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Woman’s Dream Of Maritime Museum Comes True By Kelley Anne McGee
Like most young girls growing up, Deborah Whitcraft had her dreams and ambitions. The only difference was hers included opening a maritime museum someday. Her passion for the Jersey Shore and anything nautical relating to it came natural to her, and at just 16, she began collecting memorabilia.
Rare books filled with stories, or true accounts of storms, shipwrecks, pirates, rumrunners, shark attacks and life-saving service reports, silver spoons, dishes and paperweights showcasing New Jersey’s lighthouses on them,pieces of scrimshaw, dramatic photos of significant storms that ravaged coastal communities, lighthouses and their keepers, life-saving stations and their crew, old railroad tickets to shore points, logs of various shipwrecks along the coast, as well as artifacts such as life-preservers from the famed shipwreck the Morro Castle, old fishing reels, ship lanterns and steering wheels, aged oyster knifes, early navigational equipment including a compass, tons of old-fashion postcards depicting New Jersey’s shore towns, as well as fishing and boating scenes, articles on maritime disasters, along with odds and ends, were just some of the treasures she came across.
Her unusual career path seemed to almost always connect her to the shore and with seafaring, one way or another. There was the diving business she owned and operated, and diving expeditions with fellow divers to wrecks along the Jersey coast.
Then the Beach Haven Fishing Centre, and the partnership of the Black Whale, which still exists today, a paddlewheel riverboat that takes passengers on scenic cruises of the back bays to Atlantic City, where she once stood on the dock, and happily greeted passengers with her two adorable black labs, who would entertain folks until cruise time by diving into the bay for a refreshing dip and favorite stick.
For a time, she lectured plus wrote scores of columns on maritime subjects for local publications, and served several terms as mayor for the shore town of Beach Haven.
Over the years, as her hobby and interests in this area grew, so did her collection, and when she ran out of room, friends kindly picked-up the slack and offered her storage space for her finds.
After years of hard work, selling off businesses to help finance her project, and with the support and encouragement of her husband Jim Vogel, and business partner Bob Yates, she was able to start working on her long time dream.
Two large parking lots, which once served as additional parking space for buses for tour groups and overflowing passengers boarding the Black Whale, would be the foundation of the museum and its eventual new home. She went to work on her ideas, and met with architects to discuss the design of the museum.
However, she faced challenges ahead, some anticipated, others not expected, and one of the most difficult, seeing her husband through a serious illness. But like the tides, life ebbs and flows, and somehow she pressed on.
Finally, after 35 years of dreaming and collecting, and working towards her goal, her dream came true in July of 2007, when she opened the long awaited Museum of New Jersey Maritime History.
Located on Dock Road and West Avenue in Beach Haven on Long Beach Island, the outside of the handsome green building, first greets visitors with a grand ship’s anchor, high flying American flag, and lower flying pirate flag featuring a Jolly Roger on it.
Once inside, the museum offers several floors and rooms filled with a splendid collection of everything nautical you could possibly imagine, associated with the Jersey Shore. In addition to Ms. Whitcraft’s personal collection, local divers and fishermen have generously contributed their fair share of finds to the museum also.
One room is solely dedicated to the shipwreck of the Morro Castle, which sunk off the coast of Asbury Park in 1934, and killed approximately 134 passengers. The room contains artifactspertaining to the ill-fated luxury cruise liner, as well as rare photos and news articles, and a newsreel shows actual footage regarding the doomed ship and its impact on crew and passengers.
Other newsreels located throughout the museum, document intriguing stories and or histories on topics such as shipwrecks, storms, pirates, rumrunners, and shark attacks that affected the Jersey coast.
The museum contains an internet café, gift-shop, a maritime library, one of the largest of its kind, and is a lending library as well.
Throughout the year, the museum will feature different displays and changing theme exhibits, have interesting guest speakers andprograms, and hold special events.
The museum will occasionally travel and visit places such as schools and clubs for group presentations and discussions, upon requests.
Incidentally, the museum is also the new home for Alliance for a living Ocean, a non-profit group dedicated to the protection of the marine environment, and helps to promote a clean and healthy ocean.
For couples who love the shore and a nautical atmosphere, and are looking for a memorable way or unusual place to marry, they may like to consider holding their wedding ceremony at the museum. Ms. Whitcraft can perform official civil wedding ceremonies, and several couples have already taken the plunge there. All of the proceeds are donated back to the non-profit museum.
Although the new maritime museum is a personal achievement that has made Ms. Whitcraft extremely happy, and her dream’s come true, she had other reasons for establishing it.
“The Jersey Shore has such a rich heritage when it comes to its past, it be a shame if that were ever truly lost or forgotten somehow. I want to help preserve that, and share it with others, as well as pass it on to younger generations.
Maritime history in general has played such a huge and important role at the shore, it’s so precious, and also what helps give the shore its unique flavor, it’s a very special place.
I find the shore and all that it encompasses, just fascinating, I hope others will too. I’m hoping the museum helps spread interest to others, and long after I’m gone, I hope the spirit of the Jersey Shore and its maritime ties will survive and help live on through this museum,” Ms. Whitcraft explains.
The only thing missing from this whole experience for Ms. Whitcraft, is her biggest fan and cheerleader, herdad. He did not live to see his daughter’s dream of the maritime museum come true. He passed away sadly enough last year. But I have the feeling he knows, and would be especially proud of his daughter and her accomplishments. Few others might’ve shown as much patience, determination, or ever achieved such a great feat.
The Museum of New Jersey Maritime History, is one woman’s incredible odyssey and collection that began 35 years ago, and luckily for us, her love affair with the Jersey Shore, and its nautical reminders.
The museum offers self-guided or group tours, arrangements for group tours should be made in advance. Also, anyone who has anything of interest regarding the Jersey Shore they would like to either share or donate, whether it be a presentation of some kind or nautical artifacts, are encouraged to contact the museum. Opportunities also exist for volunteers in all areas and departments.
The museum has on premise public restrooms, is handicapped accessible, and has elevators. Free admission, but donations gladly accepted and very much appreciated. Free parking on the premises and nearby municipal parking also available.
The museum is open daily during summer, and in the off-season, Thursdays thru Sundays year-round. Check ahead for hours of operation and schedule of guests/programs/events. For additional information on the Museum of New Jersey Maritime History, please contact Phone: (609) 482-0202 or visit www.museumofnjmh.com
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