I’ve always been a beachcomber, followed in my mother’s footsteps. Shells, drift wood, beach glass. I once found a note in a bottle, return to a Cuban address. I did, with a touch of Cold War anxiety. Somewhere I have several decorative pieces of iron but the completely intact sea gull skelton was consumed by our dog, Luz.
Last week I couldn’t pass up buying several books in the NJ Maritine Museum at Beach Haven. “Fortuna” by Carole Bradshaw caught my eye. The cover was a photograph of a red tile washing in the waves. The back cover read, “A shipwreck, an anchor, and a baby. What do they all have in common? When Carole Bradshaw found a small piece of red tile tossing around in the surf on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, she was about to find out.” This sounded like a history adventure I would enjoy.
I immediately thought of Colin Fletcher’s “The Man from the Cave” (1981). Fletcher, a backpacking guru, stumbled on an abandoned camp in a remote section of Nevada. An old wooden trunk, personal belongings in a cave, fragments of a 1916 newspaper. Fletcher uses these historic traces to identify the camper — “Chuckawalla” Bill Simmons from Braddock, PA. On his search he met family members and others who filled in Bill’s story including the Nevada camp.
Then there was the discovery of the identity of a 1910 North Pownal, Vermont child mill worker photographed by Lewis Hine. Two amateur historians identified her as Addie Card. An article in the September, 2006 Smithsonian tells their story. After following leads in all types of records, they learned Addie’s history and even found and met with two of her adoptive descendants.
Naturally I purchased “Fortuna.” Carole was your average beachcomber. She and her daughter were walking the beach at Ship Bottom on Long Beach Island (LBI) in 1970. She found several red tiles. Years later she showed the tiles to a Manahawkin friend. On some she could read, ARNAUD ETIENNE & Cie ST HENRY MARSEILLE. Her friend, Lydie identified the tiles as debris from the ship Fortuna. As a child, Lydie had seen the grounded ship.
The shoals off LBI were known as the graveyard of the Atlantic. It was not uncommon for ships to run aground. The Fortuna floundered in 1909. An Italian ship out of the port of Trapani in Sicily. The ship’s captain and owner was Giovan Adragna. Aboard was his wife, two young daughters, and a baby born in Barbados weeks before. His wife, Maria didn’t want to be left at home during the two year voyage.
“LBI’s first lifesaving station was built in Harviey Cedars in 1848. All U.S. Life savings Stations were built. Exactly the same. The shape and size of the building, both inside and out, were all alike. There was a large boat room, a kitchen, two sleeping compartments and a storage room.” By the 1900s, the stations were staffed by trained, paid professionals.
Lifesaver Horace Cranmers discovered the stranded Fortuna on January 18, 1910 while on patrol. The Ship Bottom crew were first on the scene followed by other stations. Lines were unsucessfully shot from a Lyle gun. If established the line would be used to rescue individuals in a breeches buoy. We have a personal interest in Lyle guns since Diane’s grandfather made them during World War II.
Life savings boats were launched. But Captain Adragna was initially reluctant to abandon the Fortuna. The lifesavers insisted and eventually all 17 on board were rescued, including the recently born Adragna baby. They would be brought to the Ship Bottom station where they lived until transit back to Italy was arranged.
In April 1983, Carole and her husband, Greg, discovered more tiles but also the skeleton iron frame of the Fortuna. Then there was a cannon like ball — could it be the anchor? Carole became convinced that it was the ship’s anchor.
She mobilized local political and historical forces. The anchor was removed from the sand; fundraising financed a memorial in front of Ship Bottom’s borough hall. But for Carole, something was missing. What happened to the baby?
Letters to Sicily lead to the discovery of two of Captain Adragna’s children, Giuseppe and Severia (the baby born on the Fortuna in 1909). Carole travel to Sicily and then brings Guiseppe and Severia to Ship Bottom for the dediation of the anchor in honor of their father.
Fortuna was a great story. I need to go see the anchor in Ship Bottom and a mast that is used as a flagpole at the Beach Haven Little Egg Harbor Marina. And I’ll continue to walk the beaches looking for traces of history.