Monday, February 28, 2011

Heading down to Salem...

This weekend's trip brought us down to the end of the New Jersey Turnpike: Salem County and environs. Truth be told, it was a bit of a compromise. I've been wanting to get back down Jersey for quite a while now, given that I haven't made any regular trips to the region in some time. When Ivan checked his online birding bulletin board and found that a yellow-headed blackbird had been found in Mannington, the plan was in motion.

Fortunately the weather was on our side this time, as it was relatively warm with variable skies, not a lot of wind, and no precipitation. We hit the road, with the general direction of going to Exit One and making a left onto Route 45. This pretty much immediately brings you into the flat farmlands of Salem County, occasionally punctuated by a small bit of commerce or some marshy territory. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of opportunities to see random birds of interest along the way.

Now, I have to admit that when I head to Salem on my own, I always seem to end up taking different routes, driving by sense of feel, so to speak. It's kinda hard to navigate someone else with that approach, and there was the need to get through Salem City on the way to the bird in Mannington. Thus, I'm a little scrambled in my mind on which came first: the birding or the Saleming. For the purposes of the blog, I'll handle the birding first.

The bird itself had been located on Compromise Road in Mannington (there's got to be a good story around that name, don't you think?), among a flock of blackbirds. We found our way up Route 45, beyond the county hospital and just outside of the radius of the alarm sirens for the Salem/Hope Creek Nuclear Station. Along the way, we made some roadside stops against a marsh or two to scout some birds, including three bald eagles perched authoritatively in a tree. Pretty cool.

Once on Compromise Road, we were looking for a place described as "about half the way up the road, across from a house with a white sign and a couple of cows in the front yard." I wondered: what if the cows had gone in for the day? And how would we know we were halfway up the road?

Not to worry: it wasn't long before we saw a white sign advertising the Wilson Wool Works, with a few cows in the yard. Where were the sheep? Who knows? The real question became "where's the yellow-headed blackbird?" Among the birds we found along the stretch of road, none had a distinctive yellow pate. Somewhat disappointing. (And a side question: if the Wilson Wool Works had a website, would the URL be

We did, however, find something interesting where Compromise Road ends: a rather large and distinctive grave marker for John Fenwick, who, with other Quakers, founded Salem in 1675 as the first permanent English settlement on the Delaware River. The Mannington area had been named for him before being renamed for the tile manufacturing company that now dominates the area.

A little later, once in Salem, we made a stop by the famous Salem Oak, where Fenwick negotiated for the land with the local Indian tribe. That, of course, would make the tree well over 300 years old, and its spread branches extend in a broad radius over many graves in the Friends Burial Ground on West Broadway. While the tree was still fertile, its acorns were much sought after and thousands were sent nationwide, meaning there are countless Salem Oaks still out there somewhere.

Now, Salem city itself is an interesting case. The WPA Guide to New Jersey, written in the late 1930's, has a description that still fits: "Salem is like an old, old sampler with a few bright spots: but it is time-worn and frayed. The old brick Georgian Colonial houses facing the brick-paved streets would stir envy in a Williamsburg reconstructionist, and the square, heavy, frame structures, typical of the Civil War era, are a living memorial to another historical period."

Not a lot has changed in 70 years. A thriving port in colonial times, its somewhat tucked-in location on the river made it difficult for Salem's nautical industry to change with the times, and it really hasn't recovered since. Over the years, the discovery of marl for fertilizer, and the growth of the glass industry helped improve the economy, but now it's back to being a backwater, with not a lot of money evident in the community. It's really a shame, too, because the architecture is a hidden gem. Someone with a lot of vision, some money and a long timeline could make a huge impact.

Across the street from the tree is another Salem Oak: the diner bearing its name. A classic Silk City diner with very little renovation over the years, it's a real throwback. Save the crummy pastel paint job on the outside, you'd think the whole thing had just come off the production line in Paterson. I was especially taken with the condition of the restroom, which reminded me that these old diners were delivered with virtually no prep needed by the owner. Just get the plumbing and wiring hooked up from the street and main, and you're open for business.

Now, the last time I was at the Oak, I had a less than stellar meal and indifferent service. This visit didn't change my opinion much. While the French toast was pleasantly thick and spongy, the bacon was disturbingly hard in places, as if there had been a rind they didn't bother to trim off before cooking. And the waitress totally blew Ivan's order, which led to a five minute wait to get resolution. She was apologetic and owned up to the mistake, but really -- there were probably about five tables occupied, and the place wasn't all that busy.

One fun find, just outside of the city center on Route 45, was Royal Port Antiques, located in a restored feed mill on Fenwick Creek. I often check in on one or two favorite shops in Salem which carry 'olde junk,' but much of Royal Port's inventory are legitimate antiques found in the surrounding communities. With so many old and unpreserved farmhouses in the region, it's not surprising to find good stuff there. I had to stop myself from buying a huge old lightbulb for $5, wondering where in heck I would put it... but honestly, I may find myself driving back down to snap it up. (Yes, I know -- I'll spend more in gas and tolls to get it than it's worth, but whatever. I'm an Edison nut, so sue me.)

here's more to come on our Salem County visit... stay tuned for more!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Chowing down at Toby's Cup

One of the highlights of the serendipitous Phillipsburg trip was a visit to one of Route 22's quintessential road food establishments: Toby's Cup. It's long been on my list of destinations, but for whatever reason, it took till now (and, I guess, the participation of a road trip partner) to get there.

This is one of those places where it's not so much about the food itself as the experience. In fact, it's the kind of eating establishments that separate the cool people from the snobs on sites like Yelp and Urban Spoon. If you're deriding the place for how disgusting it is, you just don't get it.

The Cup, eastern exposure, as seen from the parking lot.
I wasn't fully prepared for the maneuver you have to take if you're going to get into Toby's tiny parking lot, but having learned how to drive on 22 in Union County, I knew what must be done. On the second pass, I rapidly decelerated from highway speed to about five miles an hour to make the sharp right turn, and be ready to grab the spot closest to the road, all without starting a chain collision behind you. Basically, without experience knowing where the place is, you're going to have to do the second pass, anyway: the whole shack is probably less than 100 square feet in size. Blink and you'll miss it.

Upon our visit, there were already five or six people standing in the cramped customer standing area, waiting for their orders to be called. As Ivan noted, you'd need to go outside to change your mind. Fortunately, we were the only ones who hadn't put in an order, so the counterman took our requests pretty quickly from behind a plywood countertop that also held Tootsie Rolls (2 cents per) and Tastykake fruit pies. There's not a whole lot on the menu; hot dogs, hamburgers, cheese steaks, and, interestingly, a variety of shake options. Soda comes in cans, and chips are available instead of fries. Fair enough.

As we waited for our order, the crowd thinned out and we were able to take a look at the stuff posted on the wall next to the counter window. If you wanted your hair cut, or an old train set, or your driveway plowed in the Lopatcong area, this apparently was the place to find your source.

It didn't take long until we had our bag of food and were back out to the car to eat. The dog wasn't bad -- they fry them in oil much like Rutt's Hut, and that's not especially my favorite way of having them, but it was okay and the skin gave a nice snap when I bit into it. Ivan's hamburger was reminiscent of what I used to get at my grade school cafeteria: vaguely gray meat with a taste you can't quite put your finger on, except to say that it definitely isn't 100 percent beef. Nothing a little ketchup and mustard can't remedy. And, of course, you can't put a price on the experience of reliving your childhood through meat of questionable origin.

Would I go back again?  Yes, if I was in the area. I'd opt for a second dog (at 75 cents a pop, they're a bargain anyway) and check out one of those shakes. Plus, I want to see how many people could possibly fit into that phone booth they call a counter area.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Storming the mountain (Garret, that is)

Danged if the weather didn't suddenly turn colder just as the weekend arrived.  That meant that this week's Sue/Ivan field trip was done in chilly, chilly weather.  And what better place to go in chilly weather than a mountain?  To be more specific, it was Garret Mountain in Woodland Park (formerly West Paterson), an oasis of nature in the highly-urbanized greater Paterson area.  More than 500 acres of the mountain are set aside by the Passaic County parks system for walking, hiking, cycling, horse riding, you name it. And its location at the northern end of the first Watchung Mountain ridge makes it a bit of a haven for birds (and birders), particularly during migration season.

We started our day by parking in the Elvis lot, known for the Presley impersonator who's been known to perform there for passers-by. It was really quiet, aside from a few passing cars and a runner or three. No chirping, cawing or quacking, though there were a few mallard ducks on the little bit of pond that wasn't frozen over. We proceeded to a wooded area with small streams running through it, and ran into a couple of other birders, as well as some birds. I was able to get some photos of a red-bellied woodpecker, but a friendly chickadee was a much closer (and much easier) subject, perching on a limb right next to us. He was apparently looking for handouts, which one of the regular birders is only too happy to provide.

Tromping a bit further up the mountain, we checked the underbrush for additional birds but the area was very, very quiet. Apparently the birds were smarter than we were, and had opted to spend the day someplace a bit warmer.  The occasional turkey vulture flew overhead, scanning for prey.

The reward for all of that tromping was an observation area at 500 feet above sea level, with sweeping views all the way to New York City. George Washington stationed troops here to keep an eye on potential British incursions into New Jersey from occupied Manhattan during the Revolutionary War. Today, it also offers a really great view of the city of Paterson, America's first planned industrial city. Alexander Hamilton, the nation's first secretary of the Treasury (among other things), believed that the country's best chance for economic independence was through industry. The theory was that if we could manufacture our own products, from our own resources, we'd have little need for imports from our former European rulers. He and several other like-minded men created the Society for Useful Manufactures, which then went about developing the area's industrial base.

Paterson (named after the New Jersey governor at the time) was built along the site of a roaring waterfall that Hamilton saw as an excellent power source to run mills and factory turbines. Eventually, the city became home to the Colt gunworks, the Rogers locomotive works and a variety of textile mills.  In fact, Paterson was known for a long time as Silk City due to the strength of that industry within the city. Thomas Edison located one of his illuminating factories there, as did the Wright-Curtiss operation that built the aircraft engine for the Spirit of St. Louis.

Paterson has always been a bit of a
gritty city, but with that grit also came a bit of wealth enjoyed by the owners of those manufacturers. From the heights of Garret, you can still see a fair share of grand public buildings among the bodegas and check cashing places. And within the confines of the reservation is Lambert Castle, a turreted brick mansion built by one of the city's silk magnates in the 1890s. It's now open to the public periodically for tours.

As we continued our hike around the reservation, we came upon the restored observation tower Lambert built as part of his estate. While it was closed to visitors, it's another nice place to rest a bit and enjoy a spectacular view.

All in all, it was a rather sparse birding day but an interesting exploration of an area I'd known relatively little of. It's always good to get some altitude on a hike -- it brings some air into the lungs and blood into the leg muscles. It also builds an appetite, and we were ready to grab some sustenance. After spending a few hours on a mountain with a set of turreted buildings, where better to go than the Castle? So yes, we drove to Clifton and stormed the White Castle.

Now, I'll digress for a moment here and share a little something about my choice in companions. Any man who wishes to hang out with me must be cool with my penchant for road food. Any statement about it being 'unladylike' or even 'gross' will disqualify a potential beau. I found it tremendously reassuring that Ivan encourages visits to the Castle. He even shared an activity that could change a visit from merely good to epic: the construction of one's own castle from the leftover burger boxes. Why I never thought of this myself is truly a mystery, but I guarantee that this information will be used in the future.

Oh, and he chose to hang out with me for several hours after the Castle visit. Now that says a lot about the guy.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Meeting the Edgewater parakeets

Given the seasonably warm weather we'd been having, I decided to take a solo trip to check out the Monk Parakeets of Edgewater. I've known about them since I worked for PSE&G. The birds tend to build their enormous nests next to pole-top transformers, which is a fire danger and has the potential to short out the electrical service to entire neighborhoods.
Edgewater monk parakeets
Parakeets, nicely obscured.
Kinda nice photo, don't you think?

Parakeets flying free in the New Jersey suburbs? Yup... more than 200 of them, apparently, and they've pretty much been spiritually adopted by Edgewater residents, who put out bird feeders for them and enjoy their antics. The birds themselves are about a foot long with a 19 inch wingspan, and are mostly a delightful shade of green, with a gray chest and underbelly.

Finding them could be an adventure. Edgewater isn't a huge town, but I didn't really relish the idea of driving slowly up and down streets, looking for flashes of green and listening for squawks. Before I left, I did a quick Google search to see if I could locate a street, at least, where they'd been seen, and go from there. That, I was able to find.

My route took me close to the Lincoln Tunnel and then north through Union City and then Weehawken (note to self: next time, stop at the park and look for the site of the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr). The whole time, I wasn't more than a few blocks from the shoreline of the Hudson River, sometimes with spectacular views of Manhattan. No doubt, some pricey apartments along the way.

Once in Edgewater, I quickly found the street I was looking for, but as I drove it slowly, I saw no evidence of the parakeets. Hmm... maybe they'd moved? I went back to River Road, the main drag, and figured I'd try another cross street a little farther up.

Waiting for a traffic light, I saw important evidence in a park on the opposite side of the street. One of the trees had a few very large nests constructed of sturdy sticks. Yup: former parakeet condos. There could be something nearby! I made a quick left and parked the car a few yards up from the tree.

Before leaving the house, I'd made the strategic decision to bring only the camera. Somehow, I felt that using binoculars in a residential neighborhood would look a little suspicious. This thought, however, did not occur to me when it came to the moderately long lens I was using, and the unipod I set up to ensure I got some shake-free closeups. Accustomed to visiting birders, the locals wouldn't think twice about bins... it's the camera that might seem a tad weird.

In any case, it didn't take long for me to spot the birds just across the street from where I'd parked. They seemed to be attracted to two trees -- one vine covered and the other totally lacking any foliage. Some were perched there as if it was their 9-5 job; others flew in and away periodically. It took a few moments for me to grasp that I'd actually found them so easily (initially I was convinced they had to be really weird pigeons or something), but once I had, I started snapping photos rapidly. I didn't know what kind of shots I'd get, but that's the glory of digital photography: you just shoot and ask questions later. What you're seeing here are just a few examples of what I was able to crop from larger photos. I'm starting to think that maybe there's something to this nature photography stuff (another note to self: resist urge to buy several expensive camera lenses).

A guy from a nearby pizza place came out to ask me if I was taking pictures of the birds. He proudly told me they'd been there about 15 years and that "they own those two trees." Good location info, and I'm glad I got there before the leaves start to bud and obscure the swarm of perched birds.

You might be asking why it is that tropical birds have made a home in Northern New Jersey. Well, it's a good question, with many hypotheses. These guys have settled in several places around the country, including, most locally, Brooklyn. The unproven theory is that the original birds escaped from a shipment at one of the airports about 30 years ago, but nobody really knows. Like so many New Jerseyans, they came from somewhere else, and regardless of how they got here, they seem to be sticking around for the long haul, through tough winters and sizzling summers. You've got to give them credit for that. And at least they don't have to pay property tax.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Dive-bombed by gulls

Another fine portion of our jaunt to Exit Zero was a visit to the Brigantine portion of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Actually, it was the second visit for me, as we'd been down there during the horrid cold snap a few weeks ago.

The refuge is within the geographic range of the famous New Jersey Pinelands and accessible from the Parkway through a secret exit in a rest stop. Taking that route, you end up on Jimmy Leeds Road, eventually to Route 9 and then the refuge itself. Personally, I find any reference to the Leeds name in South Jersey to be troubling. Leeds, after all, is the Jersey Devil's last name.

Given the amount of snow on the ground on our first visit, we didn't bother with any of the foot trails, preferring to take the drive along the marsh to see the waterfowl. The way the drive is situated makes it relatively easy to bird from the car, provided you see your desired subject in enough time to stop the vehicle and roll down the window. Most of the road is on a series of berms going through the marsh; it's just wide enough to give you room to pull over and stop and still let traffic behind you get through.

Last time we were there relatively early and were able to see some pretty neat stuff, including a bittern (my catch in the grass on the side of the road) and an immature bald eagle enjoying a mid-morning snack on the ice. This time, we were a bit later in the day, closer to dusk. While the marsh had thawed quite a bit, there didn't seem to be anyone remarkable out there. The real story came from the skies.

Or, more accurately, from about 10 feet above us. As we drove along the road, we were occasionally confronted by gulls hovering with morsels in their beaks. They were on a mission: crack open the shell or whatever the morsel was in, preferably on a hard surface. Like my car. Uh, no.

Most of the time, I'd wait them out, watching them hover until they finally dropped their stuff and dived down to collect their meals. Then I'd drive past them and they'd start the process all over again. One of the gulls, though, didn't seem to be getting the drill. He just floated there on the wind, not dropping his stuff and not letting me pass. "This one obviously took the short bus to gull school," Ivan observed. Yes, perhaps.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Beating the crowd

This weekend's jaunt brought us to the end of the Parkway. Yes, my friends, Exit Zero, Cape May. Given current work schedules and the need to get far away from the office, what had started as an offhand trip "maybe to Brigantine, maybe someplace else, uh, well, it's been a while since I've been to Avalon, so why not check it out" turned into a trek to the Cape May lighthouse and environs at the southernmost tip of New Jersey. From our starting point in Union County, that's well over 130 miles one way on the Parkway alone.

And, of course, there are sure to be birds there. Being a major rest stop on the Atlantic Flyway, Cape May has become renowned for the sheer variety of avian visitors. Thus, it was a good thing we had the optics with us. We figured we'd hit Avalon and whatever else on the way back.

Now, this trip was interesting in the fact that we were combining shared knowledge of locations, but seeing them from our respective angles. I've spent a few Labor Day weekends staying in the Victorian district of Cape May, hitting the beach, maybe stopping at a few of the nature preserves to check them out, but going very light on the birding. For Ivan, on the other hand, it's been all about the birds.

One thing we seemed to have in common: the ritual pit stop at the Parkway's southernmost rest stop, the Ocean View Service Area. It's my reliable place for getting a Roy Rogers cheeseburger and some Jersey tourist info. Imagine my shock and dismay to find that the Roy Rogers was CLOSED, its counter walled off. It rocked my world. I mean, I understand that I was probably one of the five people who ever bought food there, but come on! Am I expected to stop at the Atlantic City rest area instead? There's no charm to that place at all.

The other nasty thing they did was reconfigure the bathrooms, moving the entrances farther back toward the New Jersey Information center. You can see below that the whole thing is just a little confusing. I could make any number of jokes here about the fact that men never stop for directions, so maybe the only way to do it is to put urinals in the info center, but I'll refrain. (Interestingly, though, Ivan was the one who pointed out the photo op.)

It being winter and all, the Parkway trip was relatively quick and it seemed we were in Cape May in very little time (it probably also didn't hurt that I had company for a trip I usually drive solo -- good conversation does pass the time better than talking to oneself.). A few more miles, a quick stop at one of the Audubon centers, and we were at the Cape May lighthouse in Cape May Point State Park.

The park includes a beach, interpretive center, the lighthouse, a bird observation platform (with emphasis on raptors), a series of paths and, oh yeah, a World War II bunker on the beach. We saw an array of ducks and whatnot on the marshy side of the platform,
but the really remarkable aspect of the stay was the bare ground. Bare meaning NO SNOW.

The temperature was somewhere in the high 40s and had been for most of the previous week, giving the snow pack a good long time to melt away. We marveled in it as we walked along the paths and I took pictures. There's something really liberating about seeing grass or underbrush free of a white coating after so long. You can't help but feel that spring isn't far away. (Were the groundhogs right?)

Of course, I had to do my happy dance along the path at points. When the days are getting longer and the snow has disappeared, what else can you do?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Solid as a rock

The Phillipsburg jaunt deserves a bit more discussion on several fronts, but given that today is Thomas Edison’s birthday, we’ll talk a bit about his link to the area. Oddly enough, it’s because of Edison that we found the Barber School.

You see, among Edison’s 1093 patents are a few related to a proprietary formulation of Portland cement, and the great inventor actually built a cement factory in New Village, New Jersey, just a few miles from P’burg. Originally the machinery had been used in his failed iron ore mining enterprise farther north in Ogdensburg; it proved ideal in the manufacture of cement.

The cement venture wasn’t exactly profitable until the company received a massive order for the construction of the original Yankee Stadium in the early 1920’s. Until then, Edison continually thought of new uses for the product, a few of which are still extant in the Phillipsburg area.

The first is the Concrete Mile, a stretch of NJ Route 57 in Stewartsville. Built in 1912, this was an experiment to see if Portland cement would hold up as a road surface. Indeed it does; this stretch has done quite well, though it’s occasionally patched by crews using more cement.

The second is the concrete house. Few realize it, but Edison had a vision of creating affordable housing well before people like William Levitt. It was simple: erect a pre-fabricated mold that could include all of the outdoor and indoor walls, floors, ceilings and major fixtures. With one pour, fill the mold with Edison Portland cement, and within eight hours, the mold could be taken down and moved to a nearby location to rebuild and pour another house. He planned to sell the molds to developers at cost, and sell them the cement at a profit. The houses were expected to sell for a modest $1200.

Ultimately, Edison didn’t go into concrete houses big time, but others did, including a man named Charles Ingersoll, who built a small enclave of them in Union, NJ and Phillipsburg. Having grown up in Union, I knew that the houses there are close to Route 22 on Ingersoll Terrace, so when I saw an Ingersoll Avenue off of Route 22 in Phillipsburg, I had a good feeling that a historic site was not too far off.

Unfortunately, we found no concrete houses on that street or nearby. All we found was the Barber School and, well, a street that had a name from my family history. Just goes to show, you’ve gotta be open to possibility. Sometimes when you look for one thing, you find another.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

We wondered...

... is this where aspiring coiffeurs go before barber college? A few blocks away there was a beauty salon. While tempted, we resisted the urge to ask if the salon owner was an alumna.

Phillipsburg, New Jersey.