Thursday, June 25, 2015

Firing up a celebration of joy in New Brunswick

John Adams famously predicted that the anniversary of America's independence would "be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty." In a letter to his wife Abigail just after the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the states, he said, "It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."

That brings up the question -- when did celebrations actually begin? Who declared the day an official event for commemorating the act of separation from Great Britain and the official birth of the United States? I'm sure if you go to Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, you'll find people who say their forebears were the first to make July 4 a major holiday, but they'd be wrong. Like so much of what occurred during the Revolution, the first celebration was held in New Jersey, ordered by General George Washington himself. You can't get much more official than that.

The story brings us to 1778, just after the Continental Army fought the British at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28. Having demonstrated to the enemy in a daylong conflict that the Americans were a force to be reckoned with, Washington led his 11,000 Continentals to New Brunswick to rest. The Raritan River would provide refreshment to the parched and exhausted troops, who camped on both banks during the first week of July while the General made his headquarters at Ross Hall on River Road in Piscataway.

Marking the route of the 1778 Independence Day celebration
on River Road in Piscataway.
Washington capitalized on the massive gathering of soldiers to make a LOT of noise on the Fourth. He ordered them to line the Raritan's edge in a single file that ran two miles from White's Farm -- the present-day Buccleuch Park -- to Sonman's Hill, where Douglass College of Rutgers University now stands. Bolstered by an artillery force of more than a dozen cannons, the men then fired their muskets one by one in sequence in a feu de joie, or fire of joy.

That was just the start of the celebration. Every soldier was issued an extra ration of rum, and the officers gathered at Ross Hall for an evening party. Notables including Baron von Steuben, Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette were among the 100 people in attendance at Ross Hall.

Imagining the celebration as it occurred is a little difficult these days -- subsequent development and Route 18 have obliterated the 18th century landscape in New Brunswick, though the terrain remains a little more natural once the Raritan flows into Piscataway. Ross Hall was torn down in the 1960s after a destructive fire, though a single wall was saved for eventual restoration; plans are to have it displayed at the nearby Metlar-Bodine House. However, anyone driving the length of the highway along the river can appreciate the sheer mass of humanity it took to create a two-mile long shooting range, along with the duration of the gunfire they created, firing one after the other in sequence.

We can still get a little taste of the 1778 celebration every year on Independence Day. On the afternoon of July 4, reenactors gather at New Brunswick's Buccleuch Park for a smaller though no less enthusiastic feu de joie, a reminder not only of our fight for independence, but of New Jersey's significant sacrifice toward the goal.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

No pita with this Gyro: Earle Eckel's hidden airport

State Route 57 in Warren County seems like some sort of supernatural entity. No matter how well I think I get to know it, no matter how many times Ivan and I travel its length, subsequent trips always seem to reveal something new.

Or, more accurately, something old.

Just the other day, we were driving the road west of downtown Washington when I looked to the left and saw this:

How could we have missed Eckel's Autogiro Port near the corner of Route 57 and Mill Pond Road? Look a little closer at this seemingly freshly-painted sign, and you can see a claim that this is the first exclusive autogiro airport in America. THAT I would have remembered; we're always happy to find new airfields.

As I discovered with a little research, we'd stumbled upon one of Washington's more accomplished citizens, Earle S. Eckel. Born in 1891, he showed a remarkable combination of entrepreneurship and ingenuity from a very young age. By the time he turned 20, he'd already fulfilled a contract to string telephone wires from Philipsburg to Washington, built a steam engine that both powered his mom's washing machine and heated the wash water, and operated his own mobile movie theater enterprise, among other ventures.

Detailing all of Eckel's enterprises will make for a good future Hidden New Jersey entry, but for now we'll stick with the autogiro port. Long story short, an interest in motorcycles eventually got Eckel into automobile sales and repairs in Washington, and then to gasoline and fuel oil. Petroleum was good to him: in partnership with his brother, he opened a chain of nine service stations, which they sold to the Tidewater Oil Company in 1930. The windfall was substantial, and he used a portion of it to buy his own airplane. Predictably, that led to another business: Eckel Air Service, which offered flying lessons and charter flights from Easton Airport.

Eckel eventually left the airline business when it proved to be less than profitable, but the venture whetted his interest in aviation, particularly when it came to a craft that he could keep on his Mill Pond Road property. He didn't have enough room for an airplane, so he selected the recently-developed Pitcairn autogiro. Sporting both a nose-mounted propeller and a helicopter-type rotor above, it offered the joy of flying at slow speeds with the convenience of shorter takeoffs.

Reflecting his usual enthusiasm for new ventures, Eckel built a well-equipped airfield on his property in 1931, clearing a runway, installing floodlights and erecting a hangar. Two years later he bought a second craft, building another hangar to store it.

Eckel with Tidewater's autogiro Miss Vedol.
According to some accounts, Eckel held the nation's first transport autogiro pilot's license and flew the first airmail from Washington NJ to Newark during National Air Week in 1938. Locally, the autogiro made Eckel a few bucks in towing advertising banners and offering flying lessons, while he often traveled to out-of-state air shows to fly stunts competitively. He found his real success as a pilot for the Tidewater Oil Company, which hired him to fly two multi-state promotional tours for their Veedol motor oil. Estimating that he flew a total of more than 4000 passengers in the autogiro, he told the Schenectady Gazette that "safety is the keynote of the autogiro, these ships being able to land in small patches of level ground far too small for conventional type planes."

Eckel continued to keep his autogiros at the port even after selling the property in 1942, but as his interests turned to other pursuits, the field reverted to its former use as farm fields. Meanwhile, improvements in helicopter technology and the relative costliness of autogiros pretty much sealed their fate in the commercial market. Improved versions of the technology are still available today and are occasionally used for surveillance

As for Eckel, he died in 1978, having lived an interesting and varied life. Today, his former home and gyro port are the basis of the Pleasant Valley Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Only a small wooden sign and the bright side of the one remaining hangar indicate anything remarkable about the placid little area where once an adventurous mind took flight.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Visiting the Governor's house in Perth Amboy

A few years ago, we were absolutely blown away by the history we found nestled among the old industrial grittiness of Perth Amboy. Once the capital of East Jersey, the city is home to the oldest public building still in use, the state's oldest Episcopal parish, what was arguably once the oldest corporation in America, and the vestiges of a once-busy port. We barely scratched the surface on our visit and vowed to return sometime to see more.

The opportunity came with the arrest of a governor. Well, the reenactment of an arrest -- of William Franklin, the last Royal Governor of New Jersey. As befits his title, Franklin was a Loyalist allied with the government of Great Britain during the time of the American Revolution. His home, known as the Proprietary House, survives, representing the only royal governor's home still standing on its original grounds.

I'd seen photos of the house's exterior, but I was still taken aback when we pulled up. This was a massive pile of bricks in a residential neighborhood, a real survivor. How could it have been there all these years without being more widely known?

The inside, what we could see of it, was just as impressive. We walked in to find a spacious center hall flanked by two parlors, one of which was decorated as a stately dining room. One of the basement rooms was interpreted as the kitchen, complete with massive hearth, while a barrel-vaulted storage room was set for a future event. Upper floors were off limits, but a view up the center of the staircase sent the imagination reeling. How many rooms are up there, and how many stories could be told in them?

No doubt, the awe we felt was exactly what its architect intended for the home of a provincial leader. Construction on the first portion of the house began in 1761, funded by the Proprietors of East Jersey as the official residence for the Royal Governor. The design, while somewhat severe on the outside, was grand: constructed of brick imported from England, its two stories, plus an attic and full basement made it one of the largest houses in the 13 colonies. Four chimneys served its many fireplaces.

Franklin was appointed governor in 1763 but didn't move into the Perth Amboy mansion until 1774; he'd lived at his Burlington estate until funding issues for the home could be worked out. While he sometimes gets a bad rap due to his loyalist leanings, Franklin enjoyed moderate popularity in the early years of his tenure, developing a welfare program of sorts to help farmers during lean years, and running lotteries to fund bridges and roads. After the start of the Revolutionary War, he supported a reconciliation with Great Britain, a stand that eventually led to his arrest on June 17, 1776. While his wife Elizabeth remained at the Proprietary House until escaping to New York in 1777, Franklin was imprisoned in Connecticut. Neither ever returned to the Perth Amboy house.

Wow, that's a lot of stairs!
Reportedly the house was used by both the American and British forces at various points during the Revolution; what's known for sure is that it suffered a near-devastating fire. A merchant and real estate investor named John Rattoon bought the property in the 1790s, repaired the damage and sold it to New York hotelier Richard Woodhull in 1808. Renaming it Brighton House, Woodhull envisioned two new wings for the house, which, with its location on a bluff above Raritan Bay, became what was arguably one of New Jersey's first seaside resorts. However, he only managed to get one wing built before the War of 1812 prompted an economic downturn. By 1817, he'd sold the property to Matthias Bruen, one of the wealthiest men in America, who made it his family estate.

Following his death in 1846, Bruen's heirs made the property a hotel once again, later donating it to the Presbyterian Church as a retirement home after another financial downturn in the 1880s. Ultimately, the Proprietary House became a rooming house known as the Westminster, the spacious land surrounding it sold as separate lots, and Kearny Avenue run through what had been its front yard. Conditions deteriorated in the early 20th century, but local historians raised hopes that the building would eventually be restored to tell the story of Franklin and the turbulent Revolutionary years.

Today, the Proprietary House is owned by the State of New Jersey and managed by the local Proprietary House Association, which is responsible for raising the funds to restore and interpret the ground floor and first floor of the building. A separate organization is managing the restoration of the 1809 wing and the upper floors of the main structure as offices, reflecting the realities of historic preservation today. While the dream of any historian would be to restore a building to its original condition, the economic realities of managing such a large structure usually point to finding tenants. And buildings nearly always fare better when they're occupied.

Walking around the house, I could understand why the Proprietary House Association folks are proud of the building and eager to tell the story of Franklin and his arrest. The Revolution was more complicated in New Jersey than most people realize, and Franklin seemed to be doing the best he could in what quickly became a no-win situation for him and his family. While he supported reconciliation with Great Britain, his own Assembly pushed for independence, a force too powerful for him to deny. It's a story not often told, and fortunately the Proprietary House still stands to help tell it.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Summer with the merchant class at the Strauss Mansion

When summer finally gets its grip on New Jersey, the idea of whiling away a warm afternoon on the expansive porch of a rambling shoreside Victorian home starts to sound pretty good.

That was the thought that came to mind a few weeks ago, during the Weekend in Old Monmouth when I found my way up a steep hill to the Strauss Mansion, home of the Atlantic Highlands Historical Society. I'm a sucker for Queen Anne-style Victorian homes, and this one is the only mansion of its kind in Monmouth County that's open to the public. The closer I got, the more I could see the wear and tear on the house, but its pleasantly jumbled arrangement of turrets and gables drew me up onto the broad wrap-around porch and inside. The prospect of walking into one of these homes brings out the little kid in me: how awesome would it be to play hide and seek there?

I was just as awed when I got inside as I was when I saw the house on the drive up. Welcoming me into the expansive entry hall, a Historical Society member shared a brief history of the home, which was just one of several "cottages" built in the neighborhood by prominent New Yorkers seeking a respite from steamy Manhattan summers. Built in 1893 for the family of importer and merchant Adolph Strauss, the 21-room mansion was designed by Solomon Cohen and built by Adolph Hutera. Strauss himself would stay in the home only on the weekends, returning to the city by ferry during the week for work while his wife Jeannette and seven children would remain in Atlantic Highlands. They were part of a Monmouth County summer enclave known to some as the Jewish Newport on the Jersey Shore, with their specific group known as the "49ers" after their 49th Street neighborhood in New York. Other homes in the neighborhood of similar vintage are still well maintained, and a nice drive around Prospect Circle will give you a good idea of the community where the Strausses relaxed during the warmer months.

Following Mr. Strauss' death in 1905, the house was sold, eventually becoming a rooming house in the 1960s. By 1980 conditions in the building had become so dire that the town condemned it for code violations, leading the Historical Society to wage a campaign to raise funds to purchase and save it. The house by that point was a shadow of its former self: asbestos shingles covered the original cedar shakes on the exterior, the roof was in serious need of repair, wall-to-wall carpet covered its floors.

Some of the original flooring. Wow!
The house's current stewards are candid about the limitations of their preservation work to date, and as you walk through the rooms on the first and second floor the need for new plaster work and paint are evident. That said, the potential is enormous. You can't help but be impressed by the craftsmanship of the Victorian-era builders, hidden for many years. The hardwood floors are laid in intricate patterns not seen in homes built these days, and the original stained glass has been returned to its rightful place after having been sold by a previous owner.

Much of the house is curated to reflect the Strauss era of ownership, with beautiful furnishings and clothes representing the 1890s and early 1900s, but a good portion of the second floor is dedicated to local history. Everything from Sandy Hook's lifesaving history to 19th century tools and hardware to the old 20th century White Crystal diner is represented in the Historical Society's varied collection. They've also assembled an impressive reference library and archive that's open for those interested in researching aspects of the town's history (yearbooks and maps are always fun to peruse!).

And for those like me who'd love to while away a summer evening on the porch, the Historical Society hosts a series of concerts, suppers and other gatherings. With such an amazing asset to help them raise restoration funds, they're taking a creative - and fun - approach to bring people to the house.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Shorebird migration: good news on Red Knots at Brig?

The lives of us Hidden New Jerseyans get complicated this time of year. There are always festivals, great events at historic sites and more opportunities for us to make friends within the conservation community. And spring migration gives us limited chances to see birds decked out in their finest plumage on their way to their mating territory. Even the birds that raise families in New Jersey get frustratingly hard to see as they settle down and build nests in trees whose branches have suddenly become so leafy they obscure anything within.

This larger-than-life representation of a Red Knot
memorializes Moonbird, who's been commuting
via the Delaware Bayshore for 20 years (and we hope still is!).
And then, there are the Red Knots. You might remember them from our story last year. They're the endangered shorebirds that make a pit stop on the Delaware Bayshore enroute from their winter homes in Argentina and Chile to their summer breeding grounds in Arctic Canada. The window to see them is pretty darned small: generally a few weeks or less in May and June, after the horseshoe crabs have come out of the water to lay their eggs on the shore. Knots take advantage of that ever-reliable cycle to fatten up before flying the final leg of their 9000+ mile journey.

Similarly, scientists flock to the Bayshore in large numbers this time of year to assess the health of the Red Knot population and its potential for growth. The fate of the species and the horseshoe crab are obviously intertwined, and efforts to bolster the crab population will have a major impact on these amazing travelers.

Given other obligations, we didn't have the luxury of journeying to the Bayshore on a May weekend, as much as we would have liked. And given that Memorial Day came so early this year, there was no way we were going to go as far south as the Cape May County peninsula. Instead, we took our chances with Forsythe NWR, a.k.a. Brig, figuring we'd be able to see at least some of the shorebirds we needed to bolster our year lists.

Still, I was hoping that a Red Knot or two would be in the mix. Considering how many warblers we'd missed seeing in New Jersey this spring, it seemed the fates owed us a treat.

As we started our drive along the eight-mile Wildlife Drive atop the impoundment berm, we noted that the tide was out, leaving broad expanses of mud between large islands of marsh grass. Normally conditions like that leave a lot to be desired; a bit more water would concentrate the birds into a smaller area of drier ground. As we scanned broad swaths of mud, we considered the possibility we'd have to do a second sweep a few hours later, once the tide had come in.

Still, though, we were finding occasional groups of shorebirds as we drove further along. Small Sandpipers and the occasional Willets gave us hope that we'd at least see something on our first go 'round.

Then we heard the ruckus. A pebbly expanse just past the grassy shoulder of the berm was alive with birds busily pecking in the dirt for their mid-morning meal. The noise was extreme as dozens of Ruddy Turnstones pecked and dug and, well, turned stones to search for their meal. A couple of sizeable horseshoe crab shells stood motionless nearby, sending the silent message that yes, in fact, there might just be some eggs there, fairly far from the oceanfront. This was a gathering well worth leaving the car to investigate.

Like bargain-seekers at the discount table, Turnstones pushed Sandpipers and their breed brethren aside to get a better angle on the possible horseshoe crab egg bonanza just below the surface. They were fun to watch, but both Ivan and I had the feeling a good surprise could be there for us, too. Scanning the group, I decided to get a bit closer to see if I could spy the birds that were so close to the berm they were obscured by grass. And, I saw... yes....

A Red Knot! Milling among the Turnstones, the sole bird of its kind plucked its way through the stones and sand for a good meal. While the Knot was a singleton, it looked rather healthy and plump, as if it might have been chowing down for a good couple of days. Forsythe isn't generally known as the place to go to see Red Knots, being on the Atlantic Coast rather than the Bayshore, but at least one decided to grace us with its presence.

As we later discovered when checking in with the Conserve Wildlife folks who keep track of such things, this year's count of migrants to the Delaware Bayshore has been especially good. That got me thinking about how our Red Knot found his way to a beach within viewing distance of Atlantic City. It's always possible that this single individual got a little confused or misplaced from the flock that usually ends up farther south and west, but I'd personally like to think that he's the harbinger, maybe the trendy guy who thinks he discovered the next great place for migrating Red Knots to spend their brief but meaningful Jersey Shore vacation.

Yes, I'll admit I'm anthropomorphizing, but we can always hope that these small but mighty shorebirds will become so abundant that they'll need to stretch out a bit when they visit here in future migrations. Would it be the worst thing for Red Knots to visit AC every once in a while?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fun with Flags at the Old Barracks*

One of my favorite parts of exploring New Jersey is that there's always the chance of finding something extraordinarily cool in a spot you're not really expecting.

Like the time we found a bamboo forest at Rutgers in New Brunswick. Or when we discovered a piece of Grover Cleveland's wedding cake at his birthplace in Caldwell. Or found a taxidermied specimen of the now-extinct Heath Hen at the Drake House in Plainfield. Usually, they're not the things you're initially looking for in the place you're visiting, but they become one of the dominant aspects of your memories of the place.

I had a similar experience recently in Trenton. As part of my work with the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area, I'm at the Old Barracks several times a month. Said by some to be the last remaining colonial British military barracks in North America, it was constructed in 1758 as part of a larger defensive system during the French and Indian War. It played a pivotal role in the American Revolution and had a checkered past until it was purchased by local preservationists in the early 1900s. Now owned by the state of New Jersey, it's been fully restored to tell stories of colonial life and defense. If you're into military history or early Jerseyana, it's an amazing place to visit.

Among the many artifacts is something you'd never expect to find at a small museum in New Jersey: one of the oldest surviving flags in North America and maybe the British Isles. It's hanging unassumingly on a wall in the Barracks' French and Indian War exhibit space.

The Pine Tree Flag. Photo courtesy The Old Barracks Museum..
In the interest of full disclosure, the flag's story is tied more to Connecticut than to New Jersey, but there's no shame in that. Some of our best friends came here from other places. It's known as a Pine Tree flag for the small conifer affixed to the upper left portion near the St. George's Cross. Embroidery in the center stripe of fabric appears to label it as the banner of the 5th Connecticut Provincial Regiment, which hailed from somewhere east of present-day Hartford. The soldiers of the 5th served at Fort Ticonderoga during the French and Indian War, and many of them likely clipped pieces of the flag for souvenirs at the conclusion of their service. That's why the damage to the banner would seem so uniform in spots. Flags carried by regiments during the Civil War sometimes suffered similar damage -- one could say they were sort of loved to death. (Coincidentally, New Jersey's Civil War flag collection is just a few blocks away at the State Archives, with select few examples on display.)

How do artifacts like this survive, and how do they end up in Trenton? This one seems to have been the beneficiary of the forgetfulness of the soldier who might have been its creator. Flagbearer and Ensign Jacob Woodward took the homemade flag when his service was complete, tucking it away in a chest, much as many of us do when we move from one stage of our lives to the next. Maybe he took it out occasionally to view it, maybe not. All we know is that 200 years later, a Woodward descendant sold the chest and its contents in an estate sale, leaving the new owner to discover what he fortunately recognized to be a treasure. Professional textile conservators have estimated that the flag dates to the mid-1700s, if not earlier.

One thing led to another until, in 2009, the Pine Tree flag found a home within Trenton's own French and Indian War relic. Though the Barracks and the flag weren't acquainted in their primes, it's fitting they should be together now, much like centenarians who meet at the VFW and build a friendship based on similar wartime experiences. Together, they tell a story of pre-Independence American history that so many of us know so little about.

*Apologies to fans of The Big Bang Theory

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

None shall pass! Sandy Hook's hidden fort

Our birding excursions at Sandy Hook usually lead us close to the tip of the hook, where Fort Hancock's Nine Gun Battery and Battery Peck continue to molder, unrestored. Part of the search for interesting species takes us close to the Coast Guard base, where, if you look in the right direction, you might notice an odd bit of construction: a very sturdy granite block structure topped by a water tank.

The big stone walls seem like a bit of overkill to protect a water tank, both regal and like a discarded part of the set of Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Then again, they probably stood up well to the surges of Hurricane Sandy. It wasn't until recently that we noticed an additional, less medieval-looking wall coming out from one side and continuing eastward for a short bit, looking rather vestigial beneath overgrown vines.

Ni! A portion of the old Fort at Sandy Hook.
We did not bring it a shrubbery.
I didn't think much of it until my recent visit to the Strauss Museum in Atlantic Highlands (more on that to come), where I came upon a 19th century map of Sandy Hook. Rather than illustrating the location of Fort Hancock's many batteries and functional buildings, the map portrayed a pentagonal structure at the tip of the hook, labeled only as "fort." Part of the location matches the site of the still-standing walls. After a little research, I realized we'd inadvertently stumbled on the remnants of the Fort at Sandy Hook, the Civil War-era predecessor to the army base that had operated from the late 1800s until 1974.

The fort's intended shape is illustrated
near the top of this 19th century map.
Who knew? Sandy Hook's strategic location near the entrance to New York Bay makes it a perfect defense location, so it's not surprising that Fort Hancock wasn't the first Army base there. To start the tradition, the wooden-walled Fort Gates was built there in 1813 to protect the harbor and city. The rather obviously-named Fort at Sandy Hook was part of the next generation Third System U.S. fortifications as advances in weapons technology drove construction of granite-walled defense systems. Construction began on the hook in 1857 as part of a larger network of forts within New York Harbor that was designed to protect shipping channels into the city along with Forts Richmond (now Battery Weed), Tompkins, Hamilton and Lafayette near the Verrazano Narrows.

As the map portrays, the fort's pentagonal shape was highlighted with bastions at each corner. Though construction was far from complete at the start of the Civil War, the Army outfitted the fort with more than 30 cannons of various sizes and capacities. Company E of the 10th New York Heavy Artillery was assigned to the fort in April 1863. By July 1866, the fort was vacant again, apparently never to be used again.

Three years later and only 70 percent built, the Fort at Sandy Hook was declared obsolete. New artillery technology, in the form of rifled cannons, could easily destroy the granite-walled fortress, rendering it useless. However, portions of the fort were reportedly incorporated into the still-standing Nine Gun Battery built in the 1890s through the early 1900s.

For safety reasons, Nine Gun remains closed to the casual visitor, so it's not easy (or prudent) to figure out exactly where the old fort walls exist in the newer construction. However, there's still that wall below the Coast Guard water tank, visible from Lot M at the base of the Fishermen's Trail near Battery Peck. Look carefully to the east of the tank, and you might be able to follow a line to additional parts of the fort wall. Don't attempt, however, to get too close. While the Coast Guard base is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, the site remains an active military installation, and you can't just walk in. Even if you bring a shrubbery.