Down the Shore

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The Shore the Tourists See

Old maps and older spellings clue the reader in to

this glorious romp along the Jersey Shore. "Shore Chronicles"

is based on diaries and journals, letters and essays of travelers

that span the period from 1764 to 1955. Some reach us from so long

ago that our shore was referred to by cartographers as "a sterile

land." Motives for journeys ranged from preaching and evangelism

to Houdini’s escapes from various bonds at Atlantic City

establishments;

from health cures and "smart beaux" to half a million soldiers

training for World War II; right up to ribbon cutters opening the

new Garden State Parkway in 1955.

Editor Margaret Thomas Buchholz is generous in her selections, and

rigorous without being tedious in her introductions and footnotes.

Her book is one of two unusual Jersey shore guidebooks that we

recently

discovered and the better of the two. Both, however, provide readers

with fresh insights into a longtime — and for some a perhaps stale

— summer destination. So if family or friends are prodding you

to fight traffic once again for a visit to the shore, you might warm

up for the trip with one of these guides.

Buchholz has a taste for the outrageous and the bold, as well as for

freshness and loveliness. Her discrimination and merriment render

this production a true page-turner. What better "summer read"

than this distinguished distillation of two centuries’ written

remembrances

of beaches past?

Her earliest diarist, a Pastor Wrangel, crossed the Delaware in 1764

"in glorious dawn light." From tavern to tavern he meandered,

— not to imbibe, but to restore his strength between discoveries

that "little or no knowledge of God resides in this house."

Besides being on the lookout for souls, the Pastor took note of

natural

phenomena. He concluded, earlier than some, that the "land

hereabouts"

(in and around Egg Harbor) had been under the sea: "for, when

they dig wells around here, they find oyster shells deep in the

ground."

He chronicles crops (maize and rye), woods (spruce, pine, cedar and

oak), and the flora: "Mirtell whose berries make a beautiful green

mirtell wax." (Editor’s notes confirm our conclusion that this

is the bountiful bayberry.) This preacher has no qualms about publicly

examining the morals of those whom he encounters: for example,

"the

Irishman who appeared to be making money to the harm of others, with

little concern about God." The French would smile knowingly,

"the

more things change, the more they remain the same." Wrangel

praises

something that does not, mercifully change: "In the intolerable

heat of summer, they have a pleasant coolness from the ocean."

We can be thankful for progress, in that, to the earliest boarding

house in Long Branch, in 1790, visitors had to bring their own beds.

Things altered, but may not have improved. By 1809, physicians were

prescribing "the waters" of Long Branch to wealthy patients.

Hotels boasted of featuring "hymn singing, prayer meetings and

grace at all meals." This is from one of editor Buchholz’s short,

pithy introductions, which feed but do not sate reader curiosity.

It’s always a treat to touch the early fame of these

towns that time and commerce have, generally, forgotten. Sites that

now reek of coconut tanning oil once rang to the shouts of navvies,

rustled with the raising and lowering of canvas. A writer speaks of

a port long silted over in our own time, "where more than 20 ships

now lay to receive the products of this district."

Irresistible maps and familiar or dramatic black and white photographs

stud this book. A reader will discover that our major shore routes

follow trails blazed by the Lenni Lenape Indians: Philadelphia/Camden

to Long Branch, Camden to Tuckerton, Camden to Manahawkin. (And, I

happen to know from other sources, Trenton marsh to Tuckerton.) Editor

and John T. Cunningham, in his preface, regret that these written

accounts remind us that for those first eyes and hands and feet to

encounter our Shore there was no written language. If a diarist can

discuss "filling a boat with oysters in a half an hour," how

much greater bounty would our earliest settlers have been able to

record?

One of the prize tales herein is that of Sarah Thompson’s misspelled

romp from Philadelphia to Tuckerton in 1809, in search of "smart

beaux." "Stage leaked — spoilt my pretty bonnet."

"Charles complained of rats, said they bit his ear." "The

driver, polite, stopt several times to pick us magnolias and water

lilys." Miss Sarah was the guest of the eponymous Judge Ebenezer

Tucker. The somewhat ungrateful guest?: "Judge monsterous

polite."

Son Aron’s "eyes too large for my comfort." Shore travel

wasn’t

all magnolias and lilies, however. "Mama very ill with the choler

. . . must not eat any more radishes." "I opened clames,

Charles

made the kittle boil." Sarah found no fault with Dr. Garrison

as a person, save "his pantiloons being a different couler and

coat tail too short." As her sojourn progressed, shadows intruded.

Despite many references to fiddlers and "playing wist" and

"glorious romps," she begins to mention "woeful

insects."

Headaches, backaches, — which she blames on milk, to the degree

that she must be "bled and pucked." "I could not join

in there dance, and so went to bed sick," is a late entry. And

so her diary peters out, an early transcriber deeming it illegible

from then on. It is not known what happened: "Sarah may have died

in Tuckerton."

An 1864 account of Barnegat Bay introduces another kind of hunting,

in the days when the sun itself was darkened by migrating wildfowl.

This is, but was not then called, the Atlantic Flyway. T. Robinson

Warren, a Wall Street stockbroker from New Brunswick, takes us with

him on "sneak boat" excursions. There is an excellent

engraving

of hunters using this signature Barnegat craft, which can be easily

converted to a duck blind and is designed to hold a raft of decoys.

Warren proclaims that he will inform us in no uncertain terms of

"all

that is essential to the comfort of the duck shooter." So much

for comfort: "Winds out of the NW" (ideal for migrating hawks

at Hawk Mt. and Cape May. I don’t know about ducks), he complains,

as their best-laid plans are foiled. "The only ones we could hope

to get a bang at were the regular traders who rarely came to stool,

being too knowing by half." Warren hurries his companions back

to smoke-filled Chadwick’s. "Everything is suggestive of

desolation

. . . The only visible objects beside the house is the debris of

wrecks."

Ironically, considering that it is set in "Birding

Central," Cape May, an 1870 memoir is that of a 15-year-old hunter

and flirt. Frank Willing Leach boasts of killing "thrashers,

woodpeckers,

cedar birds and cat birds."

"On Sunday, after a good sermon at church, we came home to a

delicious

pot pie of the birds we killed on Saturday." He writes of leaving

school "because there was no fire," and going to an emporium

to be "measured for a pair of gaiters." He undertakes tasks

with his father, and serves as pallbearer for a schoolmate. He courts

girls by horse and buggy and writes of "a terrible murder

nearby."

When the lad receives a Dear John letter at the post office, his pals

treat him to ice cream sublimation. On the eve of his 16th birthday,

Leach reads himself to sleep with Longfellow’s poems. That was then;

this is now.

Buchholz is to be commended for the variety and breadth of her

entries,

and for a fine sense of pace and alternation. She moves with her

writers

from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again, not missing a beat.

A financier father writes his son on the brink of graduation, carrying

on about "oysters on the halfshell, boiled sheephead (very fine),

roast beef or lamb with full vegetables, strawberries and two kinds

of ice cream, with raisins and nuts to close." Papa closes, as

was the custom, with "Affectionately yours, Theo. T. Price",

and not a word about the end of schooling or the beginning of life.

Edmund Wilson, though celebrated for his writing and editing, his

intellectualism and wit, savors the Roaring Twenties. Beach

observations

include "men in white knickerbocker trousers;" "buttermilk

salt water taffy and hot buttered popcorn;" Fourth of July rockets

"streaming violet and silver against deepening grey." He moves

off the sand to decry" little sordid sandy sea-bleached bungalows

with people listlessly setting about them in bathing suits." Wilson

studiously examines "the beach for the rich people’s servants,

who were sometimes, in their bathing suits, unrecognizably better

looking." This man goes into considerable anatomical detail (such

as nipples), not the sort of thing one wrote/read that much about

in the Twenties. This man makes a very good candidate for voyeur of

the year, or even of the decade.

Astoundingly, even Arthur Conan Doyle writes on Atlantic City. This

in a time of rum runners and Houdini suspending himself outside the

Garden Pier. This author was not in the U.S. to lecture on his

legendary

detective, but upon spiritualism. Upon arrival Doyle worries (and

may be the last ever to have done so) that he and his party may become

"enervated from the luxury" of the Ambassador Hotel. He

laments

that it is "difficult to describe Atlantic City, as we have

nothing

in England which is like it." Despite having come direct from

Manhattan, the creator of Sherlock Holmes finds Atlantic City

"quite

the liveliest place we have found in our extended travels." Ever

the lecturer, he describes the surf: "A roller is big enough to

give you a merry romp, if you care to go out to play. It is not a

very safe beach. Several were drowned while we were here. Houdini,

one of the finest swimmers in the world, told me he had to fight for

his life upon one occasion." Doyle’s reaction to the famous wicker

chairs, in which the privileged were pushed up and down the Boardwalk

(I had photos of my Swiss in-laws, dressed to the nines, in those

white carriages), was that "Atlantic City at first seemed to be

a city of invalids."

Sands and coastlines have to do with more than pleasure.

Both World Wars have sagas here: Tuckerton’s infamous radio tower

is described by Eleanor Browning Price. The girl discovers that her

friends, the Mayers, are probably enhancing Germany at the cost of

our country in days and hours before that war was declared. A later

chronicler laments, "Blood has already been shed. Do you think

Hitler will listen to reason now? I can’t think of any fate bad enough

for those Nazi cut throats." When a half million soldiers trained

for World War II in Atlantic City, it became known as Camp Boardwalk.

From early 1942 on, the beaches of New Jersey were declared off-limits

from sunset to sunrise. Tankers were torpedoed close off shore, and

spies a constant dread. Walkers had to deal with tar from sunken

ships.

The Shore (realize there is no other "shore" save ours!) is

described here in all seasons, but no one but Walt Whitman clearly

prefers the winter. He’s actually better at describing his journey

to the sands, than life alongside the waves.

"Shore Chronicles" ends and new eras begin with the July 4,

1955, ribbon cutting for the Garden State Parkway: Malcolm McTear

Davis reports "a miracle ride through a surprisingly scenic

state."

Once at Cape May (it took him from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to reach it from

Manhattan, and he thinks this is good), however, the author balks

at spending $17 for a double room at the "pretentious"

Lafayette

Hotel.

This book is a magic carpet to a simpler time; to other sorts of

people,

skills, crafts, and livelihoods. We can access this freshness, in

print as well as in cars and canoes. Just set out down any of the

lovely back roads and the more usual Route 206s and Garden State

Parkways,

the sand lanes and tea-colored rivers of the Pines. Glimpses granted

by Editor Buchholz can be expanded, even now, into living landscapes

within less than two hours of our office doors.

Shore Chronicles, Diaries and Travelers’ Tales, 1764-1955,

edited by Margaret Thomas Buchholz. Down the Shore Publishing

(www.down-the-shore.com)

1999, $26.95.

Top Of Page
Down the Shore

Not all shore guides are created equal. "Down the

Jersey Shore" — a 1993 revision of a 1953 classic — never,

sadly, ignites. Authors Rich Youmans and Russell Roberts manifest

an obvious enthusiasm for their subject, especially in early moments.

Yet unlike "Shore Chronicles," the product of their effort

is all too easy to put down. This may be a guidebook only a shore

addict can love. Or someone, say, from North Dakota or Manhattan,

who’s considering relocating along our sandy reaches, who needs to

take in the whole teeming reality fast. "Down the Jersey

Shore"

is for sipping, not gulping. It would do under a beach umbrella on

a lazy afternoon.

The whimsical cover edges into the irresistible — a modern pastel

evocation of the bathing scene in the not-that-roaring ’30s. Men in

plus-fours and women with parasols, children in rompers and men in

bathing garments up to their necks make it very clear that that was

then, this is now. On the "now" side, maps are clearly

articulated,

even fascinating: "Extinct and Existing Inlets along the Jersey

Coast" by Ruth Strohl-Palmer. The authors have chosen a valid

and useful format for their tales, stringing the chapters along a

strand not geographical nor chronological, but topical. "Shore

Town Stories," "Famous Visitors and Residents" (hint,

Grace Kelly and presidents, one of whom succumbed to his Washington

assassination on our strands). "Wooden Walkways," "War(s)

at the Shore," "Spirits of the Jersey Shore" (Is it

haunted?

Yes.) Nonetheless, this volume informs without intriguing.

Readers learn the origins of everything from Atlantic City to Lucy

the Margate Elephant. Miss America is birthed in these pages, and

the first boardwalk — possibly in Cape May, not Atlantic City,

in 1868.

Drama happened up and down the Shore, and Roberts and Youmans are

chronologically rigorous in recounting it. We watch President Grant

trying to stiff an early toll taker. And poor James A. Garfield losing

his battle with an assassin’s bullet. We hear of O’Neill scribbling

on new plays and editing old ones in Point Pleasant. We read of

Representative

William Newall calling into being the first lifesaving service, in

a steamy D.C. summer, 1848, calling for "surf boats, life boats,

rockets, carronades . . . for the protection of life and property

. . . between Sandy Hook and Little Egg Harbor." But we watch

unmoved.

One is chilled by wartime sagas along this coast. But this appetizer

only makes the reader long for an entire repast on Shore wars. One

of the more inescapable, yet insoluble, puzzles is whether the signal

to sink the Lusitania went from Germany to the U-20’s captain from

Tuckerton’s Radio Tower, then a German endeavor. This 820-foot

electronic

tower, constructed at the Shore’s minuscule but historic seaport,

is one of the few places on the globe strong enough to have

transmitted

the "Get Lucy" message.

War "returns" to the shore in 1991 as John Chatterton dives

a few miles off Point Pleasant to discover a torpedo. Research shows

this had to be U-550, the first Nazi sub ever reported off our coast.

However, official records show the ship 100 miles farther out.

Nevertheless,

the determined Chatterton plunged another day, retrieving china with

swastikas.

The trouble with the war chronicles is the trouble with the book

entire.

The facts are more enticing than the prose. The reader has to bring

his/her own embellishments, generate frissons of curiosity or fear.

Assuming that most will read this sort of text in summer, this is

not a time of excess creative energy. Personally I want to be dazzled,

want my nonexistent socks knocked off, summer and winter. I reserve

a bit more latitude for the warm times. But not much.

"In 1921 [in Sea Girt], the first radio fog beacon was

installed."

"For 85 years, Barnegat Light aided mariners sailing along the

Long Beach Island shoreline." Foghorns are so evocative, literally

chilling, especially on a summer’s day. "Old Barney" is a

light about which people (not just from New Jersey) are passionate.

Just think for a minute of its place in our hearts. Does Navesink

or Sandy Hook compare? But do Roberts and Youmans approach the meaning

of the shore they chronicle? Not in my humble experience.

Do they even mention that ungrammatical but sacrosanct phrase,

"Down

the Shore"? To locals, that phrase sets in motion an entire chain

of images and sensations, — past, present and to come. It’s a

code among belongers. It’s an excuse to sniff salt air, thump a

weathered

shingle, shake welcome sand from sneakers and keep it in the car to

remind us that we have, indeed, been "Down the Shore." It’s

an open sesame to miracles, like the 30 minke whales I watched

plunging

southward last September, just off Barnegat Inlet. Didn’t anything

like this ever happen to these authors?

This measured narrative can drain the life out of anything, even an

escaped lion in Wildwood that dragged a man under the boardwalk and

devoured him. Only in the section on shore crafts do the authors light

some coals. Perhaps it is because here they use direct quotes of the

artisans they come across. It may be that the craftsmen’s passion

for their own handiwork broke the iron bonds of narrative as the

ravening

lion could not. The legendary decoy carver, Harry V. Shourds,

apologizes,

"I get carried away with the painting. Some of them, when they’re

finished, they have about four coats of paint on them." Do these

authors know the meaning of "getting carried away"? Shourds

goes on to admit, "There’s factory decoys. They’re not bad,

really.

But it’s nice to keep the handiwork."

Garvey builders John Suralik and Joe Reid discuss the crafting of

these indigenous Barnegat Bay flat boats, and the making of clam

tongs:

"The only way to make ’em is to get involved with it. And get

good wood." Good wood used to mean mahogany! Jersey cedar turns

out to be pretty special, tempered as it is by salty winds. Suralik

reminisces about his early days as a Bayman: "I was out treadin’

for clams before I was even married." (Treading, — one learns

at Tuckerton Seaport, though not in this book — , means squishing

marsh muds and bay sands with your toes to dredge up the clams.

Tonging

is a step up.)

Some fire, or at least smoke, emerges in the section on ghosts. Where

else have you read a recipe for burial at sea so that the spirit of

the dead won’t come back to haunt the crew? Most people nowadays head

to Cape May for hawks and warblers or Victoriana. Another attraction

could, evidently, be added: "The phantom gun crew still performing

their duties on the bunker just off the beach at Cape May Point."

But this hors d’oeuvre is all we get.

No matter how Chamber of Commerces may try to insist that we did not

have wrecking along our storied sands, Roberts and Youmans reveal

a rare burst of humor on this subject. After admitting that shore

wrecking was so organized that towns appointed Wreck Masters, they

give us the aside, "New Jersey wasn’t called the graveyard of

the Atlantic for nothing." Now, granted, they’re in stiff company

here, Thoreau and Henry Beston having easily bested them in the area

of describing shipwrecks and wreckers. Still, one longs to wallow

in this nefarious pasttime. One is, instead, offered a soporific.

If you’re at the shore and you want to know more, you may find

satisfactions

in this book. I would prefer that the authors had let their proverbial

hair down, plunged into that electrifying surf, gulped that iodized,

ionized air. They might have come out writing with the passion of

a Hemingway on Northern Michigan, the icy but irresistible detachment

of a Fitzgerald on the idle rich idling richly; the frank voyeurism

of an Edmund Wilson, or the wry twists of a Robert Benchley. Instead,

I felt I had spent my time with a phone book, an encyclopedia, at

best. And they didn’t even do "Storms at the Shore!"

Down the Jersey Shore, Russell Roberts and Rich Youmans,

Rutgers University Press, 1993, $16.00 paperback.


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