because of its proximity to the boardwalk and the convention hall pier from where it was possible to wade out and touch the wreck, the SS Murro Castle was treated as a tourist attraction until it was towed away to the scrapyard on 14 March 1935.