Saturday, October 18, 2008

Surf City, Here I Come...

Surf City Hotel

Hey, we hopped in the jalopy, aimed south, and headed towards the shores of Jersey. What should come on the radio but a little Jan and Dean, and that gave us an idea - "Ya, we're goin' to Surf City, gonna have some fun..."

The Jersey town of Surf City has gone by many names since it was first settled - the Great Swamp, Buzby’s Place, Old Mansion, and Long Beach City. In 1894 the name was changed to the current Surf City, and that looks like it's a keeper.

Likewise, the Surf City Hotel has had several reincarnations, doing business as the Mansion of Health, Mansion House, Long Beach Inn, Marquette Hotel, and the Surf City Hotel. The hotel has a colorful history, especially gaining noteriety as a Prohibition era party spot.

But our ghost tale goes back to its beginning.

Part of Long Beach Island was once known as The Great Swamp, and it was there that the grand Mansion of Health was built in 1822. The Mansion was constructed near where West Seventh Street stands today.

It was three stories high, and the largest hotel on the Jersey shore in its day. The mansion featured a balcony that ran along the entire top floor with a magnificent view of both the Atlantic Ocean and Barnegat Bay.

Then on April 18, 1854, a legendary storm battered Long Beach Island. Fighting the hurricane winds and currents offshore was the schooner Powhattan, which carried 300 German immigrants looking to start anew in America. They'd never make it.

The Powhattan was slammed against the shoals and a large hole punctured the bow of the now-doomed ship. It bobbed around in the angry Atlantic, with nowhere to go but down to Davy Jone's locker.

As word spread of the disaster, a small crowd of people gathered on shore, but the storm was too powerful to put together any kind of rescue effort.

The ship began to break apart in the dark, and passengers began to wash overboard. The people on the shore could only watch helplessly and wait for the bodies. The entire crew and all of the passengers perished in the disaster, and only fifty of the bodies drifted ashore to Long Beach Island. The rest were consigned to the deep blue sea.

The Powhattan was certainly not the first, and wouldn't be the last, ship to flounder off the coast, and New Jersey appointed wreckmasters for the all-too-common event of a shipwreck. The wreckmaster's duty was to salvage anything of value that washed ashore, and to collect the dead until the coroner could identify them and get them properly buried.

The wreckmaster at Long Beach Island was the manager of the Mansion of Health, Edward Jennings, and the debris and the deceased were neatly stacked outside the hotel for the coroner, who arrived the next morning.

Oddly, as he examined the bodies of the dead he found one thing to be kinda peculiar. None of the men or women had anything of value on their person.

When immigrants arrived in America, they came with everything they could carry, especially cash and jewelry. It was customary for passengers to wear money-belts around their waists to protect their nest egg, but the coroner couldn't find any sign of their gelt.

Immediately, people lifted a cocked eye at Jennings, but there was no proof that he had stolen any money from the corpses, or that indeed any money existed for him to swipe. Still, it smelled awfully fishy.

The victim's bodies were eventually sent along to Manahawkin and buried in pauper's graves in the Baptist cemetery. As time went on, the wreck was forgotten and life went on in the Great Swamp.

But a few months later, another storm ripped through the Island. The frenzied waves crashed near the Mansion, and washed the sand and soil away from the stump of an old cedar tree, a throw-back to the old freshwater swamp that once dominated the landscape.

Among the uncovered roots were dozens of soggy money-belts, all slit open and empty. Jennings was busted, and he was forced to flee the Island in disgrace before the long arm of the Jersey law and the local lynch mob could get to him.

But his troubles didn't end there. It's said that Jennings suffered from terrible nightmares for the rest of his life, haunted by the spirits of those unforunate souls he robbed. He died in a barroom brawl in San Francisco. We'll bet he had some explaining to do for those 300 avenging spirits when he landed in the netherworld.

But the Powhattan spooks didn't go to the light with the death of Jennings. They took over his Mansion of Health. Guests heard sobs during the night and caught shadowy glimpses of misty figures walking on the balcony.

It didn't take long for rumors to spread, and within the year, the hotel was shuttered and closed. The Haunted Mansion of Health remained empty, as it found that most paying customers weren't keen on sharing their suites with spooks.

One summer night in 1861, a group of five local teens broke into the empty building. After horsing around in the deserted halls, they sacked out on the third floor to catch the cool ocean breeze. Just as they began to drift away, one of the boys glanced out the window at the balcony, lit by the full moon.

There stood a young woman holding a small child, gazing sadly out to sea. The light from the moon shined through her. Spooked, he woke up his buds, who also saw the apparition. Then in a flash, both mother and child vanished.

The Mansion of Health didn't get many nocturnal visits after that tale spread around town, and it burned to the ground thirteen years later, in 1874.

When the RR's hit the burg in the mid-1880s, a new hotel call the Mansion House was built on the old foundations of the burned out shell. It flopped, too, and stories of restless spirits in its halls continued to be told.

At the turn of the century, the hotel was moved to the ocean side of Eighth Street, where it now stands as part of Crane's Surf City Hotel.

It seems that the departed Deutsch appreciated the move nearer to their watery ocean doom; maybe it released their spirits. Then again, they may have shuffled off to their eternal home when the State of New Jersey placed a monument on their unmarked Manahawkin graves, memoralizing the ghosts burial spot and setting them free.

Whatever the reason, the hauntings have ceased now, and the spooks of the Powhattan are finally resting in peace so far as we know. But if you're ever on the third floor and hear "Gott, hilf uns, bitte!" out of the clear blue, well, maybe they're back...

No comments: