Our tour guide and storyteller was just on his way out of West Creek (Jersey Shore Part 1)…
Leaving it by the way of the creek, the village looks its prettiest. Its white houses are compactly knotted in a clustering wood and above the topmost -waves of green a church spire impales the sky. It resembles an island, the low meadows pressing against it without a shrub or tree among the tall rank grasses, whose swaying is the only relief to their prostrate verdancy. Drifting through those meadows on a brilliant August day in the smallest of sloops; a warm sun and a sapphire dome of sky; the heat of the sun modified by a sea-breeze, and the blue feathered with distant waifs of cloud ; a pile of salt hay strewn in the stern for our comfort in reclining – such were the accessories that made idleness sweet, exertion vanity, and care a vapor, as we hoisted sail at the little landing and moved toward the ocean. The artist had been quiet so far, but now he burst into rapturous exclamations of delight at the colors, the shadows, and the forms, exacting attention to this object and that, as an artist will when he strikes a phase of nature to which his imagination is harmoniously responsive. The creek is a zigzag, and its straight reaches arc so short that in whichever direction the wind is, the tacks must be frequent and abrupt. Each turn brought something new in view to arouse the enthusiasm of my artist friend, and one moment ho eagerly directed my observation to the queer sail of a passing sloop and its flickering reflection on the water, or to the indolent attitude of the sunburned man at the tiller; the next moment to an old battered scow lying against the muddy bank with the long grass hanging over it and trying to hide its unloveliness ; the next, to a mass of drift-wood, washed into a little bay, upon which the sun, breaking through a bed of rushes, cast long yellow bars ; the next, to the village wrapped up in the foliage, that was now quite distant ; the next – but his discoveries were continuous and his raptures inexhaustible; what had been abandoned as useless, and things that would have been eye-sores to nine people out of ten, the play of the waving grasses and the reflections, were caught by him and declared to belong to the problematic region of the picturesque. Meanwhile a whole fleet of fishing boats were passing us on their way to the village, and our captain sitting astern was talking to us incessantly.
We had intended to hire the boat of Aaron Pharo for our cruise; but as he was away fishing, we accepted the offer of his brother to take us to him. Brother Bill is a celebrity from Cape May to Squan, and his character is so luminous that I think it would project itself in any community. A little boastfulness; a good deal of a certain kind of knowledge ; a clear perception of what is wrong, and a total inabilityto live up to the precepts which he reiterates oftenest ; much good nature, and no means to substantially gratify it; a flood of profanity and irreligion, with a Gulf Stream of sentiment mellowing parts, and putting around his nature some of the pleasant mistiness through which we now see it – these are some of the boldest headlands in his moral coast- line, and they are, after all, the salient features of many others; but what leaves him in one’s memory as a gleaming point of humor is the very oddest face I ever saw, and a most wonderful pair of trousers. The trousers he wore were of the comprehensive pattern referred to previously; they rose from the knees like a spring-tide to within a few inches of the shoulders, where a pair of determined -looking suspenders caught them, and they were as voluminous behind as a Chinese novel. His face is long and red, two high cheek-bones pressing against two saucer-like, deep-set eyes, with a craggy forehead hanging over them, and a comical seriousness flashing in them. His conversation covered a wide variety of subjects; it was his opinion that what is now New Jersey was recently, geologically speaking, part of the bottom of the sea, and in proof thereof he adduced the fact that oyster shells had been found very much farther inland than the present coast-line.
We passed out from the mouth of the sinous creek into Little Egg Harbor Bay, separating the outer beach from the main land, and sailed across to Beach Haven, the newest of watering-places, where we proposed to spend the night. Behind us was that emerald expanse of meadow limited by a broad blue hue against which West Creek village rose ; a fleet of small sailing vessels was in sight, and beyond the beach, which threw off a blinding reflection from its intensely white sand, was the ocean, with larger sailing vessels gliding north and south.
The landing at Beach Haven is inviting, but its promise is not fulfilled by a more intimate acquaintance with what is called “the only practical sea-side resort in America.” Pleasure-boats with white hulls and high, slender masts are harbored around the wharf, and more serviceable sloops and schooners find anchorage in the adjacent waters. The beach is not more than half a mile wide, and it fronts on the bay with an edging of salt meadows, which are half submerged and redolent of brine. A long path leads up to three overgrown caravansaries – these, with a row of bathing-houses, comprising the settlement, which is unique in several ways. It is called a “practical” sea-side resort because it is actually on the ocean, and the bay removes it from anything more than a mere suspicion of land air. The surf on the outer beach is boisterous, the waves throbbing in overwhelmingly, and the wind spends itself over the low- reach of sand, without a tree or elevation of any kind to break its force. For the first few hours of a visit one is amazed at the uuacconntableness of the taste which brings people here in search of pleasure. The light is intolerably glaring; the shore is flat and verdure less ; in times of storm the hotels are bleak and unsheltered, and in calms they are filled with mosquitoes. It is not accountable at any time, indeed, unless we give the visitors credit for a keener susceptibility to a very subtle and poetic form of nature than most watering-place habitués have. Charles Kingsley once said that marshes were one of the kinds of scenery he liked the best, and Lowell writes of them:
vain to him the gift of sight
Who can not in their various incomes share,
From every season drawn, of shade and light –
Who sees in them but levels brown and bare!
Each change of storm or sunshine scatters free
On them its largess of variety,
For Nature with cheap means still works her
A quick appreciation of color and sensitiveness to the inarticulate pathos of the “mighty mother” are necessary to their apprehension, and it is in the marshes that reward will be found by those having such qualifications. But what most visitors came for and staid for were the evening hops, the bathing and yachting, all of which are much better at many other places we could name; and it is in view of this fact that Beach Haven is unaccountable.
We arrived on a Saturday evening. Fiddles were scraping and feet shuffling in the halls of the big hotels; the broad piazzas were crowded with loungers and promenaders, mostly fair maidens and stately matrons in refrigerant summer dress that reached their necks in diaphanous snowy muslins; the men were happy in a surfeit of tender attentions; and at the close of day all the yachting parties having come home to supper, the wharf on the bay was left to us.
The sun was setting on the brilliant plain of sedge as we looked landward, and beheld the spires of West Creek and Tuckerton rising out of the distant woods, which changed from blue to purple, and from purple to a smoky crimson, until the great globe of fire sunk well behind them and left them a chilly black. But before this, the whole sky was transformed into a sea full of flaming shoals; a mass of cirro-cumuli had become detached, and the fragments floated against the pearly blue of the sky and burned with the reflected glow. Green never before seemed so green, or so capable of many shades, as it did on the marshes, which, as the sun disappeared behind the woods, were momentarily tipped with gold, and then left to brooding green and blue. In the far north a storm was bursting of tumultuous clouds, which had also caught some of the rosy magnificence of the sunset, and were laced with the vivid thrusts of forked lightning. The night came upon us, advancing from a tender pearl blue to a steel blue, and from a steel blue to an unsympathetic gray, which grew darker until the last light from the west had been extinguished, and the stars pierced the sky with incisive brilliancy. The myriad stars that shone in the opaline moonlight night were as nothing compared in numbers with the gnats and mosquitoes ; but who would not have endured even greater torments for a sight so memorable? It was such a sunset as can be seen nowhere else than on those plaintive marshes and barren sands of the Jersey coast.
The sandy strip upon which the “practical sea-side resort” is situated is nearly twenty miles long, and is called Long Beach, its northern extremity being formed by the Barnegat Inlet, and its southern extremity by the Little Egg Harbor Inlet. The next island south is called Brigantine Beach; the Barnegat Shoals are northward. Along this desolate coast so many vessels have come to grief, and so any bodies have been washed ashore, that it is known among fishermen us the Grave-yard.
Treasures from many lands are gathered from wrecks, and a fisherman’s family is often helped through a trying winter by the provisions which the sea casts up. When an orange schooner is wrecked, there is dessert after every meal in the cottages; or should the cargo be prunes, that fruit becomes a common article of diet. A visitor is sometimes surprised to see foreign brands of olives and canned stuffs on the shelves of the village stores; he learns that they have been secured from a wreck ; and the host of one inn at which we spent a night had some excellent Maria Benvenuto claret, labeled, with grim suggestiveness. “Importation direct via Barnegat Shoals.”
Much queerer things than these are occasionally picked up. A forlorn old parrot, feeble from its un-English complainings, drifted in on a spar, and at another time a pair of Manx cats were saved from a wreck by a noted old beach-man, Caleb Parker, of Harvey Cedars, near the Barnegat Light, who has raised a family of eleven more, and meets a visitor at the door of his cottage with a purring retinue of his furry friends, one of them perched on his cap, two others playing on his shoulders, and the rest brushing his legs. “Dad” Parker is one of the heroes of the coast, and carries a silver medal presented to him for life-saving.
Fashionable summer resorts are new things to the outer beach. Formerly a small house was erected here and there for the accommodation of sportsmen and parties of fishermen, who came over from the mainland with their wives, daughters, and sweethearts for an evening dance. The gayety of one of these gatherings at Harvey Cedars was eclipsed by the startling announcement that a ship had gone ashore, and was making signals of distress; whereupon the whole company made for the beach, including the women in all their holiday finery, and not a ribbon or a flounce was thought of until the last man had been landed from the wreck.
The final installment of Along Our Jersey Shore