≡ Menu

Along Our Jersey Shore Part 3

And now for the exciting conclusion of the travel tales (a continuation of part 2)….

The first advocate of the United States Life-saving Service was a Jersey-man, William A. Newell, who spoke in its favor before the Congress of 1848, of which he was a member, basing his argument on his own experience of shipwrecks along the shore; and in answer to the appeal an appropriation of ten thousand dollars was made, to which amount ten thousand dollars more were added the following year. As soon as the stations were built, their usefulness became apparent. In January, 1850, a terrible storm broke on the Jersey coast, strewing it with wrecks, and among the rescues made were two hundred and one persons from the stranded “Ayrshire” who were safely brought ashore in the life-car through a surf in which no boat could have lived. But the service was not thoroughly established until 1871, since which time it has been much extended and improved, now having one hundred and fifty-one stations in its system, each being supplied with life-boats, life- cars, and other apparatus for communicating with wrecks. It is divided into eleven districts, the first including the coasts of Maine and New Hampshire ; the second, Massachusetts; the third, Rhode Island and New York ; the fourth, New Jersey ; the fifth, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia from Cape Henlopen to Cape Charles ; the sixth, Virginia and North Carolina from Cape Henry to Cape Hatteras ; the seventh, Florida ; the eighth, Lakes Ontario and Erie; the ninth, Lakes Huron and Superior; the tenth, Lake Michigan; and the eleventh, the Pacific. New Jersey has thirty-eight stations – a larger number than any other district. During the fiscal year ending June, 1876, one hundred and eight vessels were wrecked within the limits of the districts, imperiling about one and three quarter million dollars’ worth of property, of which eight hundred and forty-seven thousand dollars’ worth was saved. Seven hundred and twenty-nine lives were saved, and twenty-two lost. On the Jersey coast alone thirty-six vessels were wrecked; two hundred and forty-eight lives were saved, and six lost.

During the year ending June, 1877, the total number of vessels driven ashore was one hundred and thirty-four, having one thousand five hundred persons on board, thirty-nine, or about two and a half per cent of whom were lost. The total amount of property saved was over one million seven hundred thousand dollars, and the total amount of that lost, over one million five hundred thousand dollars. A brief summary of the operations of the service since Mr. S. J. Kirnball took charge of it in 1871 will better show its usefulness, however. Four hundred wrecks occurred, imperiling over eleven million one hundred thousand dollars’ worth of property; nearly seven million dollars’ worth of this was saved, and of four thousand seven hundred and thirty lives imperilled only eighty were lost. Two thousand eight hundred and sixty-seven days of shelter were afforded at the stations t0 nine hundred and fifty- nine persons. During 1871-72 the operations of the service were confined to the coasts of Long Island and New Jersey; in 1872-74 they were extended to Cape Cod and Rhode Island, and in the next year they were further extended to the limits of the present districts.

The stations are nearly all alike – simple wooden houses, with steep gable roofs, the only projection about them being the lightning-rod, and the only ornament a coat of red-brown paint. From May until November they are unoccupied, though all the apparatus is ready for use; and the rest of the year each becomes the home of a keeper and six surf-men, who are paid forty dollars a month, and are chosen for their experience on the beach. Their duties are concisely stated in the instructions of the Treasury Department, to which branch of the government the Life-saving Service belongs. “During the winter months the beach will be patrolled by the surf-men every night. The patrol will consist of two men from each station, one following the beach toward the next station to the right, and the other proceeding toward the next station to the left, and each continuing his walk until the patrol from the adjacent station is met. Each patrolman will carry a beach lantern, also a red Coston hand-light; and when an inlet separates the stations, he will exchange signals with the patrolman on the opposite shore. On those parts of the coast where the two adjacent houses can not be seen from each other, the bench will be patrolled sufficiently to bring them in sight three times between sunrise and sunset. On the discovery of a wreck or a vessel in distress, the patrolman will immediately burn his red Costou hand-light, both to alarm the stations and give notice to the wreck that succor is near, then returning to the station and assisting in the preparation of the apparatus. Boats, etc., will be prepared for immediate service.” The discovery of a wreck is a matter worth a detailed description, however.

Suppose it is a December night; it is sure to be cold ; from the last of the equinoctials until the west ward- bound steamers from England begin to make good voyages again, there is no warmth to speak of along the Jersey shore. Let us suppose, too, that it is dark and blustering, so that we may feel with full poignancy what a surf-man’s experiences sometimes are. A big fire is blazing in the living-room of the station, and four of the men, with the keeper, are taking their ease around it, or lying in their bunks, while the two others are putting on their coats and mufflers, and looking longingly toward the hearth. The latter are going nut on patrol, and as they are human, they delay as much as possible, re-adjusting their dress, pressing their pilot caps over their heads, pulling their gloves farther on, and giving their neck-cloths a final twitch. The duty is inexorable, and with a last regretful glance at the fire, they shiveringly plunge into the outer night.

What a sharp transition it is! The wind is full of needle-points, and cuts them like a knife, and the darkness blinds them for a few moments, and extends in every direction, except around their feet, over which their lanterns cast a ring of white light, and in the window of the house, which glows with warmth. Above the moaning of the air is the loud heat of the sea, as the waves break on the shore and recede with sibilant sound ; and the spray is lifted and driven inshore by the wind in feathering streaks.

The two patrolmen say “good-night,” and separate ; one looks back to see the lantern of the other swinging to and fro on the sands, and decreasing in brilliancy until it is altogether lost behind a projecting bluff, and he then feels absolutely alone amid an unreal silence that would not be as awful were the waves and wind completely still. The stars are remote and merciless in their crystalline splendor, seeming to be fixed in that black firmament only to show how distant a thing heaven is ; and the sea – it is invisible; where the waves rush up the beach and leave a glazed surface on the sand, a few diamond points reflect the stars, and beyond these an impenetrable wall is built upward ; there is no sea at all; but, watching more closely, the patrolman discovers a vibrant cord of white, rhythmical in motion, like a taut string that is depressed near the middle and suddenly released, and that cord he knows to be, though he can not see, the frothing crest of the successive waves.

The walk would have many terrors for a nervous or superstitious man, or for almost any one of sensitive organization, and the patrolman is superstitions, but he is so familiar with the darkness, the loneliness, and the roar that he treads along the beach in a reverie – not a reverie on the deep secrets over which Nature is brooding, but on so prosaic a matter as the care of a small family who are now fast asleep on the main-land – until he fancies he discovers a light fastened to the black wall. He stands still and looks again; it has disappeared. Before him, as he looks seaward, is that blackness, which seems so solid that one would expect a pebble thrown at it to rebound, and he resumes his march, thinking that, his eyes have deceived him, or that the light has been a phosphorescent sparkle. But there it is again! And now the first light, which has stood at the masthead, is augmented by the flare of a rocket and the blue fire of a signal, which reveal a bark close inshore and in extreme peril.

According to his instructions, the patrolman instantly ignites his red light, which is done by striking the holder against his knee, that action exploding a percussion- rap, and he is surrounded for several seconds by a flood of crimson so vivid and so vigorous that no wind or rain is strong enough to extinguish it. When the light expires, he hastens back to the station with the news, and that quiet outpost is suddenly put into as tumultuous a state as the storm outside. The life-boat is placed on a carriage, the carriage having very broad tires to its wheels, so that they can not sink in the loose sand, and the life-car, with other apparatus, is placed in another vehicle, both being drawn to the point nearest the wreck, where efforts are made to obtain communications with it. There are three possible means of communication – by the life-boat, the life-car, and the life-raft. The first two are in use at all stations, and the last has been adopted at a few, but it is only under very favorable circumstances, or in extremities, that the boat is used. A line is thrown over the wreck either by a rocket or a mortar and shell, several efforts being made before success is attained, and the first line is attached to a stronger one that is secured to a mast of the vessel and to the shore. The life-car is suspended from the line and hauled on board the distressed ship; three or four persons are put inside it, and it is hauled back again, repeating the journey until all are safely landed. But the work is much easier in the description than in the performance. If the wind is blowing on shore, rocket after rocket flies on its meteor-like course through the tempest, falling miserably short, or being carried too far astern or ahead by the wind; sometimes the rocket fails altogether, and the boat or life-raft is the only resource left.

The life-car resembles a covered boat with a few air-holes in the top, the perforations having raised edges to prevent the water from entering, and a ring at each end, with a hawser attached, enables it to be drawn through the surf. The “boatswain’s chair” and the “breeches buoy” are similar, though older and less efficacious, devices. The former is a simple loop of rope hung from a taut stout hawser that extends from the stranded vessel to the beach, and in the loop a person sits and is pulled ashore. The latter consists of a common circular life-preserver, made of cork, with short canvas breeches attached, through which a man thrusts his legs, and, thus suspended, is drawn ashore, as in the chair. Both of these expose the passenger to the fury of the waves, and in the case of women and children, they are not suitable on this account, while the life-car lands its occupants without wetting or exhausting them, unless it capsizes, in which extremity it is liable to prove fatal.

Having seen the signal-man’s red light burning, the crew of the wrecked ship utter a glad cry of deliverance, and wait for the brilliant spurt of the rocket bearing the line to them – wait until the synonym of the word seems to be life-long agony. The ship lies heavily to the leeward, and grinds deeper into the sand as each sea strikes her and breaks over her decks, tearing away the houses and knocking the men off their feet. The sails hang loosely and in pitiable shreds from the yards, and the masts bend unwillingly in the fiercer blasts, and threaten to spring. The shore is invisible, but the thunder of the breakers tells the men that it is near; and presently a tire is lighted on the beach, which fitfully shows the dreary background of sand hills. A rocket is fired, and both those on shore and those on the ship watch it unfold its train of sparks; the wind sweeps it aside, and hopes go out like its own scintillations; another follows, and the breaths of all the watchers are held until it is seen to fall over the deck of the ship, when they are released in a cheer that the violent ill nature of the wind can not quell.

Bill’s brother Aaron came to Beach Haven for us on Sunday morning, and we embarked in his yacht on a cruise up and down the coast. Parting with Bill, who was most affectionate, he gave us an account of an unlucky venture which he once made in prunes. A vessel from the Mediterranean was wrecked, and a large part of her cargo of fruit washed ashore. The sands were strewn with prunes, several cart-loads of which were gathered by Bill and peddled through the country in a carry-all with great success, until he was arrested for selling without a license, and condemned to forfeit his earnings. “The shark’s a derned greedy fish, likewise the octopus, and the ‘skeeter in August,” he commented, at the end of his story, “but they ain’t nothin’ aside of an Ocean County constable.”

We sailed down the bay, and out on to the ocean through the Little Egg Harbor Inlet, which separates Long Beach from Brigantine Beach. It was a white, windless day, and the sea was only disturbed by a silent, sleepy swell; even the water over the bar was unruffled; and white as the day was, the whiter beaches cast dazzling reflections in the lucid air. A fleet of small boats were fishing, and two or three larger vessels were at anchor over the wreck of the steamer Cassandra, which foundered some ten or twelve years ago, and from which they were still taking iron. Now and then a picturesque sloop drifted past, and the captain’s wife projected her head above the cabin entrance to look at us; or a comrade of Aaron’s went sailing into the bay with a load of blue-fish, one of which he held up for our admiration.

Few other parts of the coast are as populous with food fishes as New Jersey. Nineteen different species are caught in abundance, and not less than one million dollars’ worth is sold annually, the principal market being New York and Philadelphia. The tautog or black-fish, weighing from one and a half to four pounds, is taken with bait in large numbers both in summer and winter; the porgee, weighing from one-quarter to two pounds, is taken with bait in July and August; the sheep’s-head, weighing from two to twelve pounds, is taken by hand and net from June to October; the weak-fish, weighing from one-half to two pounds, is taken by hand and net ; and about fifty thousand mackerel a day are caught during June and July. The other varieties that are more or less common include the drum- fish, the Lafayette fish (so called from the fact that it first appeared on the coast during the revisit to America of the French marquis), the blue-fish, the sword-fish, the cod-fish, the haddock, the winter flounder, the oblong flounder, the salmon, the anchovy, the smelt, the fall shad, the herring, and the menhaden or moss-bunker.

We went southward to Atlantic City, the popular watering-place of Philadelphia, with whose homes it is connected by two steam railways, the distance being about fifty -four and a half miles. Seen from the ocean it is quite captivating, the striped tower of the Absecom Light rising to a stately height from a low belt of foliage, and only the handsome turrets of the leading hotels being visible. But, the beauty vanishes on closer acquaintance, and we find a hot noisy flat covered with buildings and devices for the entertainment and recreation of multitudinous excursionists. The streets are wide, straight, and well paved. A praiseworthy effort has been made to line them with trees, but the desert-like heat and aridity coat the leaves with yellow early in the season. The hotels, saloons, restaurants, and boarding cottages of all sizes are innumerable; and along the beach, which is semicircular, there are photograph galleries, peep-shows, marionette theatres, conjuring booths, circuses, machines for trying the weight, lungs, or muscles of the inquisitive, swings, merry-go-rounds, and all the various side shows which reap the penny harvest of holiday crowds. These extrinsic attractions, which are so familiar in the second-class watering- places of England, make Atlantic City much gayer than the popular seaside resort s of New York, such as Coney Island and Rockaway Beach ; and were it not for the enormous beer pavilions, inestimable flow of lager, the gilded signs of Gambrinus, and the Teutonic waiters, one might easily fancy himself to be on the other side. Admirable precautions are taken for the safety of bathers. Some men with life-saving apparatus at their control are stationed in a tower from which they can observe the movements of the people in the water, and boatmen, whose duty it is to avert cases of drowning, paddle watchfully along the outer line of surf. A plank-walk extends along the beach; and there are many other things that commend Atlantic City to us, and place it above the resorts of excursionists near the metropolis.

A fair wind carried our little yacht seven or eight miles north in an hour, and at sunset -we were gliding, with a faint ripple at the bow, through a narrow “thoroughfare” of the bay. The marshes were on each side of us: behind and ahead a motionless sea, varying from a most vivid emerald to a dusky cedar grey. A curtain of gray concealed the city, but a flash of gold suddenly emblazoned the western windows, and the light -house, whose tower rose in pathetic isolation against the horizon, set forth a pallid ray. A heron projected itself in silhouette against a sky of red, gold, and amber, in which the sun has left a sinuous trail of fire, and a flock of plovers whistled mournfully us they winded themselves home. The water was like a mirror, except where a school of small fish broke it into a thousand ripples, and our boat was inert, the sail hanging loosely from the must. As the sun fell closer to the blue line of the main-land woods from a heaven of unspeakable color, the evening star and a crescent moon were growing more radiant in the pale gray-blue east, and cast a reflection on the water while it still held the imprint of the more passionate orb. We were alone in the world at that moment, and the world was motionless. There was a wan, pitiful look on the meadows, which, lying in a death-like lull, gave the scene its salience, and despite the rosy ardor of the western sky, Nature desponded and fell into a sad sleep. Sunsets at second-hand are not satisfactory, but those that we saw night after night along the Jersey coast were so individualized in their contrasted splendor and melancholy under-tone that they really seemed to belong to its topography.

The wind fell altogether at dark, and as we drifted through the winding reaches of the thoroughfare, our ecstasies were overcome by a plague of mosquitoes and gnats, which attacked us so seriously that one member of our expedition was threatened with delirium. We had to propel the boat with poles. From time to time we grounded, and it was after midnight when we reached Bond’s – a summer hotel south of Beach Haven.

The next day was cloudy and gray, and a variable wind took us through the bay to Barnegat Inlet, off the Barnegat Shoals. It was sunset when we reached our boat, and great flocks of birds flew out of the reeds, uttering wild and melancholy cries. A schooner lay at anchor near the inlet, and the wreck of the steamer Mediator was visible. One wreck is no sooner out of sight than another happens, and in such terrible evidences the few inhabitants of the settlement at the inlet are constantly reminded of how inhospitable a coast theirs is. Barnegat Light is famous, and we stood under it as it was ignited. The shaft towers from a bed of sand, which has formed a ridge twenty or thirty feet high around the base, and out of which a few cedars grow. The great brilliancy of the lantern, which makes it visible to vessels some twenty miles away, is lost to people standing at the base, and the only indication of it is in the prismatic glass. The keeper’s house is near by and the children sleep while the father watches and works in that radiant crown on the tower.

Farther northward the wind was now in our favor and we ran up to Tom’s River past Waretown, where an old grave yard sadly overlooks the sea, and past Seaside Park, another of the fashionable places which have appeared within the last three or four years on the outer beach. Tom’s River is charming, and the village is one of the prettiest in America. Then we took the railway again and went to Seabright, where we spent a happy day with the fisherman. There is no settlement more picturesque or interesting than this along the shore, although summer boarding-houses and hotels are crowding the old huts away. Small boats, white, green, and red, line the beach, their bronze sails flapping idly in the wind. Here an old fisherman sits mending his nets; there a boat with a load of shining mackerel has just been beached, and a lot of tawny men bare-legged and bare-armed, are transferring her cargo to small hand-carts. The huts are built among the sand hills, and the peculiar, conical roofs of the ice-houses give the village a foreign look.

When we reached Pier No. 8, North River, where we ended our journey, we landed with faces as brown and weather-beaten as Bill Pharo’s.

Along Our Jersey Shore Part 2

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:

“Dear marshes!

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

wonders vast.”

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

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