New Jersey is the only state surrounded by water on three sides. Yet, we’re Shore-obsessed enough to forget our other boundary waters: the Delaware River and its broad and briny destination, the Delaware Bay Shores. Remedy this attitude and refresh yourself with a day trip to Cumberland County, which I like to call "the other Jersey Shore," a mere hour and a half from Princeton.
Picture this southernmost county as a dangling hand. The trick is to drive down every finger. Cumberland towns were born in the age of sail – when waterways outcarried, outranked, and outnumbered roads. Towns and villages appear strung haphazardly along a chain: Route 553, picked up at the oystering towns of Port Norris, Shellpile, and Bivalve. In Cumberland, take every route that warns DEAD END and NO OUTLET. These culminate in vistas of endless restoration to the spirit, where time itself becomes a river.
Cumberland shimmers with solitude even on national holidays – you may well be the only car on the road. Although numbered, Cumberland highways are basically back roads, with bridges wooden, arched, alluring. Waterways meander among fountaining marsh grasses: in summer, green as honeydew melon; in autumn, the hue of Spanish doubloons. This estuarine landscape is Eden for kayakers and boaters. Bathed in summer sun, peaches ripen like rubies and cabbages are king in Cumberland County’s generous fields.
Delaware Bay saltwater is gently diluted by majestic, wild, and scenic rivers: the Maurice (Morris or Marsh to locals), the Cohansey, and the Manumuskin. Cumberland waves are discreet, her beaches superfine-sugary. Any crowds tend to be fish-and-shellfish-related. Signs can be whimsical, frequently hand-lettered: Holy Smokes BBQ, Muskrat Crossing, and Fresh Bunker/Shedders.
Hordes in Cumberland mean mating horseshoe crabs, outnumbering swimmers on half-moon beaches. At East Point and Fortescue, late May shorebirds contend for fat-rich, just-laid crab eggs. These stores are essential for Arctic migration and breeding. Birds and crabs have become increasingly endangered by overfishing for eelbait. This phenomenon is a case of see-them-while-you-can.
Cumberland is marina central. Hefty fishing boats depart from Beaver Dam Boat Rental & Crabbing; Dividing Creek Marina; Hook, Line & Sinker. Idyllic Fortescue is rich in serious fishing opportunities, as well as long silent stretches of land and water, soothing to body and soul.
People assume Atlantic City is our big bucks capital. Not always! In the oyster industry’s heyday, there were more millionaires per block in Port Norris, Shellpile, and Bivalve – all Cumberland County jewels – than anywhere in the world. In the elusive Bayside town of Caviar, it was normal for roe-seekers to land 600-pound sturgeon. And the renowned Delaware Bay Oysters are now making a comeback. Those shell-white Captains’ houses and gleaming crushed shell roadways appeal newly to people from elsewhere. Monumental shell piles puncture the far horizon, signs of good old days that may be about to return.
Compact East Point Light intrigues with its unusual squat shape, a pale-bricked, ruddy-roofed structure being restored by the Maurice River Historical Society. Hungry visitors can inhale maritime tang at the legendary Greenwich Boatworks and their small Crab Shack, or at the Bait Box at Hancock’s Harbor (30 Hancock Harbor Road, 856-455-2610). As boaters coast along the sinuous watercourse, the Bait Box serves memorable weakfish with down-home welcomes, offering pies like grandma used to make. Be sure to request "Greenwich Trilogy," their guide to nearby haunted houses.
Bacon’s Neck Road back to Route 623 takes you into beautiful downtown Greenwich, pronounced "Green-Witch," and they post the green witch signs to prove it. In addition to stirring Revolutionary history, this village shelters a baking legend. On Ye Greate Streete, "Bread Today" signs have been hand-lettered by personable, welcoming Grandma Jean. Buy her plump breads and vibrant preserves – with more essence than jam. Simply lay your few dollars and coins in Grandma Jean’s cash box – the honor system is still alive in this Cohansey-side town. Grandma Jean is about to move to Number 906; like most residents, she is passionately loyal to both town and road.
In 1684, Ye Greate Streete began, not ended, at the Cohansey – named for Indian Chief Cohanzick. The town has two Quaker meeting houses, still active. Check out Pirate John’s haunted house. Skullduggery was the 1700s norm, all along Delaware Bay. Spanish doubloons were as accepted in Greenwich as in Jamaica. But Pirate John held back a few too many on a night of dividing booty. He paid for this stinginess with his life, a protracted punishment, chained in the house he is said to haunt, where locals say "dogs and cats avoid front steps to this day."
At Bacon’s Neck Road and Ye Greate Streete presides a handsome pale brick mansion, seemingly perfect, were it not for its resident ghost. This one is G. B. Wood, who bought up much Greenwich property during a 19th-century Depression, driving families from their traditional homes. Hauntings increase when his portrait is removed from the hall closet and re-hung over the fireplace. This entire town is a monument to the past, even to brick sidewalks – like Williamsburg, except here proud descendants of early settlers still stack wood and tend their gardens.
At the far end of Ye Greate Streete rises Greenwich’s 1903 monument to her Revolutionary tea burning. In March, 1774, the British brig, Greyhound, landed cargo from the infamous East India Tea Company. The King’s men expected Greenwich’s pacific Quakers to "submit quietly to a small tax." Their subsequent Indian masquerade and burning revealed "that the temper of the people was little understood by the East India Tea Company."
New Jersey’s official Tall Ship, the A. J. Meerwald, is a Cumberland star attraction. Moored in Port Norris (part of the Bayshore Discovery Project), this storied vessel carries passengers under full sail along Jersey rivers. Underway, the only sound is wind in rigging. On her scrubbed deck, intense young naturalists teach maritime and ecological realities to students of all ages. See box for schedule of sailings.
In the time of Bivalve’s millionaires, the Delaware Bay was a forest of oyster schooner masts. America’s finest restaurants, from coast to coast, headlined Delaware Bay oysters upon opulent menus until the late 1950s, when the parasite MSX reared its ugly "head." In the wake of oyster devastation, most Cumberland schooners were sunk to rot at their home piers. The Meerwald spent ignominious decades as a surf clammer, until restored to her present majesty and National Historic Landmark status.
The compromised oysters star in their own Cinderella story. Tre Piani’s chef, Jim Weaver, head of Princeton’s Slow Food movement, praises Delaware Bay oysters and their cousins, Cape May Salts. "These elegant, world-class oysters are a fixture on the Tre Piani menu," he says. At Weaver’s hands, DelBay oysters were the first American products named to Slow Food’s Ark initiative (identifying traditional foods at risk and developing niche markets for endangered foods). Weaver says: "Our oysters come from some of the most pristine waters in the world."
Cumberland’s marshlands and woodlands shelter prime birding sites, especially during spring and fall migration. Mauricetown on its eponymous river hosts an early winter raptor fest (eagles everywhere!) and autumn’s purple martin extravaganza. An indispensable guide – not only to birds but to every photogenic site in the region – is raptor-expert Clay Sutton’s "Birding Cumberland."
Cumberland’s nature sites are being rendered accessible by PSE&G remediation projects. Long, strong bridges and boardwalks lead out over tidal flats, being restored after decades of salt marsh hay harvesting. Flocks of once extirpated wild turkeys now strut Turkey Point. Roosting black-crowned night herons stud Glades’ autumnal trees at evening. And 100,000 purple martins, plus swallows beyond counting and elegant osprey, reward September travelers. Swirling martins fill dusk skies like sprinklings from the gods’ great peppermill. In bitterest cold, Cumberland’s nesting eagles have become more numerous than crows. On a Heislerville dock, a grinning fisherman hefts two gleaming catfish stretching from his shoulders to his toes.
One of the handsomest PSE&G preserves is Green Swamp, on the Sea Breeze Road, off Route 553 near Fairton. Five habitats burgeon along the lush, shaded trail. Its central tidal marshland rewarded recent visitors with a holy family of osprey, watched over by one avuncular American bald eagle. Dragonflies of Campbell’s Tomato Soup red decorated every meadow wildflower.
Cumberland’s fields burgeon with healthy produce, continuously earning New Jersey her title of the "Garden State." Staunch individuals and groups have restored the entire Maurice River watershed to vigorous health. This has resulted in significant eco-tourism throughout the region. Countless threatened and endangered species now safely migrate through or nest along the DelBay Shores.
Cohansey Creek and the Maurice and Delaware Rivers carry more than rainwater and spawning fish to their salt-water ports. For centuries, they have floated sagas of brigands and smugglers, rum-runners and renegades. Tales of patriots and pacifists, intrepid fishermen and fishwives intertwine with traitors and juries refusing to convict the burners of tea. Cumberland day trips become time travel to an enigmatic region where people still live by tides and seasons.
Getting to Cumberland
Secure a good regional map of Cumberland County (available from Barnes & Noble). Or call Marilyn Schmidt, proprietess of Buzby’s General Store in Chatsworth, 609-894-1405, who has designed and published an excellent map and will mail you a copy.
Allow yourself an entire day. Directions: Take Route 1 to 295 South to Route 42/55 exit; when road splits, stay on 55 South to where it becomes Route 47; continue until Wawa/gas station, then turn right onto 670 to Bukshutem Road intersection. Turn left to go to Mauricetown, or follow signs to Port Norris, Shellpile, and Bivalve, where you pick up 553 West.
For directions to the marinas visit www.co.cumberland.nj.us/tourism/marinas/default.html and www.cumauriceriver.org/pages/maurice.html
For schedule of sailings and reservations for the A.J. Meerwald, visit www.ajmeerwald.org/dbsp/html/meerhist.html