Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Back to school in Montague: the Nelden-Roberts Stonehouse

Delaware Water Gap National Recreational Area is loaded with them: old houses and buildings that largely stand empty, the silent tribute to faulty government planning and successful public outcry. Many had been in the same family for generations before the Army Corps of Engineers set out to flood much of the Water Gap as part of the Tocks Island Dam project. In preparation, the federal government purchased acres of farmland and forest plus the structures that stood on them.

Public opinion ultimately trumped the dubious need for the project, but the impact on the area was profound, nonetheless. While the National Park Service assumed ownership and management of the land from the Army Corps, the families were not allowed to return to their ancestral homes. What's left in many cases is the puzzling sight we discovered at the Westbrook-Bell House: a nicely maintained but tightly shut colonial-era stone house with a decidedly 21st century satellite dish. If you're like me, you salivate a little as you drive past buildings like that, wondering how much of the average stuff of daily life is left in them and whether you'll ever get to find out.

More rarely than most of us wish, you may drive past one of the old houses to find it's open. That was our luck as we approached a small stone structure not far from the Milford-Montague Bridge on Route 206. The Nelden-Roberts Stonehouse was accepting visitors, as it does, two Sundays a month in warm weather.

As we discovered from our friendly volunteer docent, farmer George Nelden held the property as early as 1817. It was a schoolhouse until about 1865, one of a handful located in the area in a time before free public education. The Roberts portion of the house's name came from a family who owned a farm across the road; tenant farmers were among the many families that used it as a dwelling until the federal government acquired the property. One gets the feeling that rather than being a beloved homestead, the stonehouse was more like an accommodation that came along with local employment. Still, or maybe because of that status, it has a valuable story to tell.

It's likely that when it was originally built, the building was a lot like others in Montague and surrounding communities, but circumstances have a way of making the ordinary truly special. Vandalism and the loss of nearby Brick House village to the Tocks Island project encouraged concerned citizens to form the Montague Association for the Restoration of Community History (MARCH) in 1979 to save some of the remaining historic properties. A federal grant paid for adaptive restoration, which led to the building's reopening in 1982. MARCH now has an longstanding agreement with the National Park Service to maintain and interpret the Nelden-Roberts Stonehouse and the nearby Foster-Armstrong House, a wooden homestead first built in the late 18th century and enlarged in 1820.

They've done an admirable job. Walking into the stonehouse, we discovered a one-room schoolhouse, complete with some of the primers, slates and other items rural students would have brought for a day of study. A small side room was set up like an early 20th century general store that was, no doubt, a very welcome amenity for the rural community.

Upstairs was an attic room for the teacher, large though the walls were slanted. In addition to curating it with spartan bedroom furniture, MARCH uses the space to exhibit other artifacts representing community history. When we were there, it held a World War display saluting local veterans, as well as a number of Native American objects reflecting the area's Lenape past.

With the coming of colder weather, the unheated Nelden-Roberts Stonehouse will be closed for a few months, but it's well worth putting on the to-see list for the spring. Just as important as any "Washington Slept Here" attraction in the state, the stonehouse is a refreshing look into a community's past, lovingly perpetuated by neighbors who see the importance of preserving local history.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Get your kicks on... the Lincoln Highway?

As a follow-up to our story on Jersey City's Lincoln Park, historian and Hidden New Jersey reader Jim Madden took to our Facebook page to remind us of yet another tribute to the 16th president that's just feet away. Keep your eyes open when you visit the Mystic Lincoln sculpture, and you'll see the red, white and blue signs that designate some of the park roads as the route of the Lincoln Highway.

A vintage Lincoln Highway marker,
as seen in the Smithsonian.
If your mind is going toward the Lincoln Highway in Highland Park, Edison or any number of other places in North or Central Jersey, you're on the right track. Those stretches of road were once part of the much larger Lincoln Highway, conceived by Indiana road enthusiast Carl Fisher in 1912 to run from New York City's Times Square to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. Like New Jersey's own George Blakeslee, Fisher saw the benefits of reliable, well-maintained roads for the nation's commerce and mobility. The privately-funded highway was to take in and improve a network of existing thoroughfares to create a direct transcontinental route. Promoting the road through the Lincoln Highway Association, Fisher hoped that contributions from automobile manufacturers and private citizens would find the improvement of the 3400-mile route.

If you try to follow the highway's original path through New Jersey these days, you get a good education in how roads and cities evolved to address the needs of a growing population. According to the website of the re-invigorated Lincoln Highway Association, travelers would take New York's 42nd Street west to a ferry, a necessary step more than two decades before the start of construction on the Lincoln Tunnel. Once across the Hudson in Weehawken, the highway coursed up the Palisades on Pershing Road, taking 49th Street to what was then Hudson County Boulevard into Jersey City and along the old Newark Plank Road through West Side Park, which was renamed Lincoln Park at the statue's installation in 1930. It traversed the Meadowlands along what's now Truck Route 1 and 9, well before the construction of the Pulaski Skyway.

Once in Newark, the road took already-congested city streets until it linked with current-day Route 27, which took it southwest through Elizabeth, Rahway, Edison, New Brunswick and Princeton. That portion of the highway has its roots in a road originally laid out by Dutch colonists as early as 1675. The southernmost section, now U.S. 206, brought the highway from Princeton through Trenton and into Pennsylvania. In the ensuing years, the route was adjusted several times to account for changing conditions, including the opening of the Holland Tunnel.

The Federal government got into the road business not long after World War I, endorsing Fisher's and Blakeslee's basic ideas but inadvertently ringing the death knell for the Lincoln Highway as the transcontinental route. Connecting towns and cities with reliable paved roads meant mobility, not just to transport goods from farm or factory to market, but for people to explore the country beyond their own community. While the Lincoln Highway was never fully completed from coast to coast, it paved the way for uniform long distance road standards and the eventual establishment of our interstate highway system.

In recent years, New Jersey's reinvigorated chapter of the Lincoln Highway Association has been placing commemorative markers on strategic points along the road's route. They're metal in Lincoln Park but at least one concrete post has been installed on Route 27 in Edison. Have you seen any?


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Lincoln in Jersey City: an enduring spirit

Reporting for Hidden New Jersey has made me a real fan of the statues that stand in many of our older parks. Where I once took them for granted, I've come to realize that they often say a lot about the communities they're in: what the locals find important and what they value.

Take, for example, the Lincoln sculpture at the JFK Boulevard entrance to Jersey City's Lincoln Park. Memorials to our sixteenth president are common enough in cities and towns in the northern states, but there's something remarkable about this one. It's said to have been the second-largest Lincoln monument at its dedication, but what's even more notable is its design and how it got there in the first place.

Ivan found it and thought enough of it to bring me to visit it. Indeed, I could see why he found it so remarkable. Unlike the more majestic representation at his memorial in Washington, D.C., the seated, clean-shaven Jersey City Lincoln sits pensively on a boulder, seeming to contemplate a troubling issue. An adjacent plaque labels it "Mystic Lincoln," erected in 1930 by the Lincoln Association of Jersey City, with contributions from local school children. Ringed by a semi-circular bench, the statue invites passers-by to stop and consider the president's work and the challenges he took on during his tenure. In this deeply personal work, sculptor James Earle Fraser depicted a very human man with troubles that reached into his very core.

Digging a bit deeper into its history, I discovered that the statue also represents an enduring dedication to Lincoln and his achievements. Jersey City is home to the nation's oldest continually-operating Lincoln Association, which has met on February 12 every year since 1867 to commemorate the Great Emancipator's birth.

Though New Jersey's electoral votes failed to go to Lincoln in both of his elections and opinions of him were mixed, Jersey City was home to many who supported the president before and after his untimely death. According to its website, the founders of the association were civic leaders and businessmen who vowed to meet annually to "discuss the obstacles [Lincoln] overcame in his early years, his firm and fair philosophy, his vision and courage, and his many achievements."

Since then, the yearly ceremonies have included re-enactments and readings from Lincoln scholars. Anyone who reveres the former president's memory is welcome to attend the events, which are now held at the sculpture and in the Casino in the Park nearby.

Just as important as the annual event is the daily presence of Lincoln's words, themselves, in the walls within the memorial area:

"That government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth." 

"With malice toward none and charity toward all." 

"Let us have faith that right makes might and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it." 

Immortal words all, and well worth considering through the ages.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Marking irrelevant boundaries on Divident Hill

Stroll around the slim section of Newark's Weequahic Park that's north of Route 22, and you might come upon an elegant domed pavilion atop a hill. Nearly a century old, the Greco-Roman shelter seems a bit elegant for a park that was designed in the more naturalistic style of the Olmsted Brothers. A temple to a celebrated Newarker, perhaps? A gift from one of the city's 19th century industrial barons?

The design of the structure, as it turns out, doesn't relate very much to the inspiration for its placement at the highest point within the park. In fact, if you consider the story a certain way, it pretty much replaced a tree that stood on the spot 350 years ago. And it marks a geographic point that's no longer relevant.

As boundaries often go, it seems the dividing line between the old cities of Elizabeth and Newark was in question in the earliest years of New Jersey's status as an English colony. Elizabeth share's the state's 1664 birthday, while Newark was founded just two years later. Within a few years, both communities' leaders realized that the settlements were bound to overlap eventually if a boundary wasn't established. On May 20, 1668, commissioners from both communities met at the highest spot in current day Weequahic Park to determine a dividing line.

The line settled was: "the top of the little round hill named Divident Hill; and from thence to run upon a Northwest line into the country" until it met Watchung Mountain. To set the mark, the men carved an "N" into the northern side of an oak standing on the hill, and an "E" on the southern side. Other trees along the line were marked in a similar fashion.

Still, though, the hill is now decisively within Newark boundaries. What happened?

In 1834, Elizabeth gave up its portion of what's now Weequahic Park, and a bit more, for the formation of the township of Clinton. That small, marshy and somewhat rural community was absorbed by Newark in 1902, extending the city's boundaries southward against the portion of Union Township that eventually became Hillside. Union was once part of Elizabeth itself, breaking away in the early 1800s.

The irony is that the pavilion commemorating the boundary-setting was dedicated long after it became irrelevant at the point where it's celebrated. As part of Newark's grand 250th anniversary in 1916, the city commissioned famed architects Carrere and Hastings to design and build this ornate monument to the foresight of the neighboring cities' founding leaders. A memorial plaque was placed, fittingly enough, by students from both South Side High School in Newark and Battin High School in Elizabeth.

So there you have it; a memorial placed by history-minded students at a place that no longer stands for what it once was, marked by a grand piece of architecture. What better Hidden New Jersey could there be?


Monday, September 29, 2014

Jumbo and the birds: the lost elephant of South Cape May

Today it's a Nature Conservancy refuge, a popular place for birders to observe migrating and resident birds across 200 acres of marsh, grassland and beaches on a key point in the Atlantic flyway.

Who would have guessed that 130 years ago, it was home to an elephant?

To be fair, the Jersey shore was once home to two elephants, and both, while bigger than life, were man-made. The still-surviving Lucy stands between apartments and retail establishments on Atlantic Avenue in Margate. The South Cape May elephant, however, perished at the relatively young age of 16, the victim of a bad business plan.

The mid to late 1800s was a busy time for developers along the Jersey shore. Entrepreneurs were grabbing up as much waterfront property as they could, with visions of selling lots and building entire communities. Some like Alexander Whilldin saw opportunities to extend their personal ideals, while others were purely in it for the financial gain.

Among the latter was Theodore Reger, who, with partners, formed the Cape May City Land Company to purchase 225 acres just south of an already-popular vacation haven. To advertise the resort community they envisioned there, Reger and his partners took a page from James Lafferty, who'd already used Lucy to draw buyers to a similar settlement about 40 miles up the shore in Margate. They bought the rights to erect a 58 foot high elephant which they called the Light of Asia, fully expecting lightning to strike twice.

More than 13,000 square feet of tin was used to sheathe the wooden elephant, covering about a million pieces of wood, 250 kegs of nails and six tons of bolts. She was completed and opened for business in 1884. For a ten cent admission, visitors could get an expansive view of the ocean and surrounding beachfront from the Light's howdah, or seating platform, perched on the elephant's back 40 feet above the sand.

If a zoning board had to classify the Light of Asia, they might have an interesting time of it. While the howdah was a sightseeing platform, the belly of the beast was intended to hold a concession stand. Reger used another part of the structure for a real estate office. When the Cape May City company failed, he and his partners incorporated two successor ventures, the Neptune and Mount Vernon Land Companies, the latter of which was the final owner of the elephant.

Things didn't turn out as well for Reger and his partners as they did for Lafferty. First off, while the Light of Asia was an inspiring name, folks came to call the elephant Jumbo, after P.T. Barnum's popular beast. And though sightseers flocked to take in the sight of the beach-dwelling pachyderm, the number of people who paid admission to climb its legs to the platform was far below what Reger's group had anticipated. It seems that if they had any mind to get a high-up view of the area, people preferred to climb the Cape May Lighthouse for free.

Unsuccesful as a venture, the Light of Asia became a billboard for one of Reger's other local businesses, the New Mount Vernon Hotel. Meanwhile, vagrants moved into the elephant as it became increasingly more dilapidated. It was finally torn down in 1900.

A few buyers were convinced to settle in the vicinity, enough to incorporate as the town of South Cape May, but the town's history was brief as large swaths were lost to erosion and major storms in 1944 and 1950, Finally, what was left became a grazing pasture and then was converted to fresh water wetlands as the Nature Conservancy's South Cape May Meadows, host to migrating birds and resident species alike.

There's no knowing whether the Light of Asia would have withstood the storms (though I doubt she would have fared very well), but I'm rather tickled by the idea of a larger-than-life elephant standing amid marsh grass and dunes. Ol' Jumbo might have been a pretty neat hawk watch platform.



Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Under the sea: the (partially) lost resort of Sea Grove

Standing on the beach at the very tip of New Jersey during our most recent birding jaunt, my mind went back to a curious story I’d heard a while back. The quiet residential area just off the beach had once been much larger, but about a quarter of it had been wiped away, victim to erosion and a series of storms.

The Jersey shore is no stranger to destruction, as anyone who survived Hurricane Sandy can tell you. The 2012 storm was nowhere near the first round where man’s work was KO’ed by Mother Nature. As I discovered, though, the Cape May environs has gotten nailed more than a couple of times, erasing large swaths of beach developments from the map.

In fact, the very stretch of sand where we scanning gulls and terns had actually been a street called, ironically enough, Beach Avenue and the riprap jetties poking from the sand into the ocean are built essentially on what were once the cross streets. This was the southernmost portion of the town of Sea Grove, one of the many religious-themed communities founded in the years following the Civil War. Unlike Mount Tabor, Pitman Grove and Malaga, however, it wasn’t created by Methodists, nor did it come close in popularity.

Philadelphia cotton merchant and devout Presbyterian Alexander Whilldin originally secured ownership of the area, once known as Stites Beach, through marriage; his wife Jane's family had bought the land in 1712 through the West Jersey Proprietors. After first incorporating the West Cape May Land Company in 1872, he joined forces with retailer John Wanamaker and a group of real estate speculators three years later to create the Sea Grove Association, which purchased 266 acres from Whilldin for five dollars. The association’s goal, as stated in its bylaws, was to “furnish a moral and religious seaside home for the Glory of God and the welfare of man, where he may be refreshed and invigorated, body and soul, and better fitted for the highest and noblest duties of life."

Sea Grove directors claimed that while the typical seaside resort of the day focused on "lavish display, extravagant living... and consequent expense to be regretted when the apparent pleasure is past," visitors at their community would experience "good living." The temperance-minded organization forbade both alcohol and amusements, envisioning a quiet community unlike the much busier Cape May City a few miles to the north.

Taking a page from Pitman Grove, Philadelphia architect J.C. Sidney arranged the town’s main streets to radiate from a central hub, on which an 15,000 seat octagonal worship pavilion would be built. A separate corporation was founded to build houses and hotels, offering ministers $500 lots to encourage them to settle in the town. And to make it easier for potential residents to get to the remote community, the Association promised a free West Jersey Railroad pass to Cape May City for everyone who built a cottage in Sea Grove, and built an additional horse-drawn passenger train to ease the final leg from the station to their new summer home. Visitors and summer residents were welcomed to the community by an ornate gate that was meant to resemble the gates of heaven.

A 1876 "bird's eye" view of Sea Grove.
To accommodate those who didn't want to purchase property, the Association built the Sea Grove House overlooking the shore. Small shops opened to serve the community’s needs, given the distance into Cape May City.

The Sea Grove Association quickly sold out its 275 residential lots, but its salad days were few. Troubles started surfacing as early as 1879, even as other religious communities around the state were thriving. What’s for sure is that the investors took a bath. While the entire project had cost somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million dollars, the property, including the pavilion and boarding house, were sold for just $120,000 in 1881. The pavilion was removed in 1881, its wood sold as salvage, leaving a field that’s still largely empty. The Sea Grove House had a slightly more positive fate, operating as the Carlton Hotel until 1910.

Following the failure of the Sea Grove Association, the community incorporated as the Borough of Cape May Point. The intervening years brought a series of storms that severely eroded the area south of Cape May City, virtually destroying South Cape May (a story for another time) and engulfing the Point's Beach Avenue and several intersecting blocks.

Today, the community holds about 600 seasonal and year-round homes. It’s still a quiet place, with no boardwalk, no liquor stores or bars, and no motels. Its two retail businesses say a lot about the community’s attractions: a general store, and the gift shop at New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory.

And a quick glance at the part of town nearest the beach betrays none of the devastation of surf and storm. The streets that lost length to the sea have been squared off with their cross streets, creating elbows where there were once four-way intersections, with dunes piled up as protection. It's seemingly only St. Mary's By the Sea, a resort turned Catholic retreat center, that appears poised to be taken away with the next big wave. One can imagine the Sisters pray nightly for reprieve.




Saturday, September 20, 2014

A close shave: visiting Cape May's Whiskered Tern

Some people will travel hundreds, if not thousands of miles to visit the same spot every year. Ask the many Canadian families who migrate to Wildwood every year for their sun-and-fun vacation, a ritual that has by now spanned generations.

Birds, apparently, can be of similar mind, or at least we can imagine that to be the case from the story of the Whiskered tern. The species, normally seen only in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, has shown up in North America only three times, all within the past 21 years.

Every time, it's been seen in Cape May.

Yup -- of all of the places a seabird can decide to set down in the entirety of the continent, New Jersey has been its first choice in 1993, 1998 and again this year. (In the interest of full disclosure, one was seen in Delaware for a month after the second New Jersey sighting, but it's presumed to be the same bird.) It's not exactly the annual Wildwood trip, and it most certainly hasn't been the same individual bird all three times, but Garden State birders do appreciate the loyalty, spotty as it has been.

A crowd usually forms when a rarity is sighted in Cape May.
This year's Whiskered tern was first sighted at Cape May Point State Park on September 12, at the bunker pond not far from the annual Hawk Watch platform. Unfortunately, Ivan and I couldn't make the trip until today, but continued reports of the bird's presence kept us hopeful it would wait around for us. The worst case would be if we made the trek only to discover we'd just missed it by a whisker.

Last night's birding reports were that the bird had been seen at the bunker pond. We were barely out of the car at the State Park when a fellow birder told us the tern was farther down the beach, near Coral Avenue. Say no more. We buckled back up and made the quick trip a few blocks. The presence of cars from as close as Pennsylvania and as far away as West Virginia both told us we were in the right place and confirmed what a big deal this bird was. We traversed up a set of stairs over a dune and down to the beach, passing a viewing platform where a large group of binoculared folks was scanning the sand.

Sure enough, the bird had left about ten minutes before we arrived. Had we not stopped for a quick Wawa breakfast, we'd have seen it. Another birder reported that the bird habitually stuck around the beach in the mornings. If we were willing to hang out and periodically scan the standing flocks of gulls and more local terns on the beach, we'd probably see the Whiskered tern eventually.

That seemed fair enough. Scores of gulls and terns were out over the ocean a hundred yards or so from the beach, occasionally diving down to grab a fish breakfast. They'd have to set down sometime. Obviously this was the right place to be, provided our target bird hadn't already eaten his fill for the morning.

Looking through piles of gulls and nearly identical terns for something different can be a bit frustrating this time of year. We knew we were looking for a bird with a broad black cap and a gray body that would differentiate it from other terns, but light and nature can play tricks on your eyes. Plumage evolves into the fall and winter months as it turns from breeding colors to bland for many species. To make matters even more challenging for me, the Whiskered tern isn't listed in North American guides, and we hadn't printed pictures from the web.

As we waited for our guest to show, we had a nice but puzzling surprise: a trio of Surf scoters swimming nearby. These guys normally spend their summers breeding in the upper reaches of Canada. Were they just early arrivals for their normal New Jersey winter, or, odd as it might seem, had they just never left here in the spring?

The whiskered tern is the black-capped, gray-bodied bird
in the center of this digiscoped photo.
That question still in the air, we saw the platform birders had migrated to the beach and one of them was pointing toward a group of birds milling around in the sand. Scanning the impromptu flock, we found it pretty easily -- it was standing in full view, the only tern with a light gray breast. The poor guy looked a little lonely and downcast, as if he realized how different he was from the others around him. Sure, we were anthropomorphizing, but I had to wonder if maybe his European or Asian accent had set him apart unfavorably among the rest of the terns. Or maybe he was just missing the Black tern that's been seen with him several times. Or maybe he was just resting.

In any case, we were thrilled to have gotten to Cape May before the Whiskered tern made his leave for wherever he decides to go next. Why he's in New Jersey has yet to be determined (if ever), but he's definitely made friends. It was a new life bird and new state bird for both Ivan and me, a double feat that's become increasingly rarer for us.

Still, we wondered: why is it called a Whiskered tern? We didn't notice any hint of whiskers, or even a five o'clock shadow. Perhaps the name was given for something that can only be seen with the bird "in hand," as ornithologists will say about a specimen taken for research purposes. Or maybe it's just one of those odd names. Any ideas, birders?