Thursday, August 15, 2013

When is a harbor not a harbor? When it's Egg Harbor City.

After a recent trip to Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, we turned westward on county roads in the hopes of finding something interesting. We soon noticed a prevalence of street signs with German names: Bremen, Cologne, Frankfurt and more, plus Havana thrown in for some reason.

We'd stumbled upon Egg Harbor City, a harbor city that lacks a waterway. Not to be confused with Egg Harbor Township a few miles to the southeast, this community owes its existence to two signature mid-19th century trends: railroad expansion and nativism.

Chartered in 1852, the Camden and Atlantic Railroad had been built from Philadelphia to the coast to transport visitors to the planned resort destination of Atlantic City. The new railroad's board, however, realized that traffic on the new route would be highly seasonal, as there wasn't much else on the shore to attract city dwellers, or anyone else, for that matter. Between the terminal points of the railroad were wide expanses of sparsely-populated land that wouldn't yield passengers, either.

At the same time, German immigrants were facing mounting discrimination, personified by rapidly growing nativist organizations like the Know-Nothing Party. Subject to random and increasing violence in cities around the country, many sought places where they could live peacefully and live the American dream so many of them had traveled here to enjoy. They'd escaped tyranny in their home country only to find further oppression when they arrived here.

Several wealthy German-Americans were on the first train sent from Philadelphia to Atlantic City on the Camden and Atlantic, and the trip through virtually untouched woods and countryside must have inspired them. They soon formed the Gloucester Town and Farm Association to purchase almost 40,000 acres of the land they'd traveled across. First planning two cities, they eventually settled on building one community consisting of an urban core surrounded by farmland.

Marketing the new town nationwide but only through German language publications and agents within predominantly German communities, the Association sold shares which represented rights to 20 acres of farmland and a building lot within the designated downtown area. A widely distributed brochure promised "a new German home in America. A refuge for all German countrymen who want to combine and enjoy American freedom with German Gemutlichkeit, sociability and happiness." (Gemutlichkeit is one of those words that doesn't really translate well; it basically means contentment and cheerfulness.) When settlers arrived, they found what must have seemed like heaven on earth: a welcoming community where they could live and raise their families in peace.

That explains the German names, but what about the harbor? Present day maps of the city give you a pretty good idea of how the best laid plans can be diverted by reality. While the founders may have envisioned that burgeoning industry would prompt the city to grow more densely outward toward its border against the Mullica River, the land between downtown and the anticipated harbor was better suited for other uses. John C. Wild soon discovered that the soil was ideal for growing grapes, attracting a host of other Germans, Italians and French immigrants experienced in wine making. In 1864, Egg Harbor City became home to Renault Winery, ushering New Jersey into a new industry which persists today. It doesn't seem likely that the bustling harbor will ever be built.

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