The collection of artifacts displayed at Sea Girt Lighthouse, which vividly illustrates the rich history of the landmark, steadily grows through the generosity of people who donate not only the historic items but time and talent to share these treasures.
A key element in historic preservation at the lighthouse and everywhere is collaboration. And the story behind one of the lighthouse’s most popular exhibits – two Morro Castle lifejackets – is one of serendipity and inspiring collaboration of individuals and organizations who contributed in various ways to preserving these striking artifacts of the Jersey shore for generations to view, learn from and remember.
The Morro Castle was a luxury liner that burned three miles offshore September 8, 1934. The crew fixed their position from the lighthouse beacon. Once the order was given to abandon ship, the beacon directed people to shore and gave them hope as their struggled for their lives. While 137 died in the disaster, more than 400 survived as a result of the heroic efforts of local people, including fishermen and lifeguards, who risked their own lives to save others. The lifejackets are powerful reminders of what transpired.
Over the years the lighthouse has added to its permanent exhibit many Morro Castle photos, news clippings, a lifeboat oar and other artifacts, donated by rescuers, passengers, crew members and others.
Witness to History
During a 2007 tour of the lighthouse, Robert Bossett, a Brielle resident and retired teacher, enjoyed the Morro Castle display, which reminded him he had a Morro Castle lifejacket tucked away somewhere at his home. Realizing the lighthouse was an appropriate repository for the artifact, he offered it to the lighthouse.
He had the lifejacket ever since the day of the disaster. As a young boy, he had been among the many thousands of onlookers who watched in astonishment as lifeboats, passengers and crew, and debris washed ashore. He retrieved the lifejacket as a souvenir. It was the start of a lifelong hobby of collecting shore artifacts. He also enjoyed making duck decoys. At some point he removed two of the eight vertical cork panels sewn into the cotton lifejacket and carved them in decoys.
Despite its fragile condition with rips and missing sections, the lifejacket was nevertheless an important historic item. The Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee eagerly accepted the lifejacket with appreciation.
Soon after, New Jersey Questers, the state chapter of an international group promoting historic preservation, held a meeting at the lighthouse. Its president Virginia Cutaio inquired if the lighthouse had any projects needing support.
Lighthouse trustee Conrad Yauch, remembering the newly acquired lifejacket, responded in the affirmative, mentioning the lifejacket as a recent, intriguing acquisition in poor condition but worthy of restoration.
Ms. Cutaio encouraged the Lighthouse Citizens Committee to prepare and submit an application for a Questers grant to restore the lifejacket. The committee did. After review and discussion of the proposal, New Jersey Questers approved a grant, enabling the lifejacket’s complete restoration.
Lifejacket with Signatures
An article in The Asbury Park Press on the donated lifejacket and the grant illustrated with a photo of the lifejacket prompted Grover Donnelly to contact the lighthouse to say he too had a Morro Castle lifejacket – with signatures of several policemen who responded to the disaster. And his lifejacket didn’t need restoration. Mr. Donnelly graciously added his lifejacket to the lighthouse collection.
Next, entomologist and zoologist Bill Sciarappa, of the Rutgers Cooperative Ex-tension, volunteered his efforts, putting both lifejackets under the microscope, finding they were mighty dusty with assorted remnants of dead bugs, but free of active infestation.
From Wedding Vest to Life Vest
With the Questers grant approved, the lighthouse trustees began contacting museums, including the Metropolitan Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution, to gather names of qualified preservations. The trustees selected Katherine Francis, a leading conservator, to restore the Bossett lifejacket. Among her previous assignments, she had restored the vest John Adams wore at his 1764 wedding to Abigail Smith. In 1797 Adams was inaugurated as the second president of the United States.
Ms. Francis cleaned both life vests, careful not to erase the signatures on the Donnelly lifejacket. A big challenge was matching the texture and color of the original cotton twill in the material used to patch the tears and missing sections of the Bossett lifejacket. After tests of fabrics and dyes, Ms. Francis found the right combination. Her mends are hard to detect; the restored lifejacket looks almost new.
And helping to keep both lifejackets from fading, Ms. Francis donated a custom cover she made that is put over the lifejackets’ display case when the lighthouse is closed to protect the display from direct light and dust. Above the display case are Morro Castle photos, including a news photo showing onlookers surrounding lifeboat #1, including young Bobby Bossett perched on the side of the lifeboat looking in.
Keeping History Alive
At the unveiling of the lifejacket display, lighthouse trustee Marie Muhler observed: “We thank the many involved in the preservation and display of these significant artifacts. Together we are keeping history alive.”