Long Beach Island lies off the New Jersey Coast about 65 air miles south of Manhattan and 57 miles east and slightly south of Philadelphia. The Island follows the coast for a distance of 18 miles in a roughly northeast-to-southwest direction. Barnegat Bay, which separates it from the mainland, is approximately two to six miles wide. The width of the Island ranges from more than a mile to less than 200 yards.
The first inhabitants of Long Beach Island were the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware, members of the Algonquian linguistic family, that predominated in what is now the Northeast U.S. The Island was first mapped by the Dutch sailing from New Amsterdam. The results of their discoveries appear on a 1614 map that shows Barnegat Bay as Barende Gat, or inlet of breakers. One of the early documents that reference the Island dates from 1690 while the earliest extant map to name the Island - as Barnegat Beach- appeared sometime between 1671 and 1717.
As with any island, Long Beach Island's history is intimately entwined with the sea. Legends of piracy and treasure abound in the area around the Island and Barnegat Bay. There is at least one well-authenticated instance of a significant treasure find made on the Island in the late 1800s, and when the occasional Spanish silver coin is discovered along the beach the mythical images of Buccaneers and brigands become vivid once again.
Most of the first European settlers to the Island were whalers attracted by the rich seasonal hunting within sight of land. In the early 1700s, one of these whalers, Aaron Inman, built a home near what is now Surf City and was followed by others. The offshore industry they established lasted until the 1840s. These hardy folk supplemented their incomes by salvaging and smuggling, as well as through more commonplace activities like fishing and crabbing, harvesting salt hay, and much later, commercial duck hunting. Local ship captains put their "skills" at smuggling and salvaging to good use during the Revolution.
During the war, the Island served as a base for American privateers who commandeered British vessels and seized their cargoes as prizes. They profited handsomely while aiding in the Patriot cause. But as the war went on, bands of organized Loyalists and refugees increasingly began to take their revenge- harassing, plundering and terrorizing their way up and down the coast from Little Egg Harbor to the Toms River. From bases in the Pines and in the swamps, these Loyalist renegades hunted down American privateers, fought local militia, and put homes and property to the torch. Even after the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, they continued to press the war against Ocean County.
The Loyalist offensive that began with the assault on the Toms River Block House in March of 1782 ended with a final atrocity on Long Beach Island. A British cutter bound for St, Thomas went aground off Barnegat Light on October 25, 1782 and was soon after seized as a prize of war by Captain Andrew Steelman, of Cape May. Steelman and his crew spent the day unloading the vessel's cargo to the beach. Worn out from the heavy work, Steelman's crew fell asleep on the beach. Many of them would never wake. John Bacon, a notorious Tory outlaw, quickly got news of the wreck and sailed down Barnegat Bay to claim it. Seeing the cargo already on the beach, Bacon and his men put ashore. Under cover of night, Bacon and his men attacked Steelman and his crew while they slept. When it was all over, Steelman was dead and his First Lieutenant injured. Of his crew, only four or five escaped unharmed. The rest were either dead or wounded.
Over time the Island acquired a dubious reputation as the scene of many shipwrecks from colonial to modern times. In one two-year period in the 1840s, 122 vessels wrecked on or around the Island. In the Spring of 1864, seven ships came to grief in 13 days. The worst disaster occurred in 1854 when the immigrant ship Powhatan foundered off what is now Surf City, with a loss of over 350 lives. Because of the danger posed by navigating the Bay, in 1835 a lighthouse was built on the Barnegat Inlet at the Island's northern tip. It was replaced in 1858 with a towering new structure built on the same site. Rising 172 feet above Barnegat Bay, the Barnegat Lighthouse remains an impressive monument, The Light House was Placed out of service in 1944, but was relit on the first of January 2009. The Light is one of the finest of its kind ever built in America.
The reality of treacherous crossings in the Bay led to the establishment of "houses of refuge" on Long Beach Island around the middle of the 19th century. These structures were provisioned and equipped especially for the rescue and sheltering of shipwreck survivors.
1872 saw the founding of what would become the United States Life Saving Service, and within a few years the Island had six fully equipped stations. After 1886, these stations were manned by full-time, paid crews. The Service along with its facilities, was taken over by the United States Coast Guard in 1915.