No matter where we're going, if we come upon an old graveyard, there's a good chance we're stopping. Ivan's always on the lookout for Civil War veterans, and I'm just interested in a good story or interesting memorials.
That's why it's so odd that we only recently stopped at the Emmaus United Methodist Church in Smithville. We pass by every time we take Route 9 to Brig, and some of the stones are so close to the road we can read them if the traffic light at the corner is red. On our last trip, we noticed what I think was a new sign, noting the burial site of 54 German immigrants who'd died in the wreck of the Powhatan in April 1854.
We stopped to check out the graves but found no other indication of names or exact interment sites for the 54. If the large brown sign hadn't been erected, the average visitor would have no idea that the ground was the final resting place for nearly five dozen people whom fate denied a future in the United States. Smithville is fairly close to the ocean, but not so much that you'd think a ship was wrecked there, so why were the victims buried in this cemetery?
To get our answers, we travel more than 150 years back to a time when the Atlantic coast near Long Beach Island was considered the shipwreck capital of the world. Barnegat and Absecon Lighthouses were yet to be built, and dangerous shoals in the area regularly took seafaring victims, especially during storms. The packet ship Powhatan was sailing to New York from LeHavre, France with a few hundred passengers on board when a Nor'easter blew in. The ship went aground at Beach Haven and split in half, and all souls died.
Recovering the bodies of the deceased was arduous work, made more difficult by the terrain. While some were immediately found and buried near the wreck site, others floated farther west into inlets, bays and creeks. Two Smithville men recovered the 54 Germans and brought them back for burial in the community's graveyard. Though the deceased ultimately were placed into a mass grave, the locals provided as much dignity as they could. While the men constructed coffins for each of the dead, the community's women made burial garments for each. Other Powhatan victims were buried in Absecon as well as in Manahawkin, where they're now memorialized.
While it's a sad tale made even sadder by the thought of the lost potential these immigrants had in the United States, their lives were not lost in vain. The Powhatan wreck is said to have been the impetus for the construction of the Absecon Lighthouse, which still stands in Atlantic City as one of the tallest beacons in the nation. Between that light and Barnegat, the treacherous New Jersey coast became much more navigable for mariners.