≡ Menu

Along Our Jersey Shore

The following article is a fascinating account of a late 19th century trip along the Jersey coast. It was written up in Harpers Weekly in 1878. The language alone is so interesting, and I have taken some liberties to edit things – but not much as I wanted it to retain its original style. I have also broken it up into three installments, as it is quite long.

Here we go, on a trip back in time……

Is there a restaurant? The signalman’s face lengthened with amazement. “Restaurant!” he repeated, incredulously – “restaurant!” and then he, smiled provokingly. “Well,” I continued, “is there any place where we can get some pickled mussels, or something of that kind!” – a vision coming to my mind of the glass jars fild with the pale salmon-colored bivalves in bluish-white liquid which are displayed with other archaics in the one salty store of most sea-side settlements, like preserved babies in anatomical museums. The suggestion of this appetizing delicacy gave the signal-man’s mind a more serious turn, and enabled him to answer my first question with the gravity which its importance demanded. “Don’t know about pickled mussels,” he answered; “but you see that little house over the sand, just beyond the plank-walk?” We saw an un- painted, forlorn, orphan-like shanty in the direction indicated. “Well, you may be able to get a bit of something to eat there.”

Where were we, that the idea of a public larder was so preposterous? In a tower some fifty or sixty feet above the ground-level, on an open gallery surrounding a triplicate lantern with red panes to its windows; out before us beat the Atlantic – a great quivering plain, upon which ships were shortening or making sail, and over which they were stealing so noiselessly und mysteriously that they seemed to be intangible shadows in a dream. It all seemed like a dream: that immense platitude of green-gray irregularly speckled with the white of combing waves, upon which the fine-strung, nerve-like structures were spreading their wings; that serene arch of blue rising above the illimitable basin of water with a few shreds of cloud hanging from it; that low line of glittering white fretted with ermine surf; the fish-hawks that swept down from a self-sustained perch and flapped up again with something silvery in their beaks – yes, it was like a dream; and the breathing of the wind and the beat of the sea increased the lull. That was the picture as we looked seaward. Landward it was different.

We surveyed a crooked neck of cedars, sand hills, swamp, and beach, washed by a bay, every ripple on which was tipped by a diamond-like point of reflected sunshine; and the bay led into a river guarded by a line of bluffs moodily wrapped in dusky foliage, save where a clearing showed a scar of crimson earth. There was nothing like this in Newport, whence we had recently come; nothing like the solace and recreative quietude; nothing nearly so beautiful as this low-keyed symphony of wind, water, and sky. This sequestration from restaurants and hotels, from bathing-houses and Saturday-evening hops, from summer excursionists and modern improvements of all sorts, was the idealization of a worker’s springtime anticipations of a holiday vacation. Here we might muse and rest, renew and review ourselves, expiating (with a pipe of good tobacco) the errors of the past in a mental way, and easily forming better plans for the future ; here our nearest connection with the active world seemed to be that phantom-like procession of sailing vessels, which exquisitely illustrated the rhythm of nature, though less than three miles away was the landing of the Long Branch boats with their loads of social butterflies ;  here – ” It is not always like this here,” said the signal-man, breaking the spell. “When the wind’s blowing eighty miles an hour, it’s awful. Much as we can do to keep the lamps lit, and not easy to get ’em lighted.” It is not quiet and dream-like always anywhere in the world, alas! and the signal-man’s interruption was a timely reminder.

We were on the extremity of Sandy Hook, that narrow peninsula which stretches into the ocean like a hand of greeting and farewell to the vessels that pass into and out of New York Harbor through the deep-water ship channel which it borders. Our standpoint was the tower of the United States Signal Service Station; and, as the signal-man said, there are times when the fair sky, the harmonious breathing of the wind, and the soft pulsations of the ocean – such as tranquillized us – are substituted b y troublous clouds, a bitter wind, and a sea mountain high. Then, if the storm approaches in daytime, a warning flag is thrown out to mariners from the slender pole on the tower; or if it is night-time, the lanterns are lighted, and turn their red, sorrowful eyes upon the murky outlook. The wind blowing eighty miles an hour from the northwest on a January night! Sandy Hook in such times catches the full force of the tempest on the sea and the cold on land, and there is not a bleaker place south of the Arctic Circle. The sand is swept up and carried along in a low pelting cloud; the cedars bend toward the southeast, and many of them are permanently inclined in that direction, the prevailing gales having paralyzed their other side in infancy; the human voice is useless in the tumult, and the bed of sand seems to shake under the tread of the waves. While the signal-man stands before the lanterns with a match in his hand to light them, his mate envelops him in the shelter of a blanket, and effort after effort is made before success is obtained in igniting the wicks, the cold benumbing the men, and the wind extinguishing the flame. Also at dusk three light-houses scud forth their earliest rays from the Hook, and above them, on those magnificent bluff’s bordering the Shrewsbury River, are the two beacons which have filled many and many a heart with joy – the Highland Lights of the Navesink.

There is no settlement to speak of at Sandy Hook. A capricious Congress has appropriated money one year for some military fortifications, which have been neglected for several years following, and which are now seen in a condition neither useful nor ornamental – unmounted guns, stray blocks of granite, and other material being strewn about in that wasteful insufficiency which characterizes many branches of our military service. The fitful progress of these works has occasioned the building of a few houses for the laborers, one of which was pointed out to us as a possible resource in case of extreme hunger; and these, with the signal station, the three light-houses, and two telegraph stations for the collection of ship news, are the media between utter desolation and advanced civilization.

Sandy Hook is so extremely lonely naturally that one is not surprised to find the few settlers living in a mist, though the occupations of most involve constant pen and paper communications with the active world. From the signal station we crossed a tangled hollow of shrubs to the news office of the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph, and climbed up a flight of mystifying stairs into a small room, with a window facing the sea. Under the window was a table, upon which a Morse instrument was ticking, and before it sat a young German, with a pipe in his mouth and his eyes fixed on that glassy reach of sea outside. He had been sitting there for six hours, and he would continue to sit there six hours longer, making note of all vessels coming and going, and telegraphing their names to the city. The maritime lists of the world were i a convenient place for reference; and when the commanders were thoughtful enough to exhibit their code numbers by flags, a consultation of these books established the identity of the ships. But it often happened that no signals were shown, in which case the observer had to depend on the sharpness of his eyes in reading the name on the bow or stem, and on his experience, in telling the nationality. He had been sitting there, day after day, for some twelve years, nearly always smoking a pipe, and dreamily intent on that shadowy procession in the ofting, from six o’clock in the morning until sundown, when another observer took his place, and kept watch over the water through the night. The forcibility of the analogy between the variable careers of the vessels and human life bad made a moralist of him, and given his mind a melancholy turn. He saw in their voyages a repetition of the vicissitudes which follow men and women on their earthly way – some fine clippers coming bravely home again through all the adverse winds, and others laboring in dismasted, or vanishing forever as they faded in the rosy Gray horizon. But the pre-eminent characteristic of the man was the accuracy with which he could tell the nationality of a vessel by some slight peculiarity, unnoticeable to others, in the shape of the hull or the arrangement of the rigging. The steamers of the great lines are nearly always distinguishable by well-defined differences in build or in the color of their smoke-stacks, but sailing ships are much alike. Still, an extra cord in the top-hamper, an additional sail, or a fuller curvature of the deck decided the bailing-place in the observer’s mind beyond a doubt, and other minor details often enabled him to identify the vessel by name without the use of the maritime records lying on the table.

It was quite fascinating to watch the gradual appearance of a ship through the observer’s window. At first the stranger would be like a tiny notch in the fine boundary line of sky and water, formulating itself by exquisite gradations until the beautiful thing dawned upon us in its full proportions, with its amplitude of sail puffed out, and a ruff of white foaming around her black hull. But more interesting and beautiful yet was the sighting of an inward-bound ocean steamer at night-time, a pale, glimmering point of light foretelling her rising above the horizon – that light which looked like a low-hung star, slowly becoming distincter, and quivering in the darkness, which made one of the sea and sky, with the sea and sky, with the least perceptible motion. An hour or two elapsed before the binocular glass availed in elucidating her outlines, and before that she had shown her colors, or the colors of the proprietary line, in flaring pyrotechnics, which burst in chromatic brilliancy amid the blackness. Her arrival was telegraphed to the city, and a few minutes later announced on the hotel bulletins.

The ship news man’s experiences coincided with those of the signal service man’s – an appalling succession of blustering storms, accompanied by an intensity of cold to chill the marrow. The room was not more than ten by twelve feet in size, and an enormous stove, which dwarfed the other contents by its extravagant proportions, stood in the centre; but, snug as the building is, in the winter gales a pail of water, placed on the floor within a few feet of the stove, freezes, though the latter is heated to incandescence, and the building itself trembles to its foundations.

We trod back to the steamboat landing along the narrow, much-indentured edge of beach, upon which large numbers of horseshoe crabs had stranded, and thence we went southward in a train, most of whose passengers were city people returning from business to their summer homes at Long Branch. That fashionable resort had no inducements strong enough to detain us, who were in search of the picturesque, and we continued in the cars to Whiting’s, some thirty-six miles farther down the coast, where we transferred ourselves from the New Jersey Southern to the Tuckerton Railway, by which we arrived at West Creek.

There is an implication of remoteness and queerness in the very name of West Creek. The traveler who finds it in his time-tables is quite sure not to make the mistake of supposing that it is much of a town, or a mushroom outcome of real estate speculation. It is old, probably; its inhabitants are fishermen, and the sea washes up to it through a slough in one of the wonderfully green saltwater marshes. That is the idea the name would convey, and it would not be very much out of the way.

The inhabitants are fishermen, farmers, and boat-builders properly, but in the course of a year they turn their hands to the harvesting of salt hay and ice, the cultivation of oysters and clams, or to almost anything else that will yield an honest penny. Many of them are old sea-captains, who in their day have taken large vessels on voyages to the farthest countries, and who because the sea when it once takes hold of a man never wholly relieves him of its charm, or allows inland life to be endurable, are satisfying their lingering cravings for the element by short and safe yacht cruises, spiced by the small profits and gentle adventurousness of blue-fishing. Others have been fishers from babyhood, their cradles seines, and their mothers’ apron strings trolling lines. By thrifty living the best of these have acquired the proprietorship of small cat-boats or sloops, and are enabled to exist comfortably and respectably. The ne’er-do-wells divide their attention among a variety of pursuits, and though they may never have possessed an unbroken dollar in the straitened course of their impecunious careers, some ingenuity has made each of them the owner of a boat – a crazy old thing usually, which has been condemned by their more prosperous neighbors, and so dexterously patched that it will just float and bear a ragged strip of sail.

There is one salient trait in the men of West Creek – they all wear trousers, which in itself is a fact sufficiently obvious to debar the claim of novelty; but the trousers are of such structural peculiarity that they form a new scheme in the philosophy of clothes, ceasing to be nether garments simply, and extending far above the hips to the armpits, under which they are braced with a firmness which conveys a suspicion that the rest of the body is suspended from the shoulders. A few inches more of length and a pair of sleeves added would make any other article of costume superfluous, except for ornament. Another thing that attracts the observation of the stranger is the superiority of the women in education and social refinement, which is so marked that it suggests a new force in civilization. An old and prosperous settler with a large family takes the boys and brings them up as he has been brought up – in freckles, toil, untidiness, and ignorance, or at least ignorance of schooling; if his desires are realized, they become keepers of the village store or hotel, or fishermen, or farmers, and they attain manhood with some independent property, a good deal of shrewdness, but without any polish of mind or appearance. The girls, on the contrary, are sent to school and liberally dressed; and when the father builds a fine new house, with a piazza and a Mansard-roof, they are adapted by education and training to grace it; and should a visitor sit down to dinner with them, and see their male relatives, unshaven and not fastidiously clean, eating in their shirt sleeves, he might wonder at the strength of the domestic tie which holds such difference together in contentment. When the pleasantly furnished parlor, decorated with many little feminine arts, is occupied by the girls in the evening, who are reading or sewing, and their brothers come in with acquaintances who are quite incapable of responding to any of their intellectual needs, the oddness of the phase is greater, and the contentment seems impossible.

To understand the geographical position of West Creek, it is necessary that the reader should know one remarkable and uniform feature of the Atlantic coast. From Long Island southward to Cape Fear, a distance of some six hundred miles, the main-land is separated from the ocean by a belt of dazzling white sand, intersected and broken into islands by narrow inlets, and at the portals of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, by the New York, Delaware, and Chesapeake bays. In some places this outer beach is not more than a quarter of a mile wide, the surf almost drenching it from side to side, and in other places it is five miles wide. The sea encroaches upon it or extends it from year to year, widening here and shortening it there, and sometimes leaving dangerous shoals still farther out, upon which the waves break in terrific tumult. Few of the inlets are navigable, and most of them are constantly changing positions, new ones appearing after violent storms, and others being as suddenly filled in by sand. The water between the beach and the main-land is navigable to small vessels, and when the sea is heavy outside, it affords safe sailing to the many sloops and schooners trading between village and village along the coast. On the inner border the main-land meets it with a long, low, melancholy fringe of salt meadows, which retreat into cedar swamps and firmer ground.

From the dusky cedars and through the meadows West Creek flows, and on its banks, where it is not more than twelve feet wide, the village stands. The freshwater of such land-born streamlets, mingling with the salt of the ocean, and the flat reaches of sedge and rushes, make a paradise for birds, and in the gunning seasons sportsmen from the city drop into the village, but other visitors are seldom seen.

Aside from its population, West Creek has not much to show. It has several wide streets, over which some good old trees form an ample canopy, and between the cottages there are sturdy vegetable gardens or fields of corn. Wore it not for the seines which are spread in front of some of the houses or in the fields, and the salty invigorating air, it would have nothing to distinguish it from an agricultural settlement. We are forgetting, however, the old hotel with its long line of hitching posts under the piazza, and its invariable menu of blue-fish, mackerel, oysters, or sheep’s-head; and we are also forgetting the small-boy peddlers, who hawk fish from house to house in baskets, wheelbarrows, or other available conveyances.

The following article is a fascinating account of a late 19th century trip along the Jersey coast. It was written up in Harpers Weekly in 1878. The language alone is so interesting, and I have taken some liberties to edit things – but not much as I wanted it to retain its original style.

Part 2 of Along Our Jersey Shore