Saturday, September 29, 2012

Closter to nature: preserving the wild in Bergen County

A couple of weeks ago we headed up to the State Line Lookout of Palisades Interstate Park to make a quick check of the hawk watch area. This has got to be one of the most easily accessible hawk watches in the region: drive up, park your car and stroll a couple dozen feet on level ground. No hiking at all is necessary to get to this spot, which sits at an elevation of 532 feet above the shores of the Hudson River.

Winged traffic was light that day, and we'll be making a return trip in the next couple of weeks. That left us with an opportunity to wander around the northernmost part of Bergen County.

Bopping around a bit, we eventually found ourselves in Closter, driving past what looked like a huge mud puddle. What we discovered was the Closter Nature Center, a 136 acre nature preserve in the midst of upper Bergen County suburbia. A smallish log cabin facing the puddle had a welcoming porch and an outdoor fireplace, a perfect place to view what we assumed had to have been a nice little marshy lake.

The Nature Center was established in 1962, after Closter's town council, worried about land overdevelopment, set aside 80 acres of woods, wetlands and streams for preservation. It was a wise and visionary decision, especially considering the severe lack of open space in Bergen County. Since then, the center has added more land through state and local Green Acres funding, ensuring that community residents always have a place to escape the man-made world and reconnect with the natural.

But why the big mud puddle? We stopped in to find out and luckily ran into one of the organization's officers, who explained that they were in the midst of a major rehabilitation effort. Ruckman Pond, as it's called, is actually man-made, having been dredged from swamp in 1959 as a skating area. (That explained the fireplace on the cabin porch -- it acted as a warming station for chilled skaters and their friends.) After years of sediment, falling leaves and decomposing aquatic plants settling to the floor of the pond, water quality and oxygen levels began to suffer, endangering the wildlife that had made it a home. The only way to save the fragile ecosystem was to drain, dredge and refill it, a process highly dependent on the weather.

Once most of the water was removed from the pond, earth moving equipment shifted the sediment around so it could dry sufficiently to be carted off for composting. It took most of the summer, but the job was finished shortly before our visit. By the time we got there, rain had already started to refill the pond, and a few turtles and birds were exploring their newly-cleaned home.

That leads us to one of the most daunting parts of the whole restoration effort:: relocating the animals that lived in the pond. Can you imagine having to find emergency housing for frogs, turtles, snails and crayfish? That's exactly what the nature center's volunteers and staff had to do, and while some creatures unfortunately didn't survive the disruption, many others have and will be reintroduced to the pond as soon as water levels return to the appropriate stage.

The pond is the big story of late, but it's just part of draw. Three miles of trails bring you through a lovely bit of woods, and while we didn't hear much bird chatter during our midday visit, it's likely a great place for kids or other new birders to discover various avian species in the early morning hours. The center also offers programming to introduce young people to the many creatures and plants native to the suburbs.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Shopping for old lime next to the supermarket on Route 31

A drive down any of New Jersey's older state highways brings an interesting mix of old and new structures, especially in the western parts of the state. Decades-old roadside eateries and supply stores are interspersed with new developments built on acreage that until relatively recently was farmland. It's kind of off-putting to see a brand new big-box strip mall paired with a newish residential development in that environment, but that's the new reality around the state.

The Washington, Warren County lime kilns:
real, or recreated?
Once in a while, though, you get a surprise if you're observant. That was my experience on a recent drive on Route 31 in Warren County. Between a settlement of mega houses and a recently-opened Shop Rite was a stone structure that looked suspiciously like a lime kiln. Was this a real, honest-to-goodness oven that converted limestone to fertilizer, or was it some sort of homage to past industry in the region? 

Longtime readers will recall I ran into several lime kilns during my wanderings in Carpentersville, also in Warren County. While those represent the largest cluster of kilns in the state, they also show their age and are protected from development by an easement granted to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. Conversely, the Washington structure looked way too good, way too well-tended to be legit, and the lawn around it was nicely manicured. I stopped to check it out, but the site was unmarked, leaving no explanation. No doubt, many people probably drive by without knowing what it is or might be.

The mystery was solved when I checked my reliable WPA Guide to New Jersey. Apparently the kiln is completely legit, having operated until 1920, which may explain why it's in good shape compared to many of its counterparts in New Jersey. Its proximity to a major road might have also prevented vandals from defacing it or stealing its cut stone blocks for other uses. 

Today, the Washington kiln looks like a decorative wall built into a hill along a sloping access road to the supermarket. I noticed some landscaping lights that might highlight the structure at night, which seems ironic, now that I think of it. If other kilns have suffered from being illegally dismantled to harvest landscaping brick, there's some justice to this beautifully-intact kiln remaining in place as a desired enhancement to the property.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Just beneath the surface in Pequest...

Wandering around Warren County recently, we somehow ended up on Pequest Road, behind the Pequest Fish Hatchery. There are a few houses and whatnot, but largely it's a quiet, wooded area. That's why we were surprised to find a well-mowed grassy area at the corner of Pequest Road and Oxford Road. It appeared unoccupied, but for an obelisk in the center. Maybe it was a memorial of some kind?

We got out to take a look, and the obelisk itself seemed to be on a somewhat precarious perch of stones beneath it. The name "Henry Nagle" was prominently inscribed, with the years 1851-1899, and a small American flag was perched alongside. What made him so important that he had this big field to himself? And was this a grave marker, or just a tribute?

Ivan headed to the other side of the road for some light birding, but something about the field drew my curiosity. A quick scan revealed some depressions in the otherwise flat turf, as if something was preventing the grass from growing. Bit by bit I noticed the depressions were evenly spaced... as if they were planned. The intervals didn't look deep enough to be graves, but maybe....

I had to look further. One by one, I stopped at each depression to find a white stone beneath. Some were largely overtaken by the turf and dried grass clippings around them, but others were mostly readable. Each had a name and a date of death, mostly in the 1930s. This was a cemetery, for sure, but why were the markers embedded at ground level, and why did they seem obscured even though the place was obviously cared for to some degree? And why were all of the death dates in the depths of the Great Depression? Had there been some sort of contagion? Was there insufficient food and mass starvation? There was nothing to guide me to a plausible theory, not even a sign naming the graveyard. It was a case for the internet.

The mystery was solved pretty quickly. According to Find a Grave, Spanish American war veteran Henry Nagle donated the cemetery land so the county's less fortunate would have a decent resting place. The graves I'd found were those of former residents of the Warren County Alms House, a facility that had housed the local indigent.

Thing was, there was no building nearby that was large enough to have been the county poor house, even for an area like Warren that had probably not been that populated back in the day. About a half hour later, in our continued wandering, we actually stumbled upon it without realizing. Following Pequest Road and then making a few turns, we saw signs pointing to Warren Haven and decided to follow them, reaching the county senior home. Nearby was an impressively restored early 1800s stone building which is now the headquarters of the county health department. What I didn't find out until later was that for most of its life, it served as the county almshouse. All of those folks whose graves I'd found had once lived in that large stone house.

Sometimes it's odd when we accidentally discover related places when we're just wandering around. I wonder sometimes whether there's something guiding us, or whether it's just dumb luck. This is one of those times.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A cup of tea with Washington?

If you're of a certain age, you might recall that certain older houses had signs which declared that George Washington had slept in them. Travelers were led to believe that any given old cottage might have hosted the Father of Our Country during the Revolutionary War, and while many of the stories were apocryphal, others had their basis in fact.

One of those places was the Hermitage in Ho Ho Kus. A few months ago, we reported the home's notable place in American history as a momentary headquarters for General George Washington and as the site where future Vice President Aaron Burr and his first wife Theodosia Prevost were married. Those events took place relatively early in the home's history. For most of the structure's existence, it was owned by the Rosencrantz family, members of which lived there until 1970.

The Hermitage was originally a small part of a large holding of land, buildings and business concerns. Over the years, however, various family members divested mills and a great deal of acreage. By 1915, the last male Rosencrantz to live in the house had died, leaving behind his 62 year-old unmarried sister Bess and his 32 year-old daughter Mary Elizabeth. No provisions to pay for operation of the house had been made in his will, and the other men in the family urged the women to sell the property and move someplace more economical.

Bess and Mary Elizabeth, however, wouldn't consider leaving their historic home. Instead, they took a facet of what makes it remarkable and used it to their advantage. They opened the parlor of the Hermitage as a tea room in 1917, capitalizing on its place in history to attract business. While sipping on tea and enjoying sandwiches, patrons would be treated to Revolutionary-era stories that might or might not have been completely true. Did Continental soldiers or Hessians travel the property through hidden tunnels? Did Washington and his fellow Freemasons conduct secret ritual in one of the house's original rooms? The one thing we can be assured of is that visitors were well entertained.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Back to the same ol' school in Stockton

Stockton's downtown is a step back in time, with plenty of buildings dating back well over a hundred years in age. Many have been repurposed or may have slightly adjusted their use over the years, but overall, quaint is a good way to describe the community's public spaces. I guess we shouldn't have been surprised, then, by the schoolhouse we happened upon as we drove down South Main Street. It's historic.

In fact, it's so historic that it's (stay with me here) the state's oldest continually-operating public school on its original site. The 'oldest' designation gets a little complicated because while the school has been running as an educational entity since 1832, the current building is a replacement for the original one-room schoolhouse. That's not to say that the current building is any spring chicken: it was built in 1873, using materials salvaged from the first one.

Look at the building from the school's parking lot and small playground, and with a smidgen of imagination, you're easily transported into a Norman Rockwell painting. You can just see the school teacher leaning out of the doorway, urging the children back into class. The Stockton Borough School harks back to the days when communities invested in buildings to educate a few dozen children because the next nearest school was just too far away, but according to the school website, it accommodated up to 120 students when it first opened. It's hard to tell, but the building was actually enlarged with another room in 1884 to accommodate further growth in the student population.

With time and progress bringing evolving building codes, many towns would have shut down the building and folded the classes into regional schools years ago. Stockton, however, has done the proper renovations and retrofits to the existing structure to ensure it's up to code and meets accessibility requirements. Today, four classroom teachers educate students from Kindergarten to sixth grade, and the existing building has been partitioned to accommodate teaching space as well as offices and other facilities. And the kids can feel justifiably proud that their school is listed on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

A quick note about the 1832 building: it was octagonal, and you have to wonder why. Were the young students of Stockton so unruly that the teacher needed that many corners to make them sit in?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Persistence pays off: the West Windsor Caracara

If there ever was a good year to take up birding in New Jersey, I seem to have picked it. Between a couple of intrepid finds and a tenacious desire to check out some rarities, we've seen a northern shrike, black bellied whistling ducks, reddish egret and a bunch of other interesting avian visitors that don't always come through this way. The fact that I've gotten to see some really cool birds in my first active year is testament both to Ivan's enthusiastic energy and a community of birders that's happy to share details on where to locate the notable visitors they find.

Then there are the birds we didn't see, like the scissor-tailed flycatcher that was a no-show despite our six hour wait at a field in Somerset. Those are the instances that remind me that for all of the directions we might get from those who've spotted the birds, these creatures still have wings and come and go on their own schedules. Despite our desires, they're ultimately the ones in control of the situation.

Case in point was our attempt to see a crested caracara that showed up in West Windsor last weekend. To be honest, we weren't even in the state, having taken a road trip to beef up Ivan's list of bird sightings in New England. Just our luck: a bird that's native to Texas, Florida and Arizona comes up to New Jersey for what might be the first time, and we're not here to check it out. We agreed that if the bird was reported to be hanging out on Monday after we returned, we'd make the drive to see it. Personally, I was eager to see a bird that Ivan described as looking like an eagle with a bad hairpiece. I'd come upon its listing in the Sibley guide when checking out the bald eagle from Hawk Rise, and I'd pretty much written off the chance to see it without doing some serious traveling. An hour to West Windsor was nothing compared with where I figured I'd have to go.

Monday's reports were promising, but when we got to the appropriate farm acreage, the folks there hadn't seen the bird yet. The caracara reportedly had spent some time foraging through the alfalfa fields when it wasn't standing watch from a high perch, but it seemed to be away for the late morning and early afternoon. Maybe it only shows at the field at early morning and evening? Maybe it was walking amid the fields on the other side of the crest in the acreage, which we couldn't see from our vantage point. Frustrated, we drove around the area looking for other fields where it might be hanging out, our route taking us between open fields and residential subdivisions. No luck at all.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. Our weekend birding expedition had been less than fruitful, and seeing a major rarity at home would have gone far in making up for our unsuccessful travels, but it wasn't meant to be.

Then we decided to try again on Wednesday. By that time, the reports revealed a pattern: the caracara did, indeed, seem to be showing in the early morning and late afternoon. Perhaps if we got there just before rush hour, we'd get lucky. 

Jumping onto the Parkway that afternoon, we attempted to make the trip as quickly as possible. "It's the skinny pedal on the right," Ivan shouted out to a particularly poky driver ahead of us on the entrance ramp. "We've got a bird to see!" Because we'd taken this route before, the trip to Grover farm seemed a bit shorter, and we made pretty good time getting there. A few other birders were already parked at the appropriate location, spotting scopes, cameras and binoculars at the ready. Just from their stance, we could tell the bird wasn't visible, at least not yet. Crows were calling from a tree near the boarded-up farmhouse, leading us to wonder if they saw the caracara approaching, but their noise led to nothing. A merlin glided by, checking out the scene without finding the larger bird it had been hassling over the recent days, according to reports.

Meanwhile, we were standing on a fairly well-traveled road, all aiming our optics in the same general direction, so it wasn't surprising that we got some inquiries from passing motorists. I have to admit, I was tempted to tell them we were tracking a spy blimp. Or it might have been just as fun to point to the empty sky and simply ask, "You mean, you don't see it, too?" Instead, some of the other birders explained what we were waiting for, and why it's so remarkable.

Then... a dark streak flew over the field from the left. The white patches on the wings and the black cap on the head made it unmistakeable... it was the caracara. Just as he apparently had over the preceding days, he glided over and perched on a utility pole along the driveway to the farmhouse. There, he settled and preened while we watched. I was fortunate to get a few relatively decent snapshots through my phone and Ivan's spotting scope, but they don't really do the bird justice.

There are several theories on how and why this bird came to a farm field in Mercer County. Some have questioned whether it might be an escapee from a zoo or wildlife handler, but it's not banded and has shown every sign of being able to handle itself quite well in the wild. Others believe that it may have been pushed in this direction by Hurricane Isaac, and that seems a heck of a lot more plausible to me. Whatever brought it here, we're very happy to have seen him. Sometimes persistence means returning for a second look, and sometimes, the effort in that second look is rewarded.

It's also possible that the caracara's arrival will do something for its current home, the Grover farm. Purchased by the township of West Windsor in 1994, the farm, its house and some other buildings are currently sitting unused and boarded up, deemed to be too expensive to restore to use. Local residents and preservationists met in July to discuss ways to bring the property back to useful life, and perhaps the new bird on the block will bring additional support and interest in the farm. I doubt it will be very handy with a bandsaw or a hammer, but it surely could provide great publicity. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Smithville and the wreck of the Powhatan

No matter where we're going, if we come upon an old graveyard, there's a good chance we're stopping. Ivan's always on the lookout for Civil War veterans, and I'm just interested in a good story or interesting memorials.

That's why it's so odd that we only recently stopped at the Emmaus United Methodist Church in Smithville. We pass by every time we take Route 9 to Brig, and some of the stones are so close to the road we can read them if the traffic light at the corner is red. On our last trip, we noticed what I think was a new sign, noting the burial site of 54 German immigrants who'd died in the wreck of the Powhatan in April 1854.

We stopped to check out the graves but found no other indication of names or exact interment sites for the 54. If the large brown sign hadn't been erected, the average visitor would have no idea that the ground was the final resting place for nearly five dozen people whom fate denied a future in the United States. Smithville is fairly close to the ocean, but not so much that you'd think a ship was wrecked there, so why were the victims buried in this cemetery?

To get our answers, we travel more than 150 years back to a time when the Atlantic coast near Long Beach Island was considered the shipwreck capital of the world. Barnegat and Absecon Lighthouses were yet to be built, and dangerous shoals in the area regularly took seafaring victims, especially during storms. The packet ship Powhatan was sailing to New York from LeHavre, France with a few hundred passengers on board when a Nor'easter blew in. The ship went aground at Beach Haven and split in half, and all souls died.

Recovering the bodies of the deceased was arduous work, made more difficult by the terrain. While some were immediately found and buried near the wreck site, others floated farther west into inlets, bays and creeks. Two Smithville men recovered the 54 Germans and brought them back for burial in the community's graveyard. Though the deceased ultimately were placed into a mass grave, the locals provided as much dignity as they could. While the men constructed coffins for each of the dead, the community's women made burial garments for each. Other Powhatan victims were buried in Absecon as well as in Manahawkin, where they're now memorialized.

While it's a sad tale made even sadder by the thought of the lost potential these immigrants had in the United States, their lives were not lost in vain. The Powhatan wreck is said to have been the impetus for the construction of the Absecon Lighthouse, which still stands in Atlantic City as one of the tallest beacons in the nation. Between that light and Barnegat, the treacherous New Jersey coast became much more navigable for mariners.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Bivalve: not quite a shell of its past

A trip to the Delaware Bayshore isn't complete without a visit to Bivalve and Shellpile, and I wanted to share both locations with Ivan, who hadn't been there before.

On my last visit, most of the Bayshore Discovery Project museum wasn't open, so I was very happy to see that the exhibit rooms were unlocked and prime for wandering this time. We were there about two minutes before a bunch of people showed up with a guide leading the way. Oops... I guess we were supposed to check in before we wandered around.

Housed in an old packing shed, the Delaware Bay Museum Folk Life Center's exhibits focus on the lives, work and tools of the people who once called the community home. It's chock full of artifacts, including a long-handled oyster rake, shucking implements, a big old captains wheel and a section of post office boxes where residents could pick up their mail when they were in town. A set of shelves held oyster cans in a variety of sizes from household to institutional, labeled with different brand names. Our fellow visitors pored over the old photos arrayed in the exhibit, recognizing some of the people in them as parents and grandparents of friends.
bivalve NJ
Old vessels on the Bivalve docks lend authenticity
to the legends of this fascinating and historic place.

When we'd seen what the museum had to offer, we walked out back, to a covered dock area with three or four bays. One still held a sunken vessel whose bow and exhaust stack barely breached the water's surface. A hundred yards or so across the gentle waters of the Maurice River, we could see a few geese wading about on a spit of land.

We were there around 3 p.m., after the small restaurant had closed up for the day, but from the menu accessible from the Bayshore Discovery homepage it looks like a good place to get a seafood snack on the weekends. It's good to see life coming back to the waterfront there, even a tiny bit.

As we walked back out to the car, we ran into the guide who'd staffed the museum earlier. We got to chatting with him about life there and the potential for decent birding nearby. Mentioning the boardwalks and platforms PSE&G had built in the nearby estuary area, he advised us to drive past the big shell pile and the shellfish processing facilities, which would bring us within an easy stroll of the walkways. I had my doubts, based on prior experience, but okay.

Here's why I had my doubts: I know something about that shell pile. Four years ago, almost to the day, I visited Bivalve and made the video below. Check it out to see what I mean:

What this video doesn't mention is the souvenir I brought home: the rank stench that ended up on my vehicle. The drive to the shell pile was paved with crushed shell and pockmarked with potholes brimming with shellfish leachate. Even at a crawl, my tires kicked up some of the stench-laden water and transferred it to the undercarriage of my car. It tracked me all the way home, forcing me to make an unplanned visit to the car wash.

Despite having had that experience, I was willing to check it out for the sake of finding a few shorebirds. I was set to draw the line if I saw a lot of standing water in our path, but it appeared that the owners had worked on the road a bit in the four years since I took that video. We drove through a few thready puddles, but I wasn't overly concerned. 

I parked near the end of the road, and Ivan and I simultaneously opened our doors to step outside. Almost immediately, and absolutely simultaneously, we shut them again. UUUUUUGGGGGGG!!!!!!!! In those few seconds, the foul odor of decaying bivalves had invaded the cabin and our olfactory organs. We had to leave the area immediately to air out the car and our noses.

Well, maybe not immediately, because the shell pile was rife with birds. Gulls and shorebirds of various extractions... even a few snowy egrets were picking around the clam carcasses. Where else in heck do you see snowy egrets doing that? Where was my video camera this time around? 

The sheer volume of birds was impressive, but alas there were no remarkable finds, and we were soon on our way to find sweeter air. I'm disappointed, because the potential stories would have been great. Imagine the post to the bird boards: "XYZ Tern at Bivalve shell pile, foraging with several other terns and gulls. Drive carefully and do not open your doors or windows."

Friday, September 7, 2012

Exploring the spartina at Gandy's Beach and Thompson's Beach

My Cumberland County jaunts always bring me to Bivalve and Shellpile, a phenomenon I explained in a post last December. This time, with Ivan on the trip, there were plenty more stops beyond my usuals.

After we finally escaped the local roads around Greenwich and got a quick lunch in Bridgeton, we headed east on 49 and then took Buckshutem Road southeast. In the past, I'd had variable results with that approach: sometimes I'd reach my intended destination, other times I'd get hopelessly lost. Ivan was navigating, and we were headed to his target birding areas, so I figured we were set. The worst thing that could happen is that we'd stay on Buckshutem and end up near Mauricetown. I could find my way to familiar roads from there, easy.

Signage was excellent, guiding us off Buckshutem and onto roads that would lead us to Gandy's Beach, Fortescue and, eventually, Port Norris. After a stop in Bivalve, it was then on to Thompson's Beach by the Heislerville WMA.

The self-proclaimed weakfish capital of the world, Fortescue deserves its own entry someday. It's Gandy's Beach and the farther-east Thompson's Beach that totally blew my mind. Both are protected natural areas and truly a sight to behold. Imagine acres and acres of spartina in various shades of green, interrupted only by the occasional cedar. I'm not much of an artist, but had I had oils and a canvas in the car, I would have stopped and attempted to capture the landscape. Even with an overcast sky, I felt a strong feeling of rightness, of being in the right place at the right time.

Our visit unfortunately came near high tide, so beaches (at Gandy's) were slim strips of sand, trails (at Thompson's) were impassable and the shorebirds Ivan wanted to see had nowhere to land, but we got other treats instead. Easily a dozen osprey were visible at both beaches, as were a large number of egrets of various ilk. At Gandy's Beach, two harriers glided playfully over a clump of cedars; Ivan supposed they were a parent and a juvenile still in the training phase.

On the more frustrating side at Thompson's Beach, secretive clapper rails called noisily, as close as the spartina surrounding the elevated observation platform. These guys, like the ever-elusive yet vocal marsh wren, obviously believe in being heard but not seen, which in the wren's case, had me cursing out random birds for well over a year before laying eyes on one. Had I not already lifed a rather brave rail that had walked onto a mud flat at Brig, I'd probably have held the same grudge with the clappers, too.

The rails at Thompson's sounded so close that I was tempted to wade into the sogginess and part the grass to find them. Instead, I silently listened to their cacophonous calls, smiling at the thought of the sheer numbers of them in the surrounding marsh. Clapping was a suitable reaction to the natural beauty of both sights, and a tribute to the happenstance that prevented the Delaware Bayshore from being developed. It's hard not to look at these broad expanses without wondering if this is how even a small part of the Meadowlands looked before the hand of man interfered.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Green(wich) tea: tasting a litte burnt

One of the best things about visiting Down Jersey is also one of the most challenging. Unlike the Atlantic shore that most state residents are familiar with, the Delaware bayshore has no highway or main road that approximates the curve of the land near the water. The broad network of marshes, creeks and streams, combined with the lack of aggressive real estate development, create a situation where the only state thoroughfares in the region are well inland. Thus, if you want to get from one waterside community to another, you have two choices: either go north to Route 47 or 49, travel a little and then head south on a county or local road, or patch together a route using 'name' roads that may or may not have county designations.

The first option sounds safer, but you end up seeing a lot of the same stuff as you retrace your steps, which is dull from an exploring perspective. The second option can be a bit disorienting, but you see more interesting things, and you likely save time in the long run.

I chose the second option when we left Hancocks Bridge for Greenwich. I'd been to the small, well preserved town via the Route 49 route in the past, so taking the back roads would be as much an adventure for me as it would be for Ivan on his first visit. We were in my car, so I grabbed my laminated flip-fold Southern New Jersey map, discerned an almost-straight shot route and then handed off to Ivan for navigation duties. Directional markers are really very good on these roads, too, so I was confident we'd make our way just fine.

Our route took us through territory that was bucolic even by Down Jersey standards. Lots of cultivated acreage rolled past us, interspersed occasionally by a few buildings marking the center of towns like Othello which don't even make it onto Google Maps. I was taking it on faith that our path would lead us directly to Ye Greate Street, the historic main thoroughfare of Greenwich and the place I knew from earlier visits.

Eventually we started seeing the distinctive well-tended and old-looking buildings as well as things marked "Greenwich." Okay, we've made it to the town limits, but where's Ye Greate Street? Ivan didn't see it on the map, but the Tea Burning Memorial was clearly marked. The big problem was that the map didn't list county road numbers, just street names, and I was all turned around because we hadn't come from 49. No worries: we had plenty of gas in the tank, lots of daylight left and no deadline to get there.

Finally Ye Greate Street made itself known and things started looking familiar. Though the streets are paved and cars are parked here and there, Greenwich always gets me thinking about Colonial Williamsburg. The houses, both brick and wood-sided, big and small, are narrow and tall for the most part, but there are also a couple that are a bit more squat and wider. There's also a building that doubles as a general store/cafe with a separate post office. Despite our hopes for someplace to eat, the store was closed for the summer.

A little farther down, we came upon the Greenwich Tea Burners memorial, ringed by a decorative metal fence. Erected in 1908, it commemorates the December 1774 uprising that echoed the Boston party a year earlier.

Interestingly, the tea was in this busy port on the Cohansey River distinctly for safekeeping. Philadelphia was deemed too dangerous for the cargo because patriots were both boycotting British tea and destroying what they could find of it. The captain of the tea ship Greyhound was told that Dan Bowen, a friendly loyalist in Greenwich, would hide the controversial shipment in his basement until it could safely be brought to market.

It didn't take long for news of the newly-arrived tea to get around Greenwich, and a small committee formed to determine what was to become of the tea. A more spirited group had a different idea. Before the committee came to consensus, a group of 23 patriots costumed themselves as Indians and broke into Bowen's cellar to steal the tea. They brought it to the market square and ignited it in a huge and rather fragrant bonfire.

Spurred by frustrated local Tories, the loyalist government twice attempted to prosecute the tea burners but failed to gain a conviction. According to some accounts, the tea burner who suffered the most was a man named Stacks, whose love of a good brew apparently compelled him to stuff his pockets with purloined tea before joining his compatriots in setting the rest ablaze. It's not clear whether he took it to sell or for his own consumption, but he was known as "Tea" Stacks until his dying day.

Our tea fix gotten, our next stop was for lunch. A number of options awaited us in Bridgeton, not far away as long as we could find our way back to Route 49.  No GPS, no compass, and a map that Ivan described as "a bunch of lines, laminated." This was going to be fun. Any wonder why I stocked up on snack bars and water before we left home?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Philip Kearny: an American hero and a Jersey son of a gun

Longtime readers may remember an early reference to one of our favorite military personalities, Phil Kearny. In this installment, our resident Civil War expert Ivan brings us more perspective on this fascinating adopted New Jerseyan. Take it away, Ivan!

We at Hidden New Jersey revel in finding interesting historic or natural sites that are little known by today’s Garden State residents. However, in this installment, we are highlighting a true American hero; closely associated with New Jersey, who died in battle. It is perhaps the most hidden New Jersey of all when reminders of our storied past are present in plain sight but we forget the stories of those who inspired these statues and monuments. On this, the 150th anniversary of his death we choose to remember Philip Kearny. Although born in New York City, he was a member of a family whose New Jersey residents date back to at least the eighteenth century, and Phil spent much of his early years at the family homestead in Newark. 

Kearny is honored with a statue in front of
the post office in the town that bears his name.
As he grew to adulthood, Kearny’s father wanted Phil to study law but Phil’s interest lay in a military career. He was reputed to be an excellent horseman and the fact that his uncle was Stephen Kearny, an army officer since the War of 1812, certainly did not hurt Phil’s military ambitions. Unfortunately, his father’s objections (largely in the form of a threat to Phil’s inheritance) sidelined his military career in favor of the law. However, once Phil inherited a sum of over a million dollars upon his grandfather’s death in 1836, he finally had the independence to pursue his own chosen career track.

Phil was commissioned a second lieutenant and started his career at Fort Leavenworth in 1837. He lost an arm in the Mexican War, but that did not deter now Major Phil Kearny. He managed to learn to ride a horse one-armed and stayed in the army until his irascible and stubborn personality led to enough conflicts to persuade him to resign his commission. Once the Civil War began, though, Phil belied the expression “A rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight” by volunteering his services to the Union cause.

Awarded a Brigadier General’s commission and command of the New Jersey Brigade, Kearny distinguished himself as a fighter on the field but continued his penchant for fighting with his colleagues as well. Perhaps most significant was his strong criticism of his commander, George McClellan. Kearny objected to McClellan’s lack of aggressive leadership during the Peninsula campaign of 1862. In fact, during that series of battles Phil once exhorted his men in battle by crying "I'm a one-armed Jersey son-of-a-gun, follow me!” In a driving rainstorm during the Battle of Chantilly on September 1, 1862, Kearny found himself in the Confederate lines. Although called on to surrender, he wheeled his horse around and tried to escape. He was shot dead almost immediately. Kearny was held in such high esteem that Confederate commander Robert E. Lee sent his body back to Union lines under a flag of truce.

Kearny's profile adorns the New Jersey Brigade
monument at Gettysburg, a sign of the loyalty of the men
who fought under his command.
Even after his death, Kearny was an inspiration to the Jerseymen who fought in the Civil War. His profile is featured on a New Jersey monument at Gettysburg, even though he died ten months before that battle was fought. He now rests at Arlington National Cemetery.

Today, most New Jerseyans have not heard of Phil Kearny though his last name is familiar to many in the northern part of the state. The Hudson County community where he once lived is named in his honor, though his mansion, Belle Grove (known to locals as Kearny’s Castle), no longer stands. Statues of him adorn the grounds of the Kearny Post Office and Newark’s Military Park. If you see them, we hope you will now know and appreciate the man behind the bronze, and perhaps will give him a silent salute of respect.