The history of boardwalks starts a good century before the Drifters’ 1964 hit pop song “Under the Boardwalk,” written by Kenny Young and Arthur Resnick.
According to “The Beach Bum’s Guide to the Boardwalks of New Jersey,” by retired educators, Dick Handschuch and Sal Marino, people began to flock to the shore in the 1850s, thanks to increased railroad connection. But both “hotel owners and railroad conductors became concerned about all the beach sand that was being tracked onto lobby carpets and into railroad cars. Planks of wood were temporarily laid on the sand as a walkway and were removed at the end of the season. As more and more people flocked to the shore, the need for a more permanent type of structure became apparent. Planners had to cope with the surf, the tides, and access to the streets. ‘Build it and they will come’ seemed to be their motto. The longer the boardwalk the better.”
Then amusement parks began to crop up on some boardwalks. And Atlantic City, whose boardwalk is the only one written with a capital “B,” quickly became the entertainment mecca of the Jersey Shore.
Riding the trend of vacationing close to home to save money, Princeton Library has been presenting a series of talks about great places to visit in New Jersey. Handschuch and Marino close the series with an appearance on Tuesday, July 26, at 7:30 p.m.
Both Handschuch and Marino boast roots that sink deep into the sands of New Jersey. Handschuch, the son of German immigrants, a baker and stay-at-home mom, summered in Seaside Park. “I worked as a teen at Henry’s Playland on the Seaside Heights boardwalk and then began my lifeguard career in Seaside Park in 1953,” he writes in an E-mail. He met his wife on the beach; they have been married 53 years.
After receiving a bachelor’s in education from Newark State College (now Kean University) in 1961, he received a master’s in education from Rutgers in 1966.
He kept his connection to the shore even after he started teaching middle school for the Brick Township School System. “As a teacher I needed a summer job and having moved to Toms River, the beach was only a few miles away,” says Handschuch. “I guarded a few years in Seaside Park, and then worked for the Island Beach State Park beach patrol.”
Handschuch forged his friendship with his co-author, Sal Marino, when they were teaching partners at Lake Riviera Middle School more than 40 years ago.
Marino, the son of second-generation Italian-Americans who both worked in the embroidery business in North Bergen and East New York, NJ, graduated from Monmouth College (now Monmouth University in West Long Branch) in 1964 with a bachelor of science in education, and earned a master’s of administration in 1973.
After they retired Handschuch and Marino set out to walk all the boardwalks in New Jersey. “Why? Because they were there,” they write in the preface. Along the way they gathered historical tidbits and lots of vintage postcards. The book starts with a short history of the boardwalks of the Jersey Shore. “The Beach Bum’s Guide” also covers the length of New Jersey — from Sea Bright to Cape May — with facts like boardwalk length and driving directions.
And boardwalk trivia abounds. Did you know that five-and-dime stores sold heel savers to help protect ladies’ shoes from getting stuck in the boards? Or that 15-foot-high blackout curtains were built during World War II and lowered at night so the enemy could not directly see the lights from all of the amusements?
Lifeguards in Bay Head, which has a boardwalk 12 feet off the sand with no railing, make a sport of watching men walk along the boardwalk, eyeing young women sunbathing, and sometimes, when staring too intently, walk right off the boards and land, quite embarrassed, on the beach.
More trivia: You’ll never see an animal act among all the amusement parks and arcades along the boardwalks. The authors write: “Before World War II you would have seen Tuffy the lion ride in a motorcycle sidecar as it was driven around a track. But Tuffy apparently got tired of this and one day escaped from his cage, grabbed a man, and dragged him under the boardwalk. Since then animal acts have been outlawed. The ban also affected alligator wrestling and a game where you threw balls at a pig to make it race.”
Interspersed throughout the book are suggestions for side trips to historical landmarks and recreation areas.
The Twin Lighthouses of Navesink were the first electrically operated lighthouse in the United States. At Gateway National Recreation Area in Sandy Hook there’s a Coast Guard Museum; from there you can visit the country’s oldest operating lighthouse, Sandy Hook Lighthouse in Fort Hancock. You can walk among the many buildings and gun batteries in the fort and the surrounding area and get an excellent view from the observation deck.
Or, if you’re in Margate City, you can visit Lucy the Elephant, a six-story building shaped like an elephant, constructed in 1881.
If you’re in the mood to watch fish, you can take a side trip to Jenkinson’s Aquarium on the Point Pleasant Beach boardwalk. “In addition to local marine life, it has an array of coral reef fish, harbor seals, exotic birds and amphibians, and sharks. There is also a hands-on section for children to enjoy, with a touch-tank, crafts, guided learning centers, and scheduled seal and penguin feedings.”
Stone Harbor boasts the Wetlands Institute, a 6,000-acre wildlife refuge with salt marsh trails that offer a view of birds and their habitat, as well as exhibits on bird migration and salt marsh ecology.
One of the best historical museums, say the authors, is the Atlantic City Historical Museum and Arts Center, which also features a video about the history of Atlantic City. They also recommend, while walking the Atlantic City boardwalk, that you stop at the New Jersey Korean War Veterans Memorial at Park Place, marked by a larger-than-life statue of a soldier holding dog tags. After that you can visit the Absecon Lighthouse, built in 1857.
Want more animals? The Cape May County Park and Zoo houses a large variety of animals and birds.
For a bona fide scenic route, the authors recommend taking a drive along Ocean Drive in Cape May County, a route that takes you through many towns along the ocean and across inlet bridges throughout the barrier islands.
And of course, if architecture is your thing, you won’t want to miss the Cape May historic district with avenues and a beachfront walk lined with “grand old ladies,” as the beautiful Victorian mansions are called.
For the drive down, the “Beach Bum’s Guide” has a classic FAQ section packed with fun did-you-knows. For example:
— The longest boardwalk in New Jersey is Atlantic City (five miles). It is also connected to Ventnor City, adding an additional two miles to walk, for a total of seven miles. Sea Bright has the shortest (200 feet).
— If all New Jersey boardwalks were placed end to end, they would stretch almost 32 miles.
— The best kind of wood to build a boardwalk that is practically indestructible is ipe (pronounced ee-pay), a hardwood from the rainforests of South America. However, because of environmental concerns, many shore towns have banned the use of this wood. Currently, the wood of choice is southern pine.
Now that you’re an expert on boardwalks, next time you’re “down the shore,” ask your friends if they know the old phrase that referred to someone who slept under the boardwalk. They won’t know, but you will: “They spent the night at the Underwood Hotel.”
Author Event, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Tuesday, July 26, 7:30 p.m. Dick Handschuch and Sal Marino discuss “The Beach Bum’s Guide to the Boardwalks of New Jersey.” 609-924-8822 or www.princetonlibrary.org.