Bryan on Wells, 'Shipwrecked: Coastal Disasters and the Making of the American Beach'

Jamin Wells
William D. Bryan

Jamin Wells. Shipwrecked: Coastal Disasters and the Making of the American Beach. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 258 pp. $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-6090-5.

Reviewed by William D. Bryan (Independent Scholar) Published on H-Nationalism (April, 2022) Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version:

As a graduate student at the Munson Institute for American Maritime Studies, I never thought deeply about the dozens of vessel nameboards that I saw adorning the grounds of the Mystic Seaport Museum. Yet Jamin Wells’s excellent book, Shipwrecked, taught me that these nameboards are not just maritime curios; they are key pieces of the history of the Atlantic coast. As Wells recounts, many of the museum’s nameboards were salvaged from shipwrecks in the late nineteenth century by Thomas Albertson Scott. A diver-turned-marine entrepreneur, Scott was the leading “wrecker” in Long Island Sound (p. 122). During his career, he worked with ship owners, insurers, and federal officials to raise hundreds of shipwrecks, salvage thousands of tons of cargo, and improve harbors and navigation through the construction of coastal infrastructure. Scott’s deeds were even popularized in press coverage that introduced many inland dwellers to the coast.

Wells uses stories like Scott’s to show how maritime disasters—and the cottage industries they spawned—have long played a key role in shaping American coastal areas. Shipwrecks remade coastal spaces at the margins of American society from wild frontiers into the “modern beach,” which Wells characterizes as the “thoroughly commercialized, contested, and engineered space that is at the heart of the American experience” (p. 2).

This happened through parallel processes. On one hand, gripping shipwreck tales published in the popular press introduced Americans to coastal spaces and the people who lived there, and they whetted the appetites of potential travelers for coastal destinations. On the other hand, shipwrecks spurred federal, state, and private investment intended to make coastal areas safer for mariners or to profit off shipping losses, in some cases literally paving the way for coastal tourism and beach recreation. These developments provided the physical infrastructure and the cultural narratives required to remake coastal zones into beaches. This means that shipwrecks should not be viewed simply as isolated events. They are both “physical objects” and “intellectual constructions” and Shipwrecked provides a thoughtful look at how each of these components reshaped American coastlines (p. 5).

In the early republic, coastal areas in the mid-Atlantic and New England regions were just as much frontier spaces as lands in the West. Unlike the West, however, coastlines were integral to commerce. Wells argues that early shipping losses led to the first state intervention into these spaces as customs officials, social welfare groups, and entrepreneurs sought to mitigate the financial and social costs of shipwrecks. New Jersey took the lead in 1806 by creating a bureaucracy of county commissioners to coordinate rescue and salvage efforts for vessels that were in distress or wrecked. This was largely due to fears that coastal residents were illegally exploiting ships in distress for profit, and Wells argues that wreck laws were a “thoroughly modern program to simplify and standardize the complex, illegible littoral” (p. 68). The drive to standardize the coast culminated in the establishment of the United States Life-Saving Service (USLSS), the corporate takeover of the wrecking industry, and the construction of infrastructure to aid mariners and lifesavers by the federal government. Even as this was happening, private entrepreneurs transformed beaches by subdividing them into acres of profitable real estate.

Paralleling these developments was a cultural shift in perceptions of the coast. Early depictions in the popular press of coastal spaces and the people who lived there were “sensationalist” and characterized coastal residents as pirates who preyed on mariners in distress (p. 68). These accounts never reflected reality, but they shaped perceptions of coastal spaces for generations and led state and federal officials to try to extend their control over these spaces. Coastal zones were redefined in the second half of the nineteenth century as ideal leisure and travel destinations by medical professionals and elite city dwellers, who sought out the supposed health benefits provided by beach environments. By the late 1800s, developers had built new resorts and created entertainments that attracted a wider range of visitors. In doing this they took advantage of the publicity provided by shipwreck tales that were common in popular culture. As Wells shows, some “disaster tourists” were lured to the shore by the promise of seeing, and even participating in, ongoing rescue and salvage efforts (p. 155).

Shipwrecked brilliantly takes a subject that has been overlooked by historians—or has been written off as only within the scope of maritime archaeologists—and shows how it played a key role in the emergence of coastal tourism and development. Wells brings needed attention to coastal spaces outside of bustling port cities, especially the barrier islands and shorelines that once were believed to be valueless and are now booming beach communities. Additionally, Wells shows how maritime matters at the periphery influenced state and federal policy in enduring ways, as well as how state efforts to control and regulate coastal spaces gave momentum to capitalist development of the shore.

More than this, Shipwrecked raises important questions about the confluence of tourism and coastal disasters. As Wells shows, disasters have been one of the key forces shaping the American coast and leading to the tourism boom there. Coastal tourism has created new kinds of risk for America’s beaches and shorelines, and it has also exacerbated disparities between tourists, workers, and residents by exposing them to different levels of risk from flooding and disaster events. In an era of rising seas and more severe disasters, it is vital to consider the ways that tourism has been the product of, and continues to produce, risk for coastal residents by incentivizing the development of fragile spaces. Shipwrecked provides a timely look at the roots of this risk, and the lessons of Wells’s book suggest that disasters may reshape the American beach once again.

Citation: William D. Bryan. Review of Wells, Jamin, Shipwrecked: Coastal Disasters and the Making of the American Beach. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. April, 2022. URL:

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