Friday, February 28, 2014

Reaching Delaware without the toll: the odd case of Kilcohook

Is it wrong for a loyal Jerseyperson to want to invade Delaware?

I'm not talking about the whole state, just the part you can walk to from New Jersey, toll free.

Yup, you read that correctly: we share a two mile land border with the Blue Hen State. Most maps don't do much to point it out, but a small sliver of land next to Finns Point National Cemetery in Salem County is technically part of Delaware.

To understand how New Jersey got cheated out of the acreage, we have to go back more than 260 years and beyond the peninsula that, by all rights, should be all Garden State.

First off, you'll note that the upper portion of Delaware forms an arc. It was originally drawn in a 12 mile radius from New Castle, as directed in a deed granted by the Duke of York to William Penn in 1682. The arc stopped at the low water mark on the New Jersey shoreline because the Duke had already granted the land beyond to John Berkeley, Lord of Stratton, in 1664. It's kind of an odd situation, as our other nautical borders are determined either by the center of the body of water, or the lowest elevation of the waterway.

So if the arc ends at the low water line where Berkeley's grant starts, then why does a two-mile long stretch of the New Jersey/Delaware boundary sit on dry land?

Sometime in the early 1900s, the Army Corps of Engineers started dredging the Delaware River to improve navigation up to the Port of Philadelphia. They had to put the dredge spoils somewhere, and apparently the remote, undeveloped coastline at Pennsville seemed a good option. The vast majority of human neighbors are already six feet under at Finns Point, and they weren't complaining.

The new land grew over the years, with about 580 acres of it rising above the low-water mark to become defacto Delaware territory. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt designated the full 1400+ acres as the Kilcohook Wildlife Refuge, a pitstop for migratory waterfowl like pintail ducks and teal. Eventually, though, continued dumping drove away avian visitors, and the plot was transferred to the Army Corps as a "coordination area" in 1998. Fortunately for the birds, the existing land to the east was designated the "Goose Pond Addition" to Kilcohook in 1961, later becoming Supawna Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.

New Jersey has taken Delaware to court over the boundary issue three times in the past century. In the 2007 dispute, Trenton legislators even light-heartedly considered sending the Battleship New Jersey to defend the territory. All three cases went to the Supreme Court, which ruled against us every time. (The two dissenting justices in the 2007 decision, Scalia and Alito, were born in Trenton, though their provenance seems to have had nothing to do with their opinions.). None of those decisions, however, specifically involved the dredge spoils area, whose jurisdiction remained a local issue.

As you can imagine, policing the area can be problematic. The Army Corps claims no responsibility, and technically, the Pennsville police had no jurisdiction. The spot was a magnet for mischief for partiers and a de-facto chop shop for car thieves. They knew the chances of being arrested and prosecuted were slim. When local law enforcement called the Delaware State Police to handle incidents on the acreage, it took troopers an hour to get there.

Finally, in 1989, the Delaware secretary of state agreed that this small slice of the First State could, indeed, be subject to New Jersey law. Pennsville police can now enter the territory to keep the peace and investigate wrongdoing. But I still wonder if they could get me for crossing the boundary and declaring the land to be the dominion of Nova Caesaria. Not that I would ever actually do it.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Blakeslee Monument: the traffic stopping memorial to the Father of Good Roads

We've talked many times before about having to stop on the side of a highway to get a good look at a historic marker. The process usually involves a two-second debate over the need to stop ("Wanna check it out?" "Yes."), possibly a five minute look for a decent place to do a U-turn, then a backtrack and maybe even a dash across the road to check it out.

It's something to see, but safely! The Blakeslee Monument, in all its
highway-island glory. Photo by Bill Coughlin, January 10, 2012,
This one takes the process to an extreme: it's challenging to get to, standing, as it does, on a triangular traffic island bordered by U.S. 1&9, Broadway and Wallis Avenue in Jersey City. Try making a U-turn there! Anyway, I've known about it for a while (I could swear I read about the marker in one of Robert Sullivan's books, either The Meadowlands or Cross Country, but I can't seem to find it in either one), but just haven't had the opportunity to get a photo of it (thanks,, for the assist).

The really cool aspect of this monument on a traffic island is what it celebrates: a roads advocate. At the same time, a guy who dedicated his life to reducing the hassles of driving, becomes, himself an impediment to those road enthusiasts who want to honor him with a visit.

Ironies aside, the Blakeslee Monument celebrates the contributions of one George E. Blakeslee, who is said, by some, to be the father of good roads or the pioneer of the modern highway. The tangles of macadam and concrete we rely on today had to come from somewhere, and people like Blakeslee had the foresight to realize that without sound pavement and logical routes, motorists and commerce would, well, go nowhere.

As we learned from our look into the confusing history of our numbered state roads, New Jersey's first concerted effort to standardize the highway system came in 1916 with the passage of the Egan Good Roads Bill. Through it, the state established funding for 13 numbered highways linking our major cities. Travelers accustomed to roads designed for horse-drawn traffic would now enjoy the benefits of more durable thoroughfares engineered for more punishing motor vehicle traffic.

Photo by Bill Coughlin, January 10, 2012,
George Blakeslee was the driving force behind that bill, which called for a $7 million bond issue to pay for paving roads with "granite, asphalt or wood blocks, brick, concrete, bituminous concrete, asphalt or other pavement having a hard surface and durable character." (Macadam, while cheaper to install than concrete or brick, was more expensive to maintain over the long run.) Not a legislator himself, he instead went with the time-honored tradition of paying a lawyer to write the legislation and finding a lawmaker to introduce it. In this case, the lawmaker was Senator Charles Egan of Hudson County.

Blakeslee's motivations weren't completely altruistic: he had his own parochial interest in improving the state's road system. Having first sold bicycles in the 1890s, he later opened a Cadillac showroom on Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City and owned a network of gasoline stations in Hudson County. He'd clearly benefit from an improvement to the unreliable patchwork of existing roads, but, as he said himself, the wide variability of road conditions spoke for itself.

The Good Roads bill was passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor James Fairman Fielder, yet required approval through a public question on the November 1916 ballot. Despite the concerns of the State Chamber of Commerce, which questioned whether motor vehicle fees and fines would sufficiently cover the expense of the bond issue, voters approved the bill, and the state highway commission was formed a year later.

When a vehicular tunnel under the Hudson River was first proposed a few years later, Blakeslee advocated for a viaduct connecting what was then the Lincoln Highway to what became the Holland Tunnel. Not surprisingly, it appears to be just about where the Blakeslee Monument stands today. Originally dedicated in 1931, the marker memorializes the naming of Route 1 as the Blakeslee Route in honor of his dedication to the improvement of the state's and nation's roads. The Father of Good Roads didn't live long enough to see it, though: he died of pneumonia in 1919, having taken ill when returning to Jersey City from Detroit via train.

Friday, February 21, 2014

No bull: Stoney's Auction at Woodstown

Wandering around Woodstown a few months ago, I relied, maybe a little too heavily, on my trusty copy of the WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey. If anything old and interesting were to make itself known, it would likely be noted with a line or two, at least, in the mapped tour of Salem County.

Instead, the writeup on Woodstown brought a bit of a mystery. According to the guide, the property at 158 North Main Street (also known as State Route 45) was home to a sizable auction lot. As the book describes:

"...spread over several acres, stand rows of stock and storage barns. Each Tuesday morning throughout the year long caravan arrive with everything from ancient household utensils to livestock, all to be sold at Stoney's Auction. Everything is offered: fruit, battered furniture, the old cocked hat of some Revolutionary hero, hand made needle work, livestock on the hoof, and modern refrigerators. The auctioneer wears a 5 gallon hat and high boots into which his trousers are tucked. He snaps a 20 foot whip over the heads of cattle to center the crowd's attention. Thousands attend the auction in the course of each year."

It's that kind of description that makes me wish that every copy of the WPA Guide came with a wayback machine, either to go back to the preceding Tuesday (if the auction was still there) or to 1938 (a Tuesday, preferably), when the writer had obviously checked it out. Even though I wasn't in the market for livestock, it sounded as if an afternoon at Stoney's was well worth experiencing.

A drive down Main Street confirmed my suspicion: where once there had been a sign bearing a bull and the words "Stoney Harris Sales Co. Office," there was nothing but a series of pleasant-looking houses of older vintage. What happened to the auction?

The pieces started coming together after I returned to Hidden New Jersey headquarters and did a little research. Knowing, as I did, that Cowtown had been operating nearby for quite some time, I wondered if it might have had some connection to the now-absent auction.

As the guide stated, Stoney Harris had been operating very successfully in his Woodstown neighborhood for quite some time, augmenting the weekly sales with an annual rodeo in conjunction with the Salem County Fair. Popular as the auction was, it drew increasing numbers of people and traffic along with it, which the town tried to manage through ordinance. Frustrated, Stoney bought two farms on U.S. 40 in Pilesgrove and moved the entire operation there in 1940. And though he'd already left town, Stoney wanted to make one final statement about the way his business had been treated by the local government. According to a descendant, once the auction was settled in its new space, Stoney erected a large statue of a cow on the property next to the highway, its back end facing Woodstown.

Today the sales operation is billed as a farmers' market but sells many of the items you'd expect to see at a flea market, from apparel to used goods (vintage, anyone?) along with fresh meats, produce and plants. Come to think of it, today's wares don't sound that much different from what Stoney was auctioning in his day, except maybe now that "modern refrigerator" would be seen as a valuable antique. I wonder if that old cocked hat might show up on a vendor's table sometime?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

From exhibition to obscurity: Ship John Shoal Lighthouse

You've got to get into a boat to find the Ship John Shoal Lighthouse, making it one of our most remote and hardest-to-access Hidden New Jersey subjects. However, it was once so easy to find that thousands of people saw it every day.

No, nothing's really changed with the shipping lanes, and no, it's not that a beach has been closed down somewhere. It's the beacon that's moved. The Ship John Shoal Lighthouse holds the rare distinction of having been shown at an 1876 Philadelphia exhibition before settling down in Delaware Bay, beyond view off Cumberland County shores.

This lighthouse is among several in the middle of the bay, marking shoals within the shipping channel that are hazards to navigation. Starting in the mid 1800s, the United States Lighthouse Board erected several beacons of varying styles, all standing on platforms anchored to the bay's sandy bottom. The Ship John Shoal light was to be the first to use a circular base designed to protect its foundation from the blows of winter ice floes.

A few years ago, I took a bay cruise to get a closer look. Unfortunately, we weren't going to be able to land at any of the lighthouses, since they're still mostly Coast Guard aids to navigation. Nonetheless, we'd get close enough to imagine what it must have been like for lighthouse personnel to be stationed there, in the elements and prone to being crashed into by misplaced ships. Some crew members, we were told, slept in life jackets in case a nighttime collision dislodged their house from its base.

Most, if not all of the lights on Delaware Bay deserve a good Hidden New Jersey story, but when I found the Philadelphia connection to the Ship John Shoal, well, I couldn't resist telling it. It's not often you find a photo of an offshore, caisson-style lighthouse nicely landscaped with an access road, as in the stereoscope card I found illustrated in my online research.

The story goes like this:

Congress approved funding for the Ship John Shoal Lighthouse in 1873, allowing the U.S. Lighthouse Board to survey its proposed site and begin preparing it to accept the base of the light. A year later, the Board had constructed the caisson base and erected a temporary structure for the winter, expecting the permanent lighthouse to have been fabricated offsite in time for installation in 1875. It was to be one of two identical lights put into service that year, the first of which was sent to Connecticut as the Southwest Ledge when the foundation there was completed first.

Enter our nation's centennial, celebrated in Philadelphia through the first world's fair, known popularly as the Centennial International Exhibition. From the arm and torch of the yet-to-be-built Statue of Liberty to the telephone and even a working model of Morristown's Ford Mansion, exhibits demonstrated the best of what America offered to the world. The Lighthouse Board, wanting to impress with its own latest technology, sent a lighthouse: the one meant for Ship John Shoal.

Photo via . The platform
to the left once held fuel and now hosts solar panels.
With sloped, octagonal mansard-style roof, dormer windows and lantern house surrounded by a widow's walk, the 45-foot high lighthouse must have looked like an odd Second-Empire style home, perched, as it was, on a circular platform. Every night, the resident keeper lit its light, seemingly providing a warning to any ships on the Schuylkill River that might otherwise make a wrong turn into Fairmount Park.

More than ten million people visited the Exhibition over six months in 1876, enjoying the offerings of a dozen nations. It's not clear how many might have visited the Ship John Shoal Light during its Philadelphia summer, but I think it's safe to say that in the nearly 140 years since, nowhere near that number of people have stopped by for a chat.

Moved to its final home a few months after the Exhibition closed, the lighthouse was lit for the first time on August 10, 1877. Crews kept it running until 1973 when an automated system was installed. It continues to operate as an aid to navigation today, though it was sold to private owners as excess government property in 2012.

As for Fairmount Park, it appears to be doing quite well without a lighthouse. Last I checked, vessels are navigating the Schuylkill just fine on their own.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Would Peter Stuyvesant live here? Discovering Teaneck's Warner District

Take a drive around Bergen County, and you're likely to pass a few Dutch Colonial houses that predate the founding of the United States. Built of sturdy stone, many are still occupied as private homes, maybe even surrounded by a development of houses of more recent vintage.

That said, we were kind of surprised to see a small enclave of them on busy Cedar Lane in Teaneck, near the corner of River Road. Had they been moved there in some sort of preservation effort like East Jersey Olde Towne in Piscataway or maybe as a real estate scheme like Wychwood in Westfield?

Actually, no. Despite their aged appearances, the structures are less than 100 years old. And when you study the development a little more closely, you start noticing similarities in construction, reminiscent of 20th century tract housing.

We'd stumbled on the Fred T. Warner Historic District, an early 20th century attempt to recreate the charm of Teaneck's rural Colonial past while meeting the community's evolving housing and commercial real estate needs. Between 1926 and 1938, architect and Teaneck resident Warner constructed a miniature village of homes, garden apartments and even office space for a rapidly growing town. It might not have been as expansive or ideologically-driven as Radburn, but it was unique in its own way.

The Cedar Lane boundary of the 40 building development includes several Dutch Colonial structures, including an office building that the casual observer might think was converted from a large old house. Garden apartments are nestled off the main road, arranged to create a cozy courtyard. Houses in a variety of sizes, some wood or brick, line narrow, winding side streets to create what looked like a storybook setting in the snow.

Like Radburn, the Warner district addresses several housing needs with apartments, small rental houses, duplexes and dwellings for larger families. Proximity to New York was quickly transforming Teaneck to a commuting town, and this mix of housing options provided a necessary stepping stone to support growing population density while retaining the town's intrinsic charm.

Warner bought the land from the estate of William Phelps, which generously agreed to a repurchase and rent-back arrangement when the onset of the Great Depression threatened the project's completion. And as it turns out, his choice of building materials was based on thrift as much as on a dedication to authenticity. He'd bought more than $35,000 worth of stone ahead of another venture he'd been commissioned for, and when that project failed to materialize, he found himself with tons of construction material crying for a use.

Absent the blue historic marker or local knowledge, the average passer-by would have a hard time differentiating the Warner District from its much older, more storied stone brethren, and perhaps that's a good thing. In a time when McMansions and cookie-cutter construction seem the norm, it's nice to run into more authentic-looking replicas of our past. Even if some of them might be a little cookie-cutter themselves.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Eight score and five years ago: Lincoln in Cape May?

Abraham Lincoln in the 1840s.
Wednesday February 12 marks the 205th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, an interesting date to consider our sixteenth president relaxing at the Jersey Shore.

New Jersey's direct connections with Lincoln are rather sparse, with most state explorers pointing to the gravesites and ruins of a forge run by his distant ancestors in Fillmore, Monmouth County. Thus, I was rather delighted to come upon a link between Honest Abe and the seaside resort of Cape May.

While somewhat surprising, the pieces seemed to fit at first glance. By the mid 1800s, Cape May had become a popular destination for politicians and statesmen to escape the oppressive summertime heat of Washington D.C. Lincoln represented Illinois for one term in Congress in the 1840s. And the register of the old Mansion House inn shows "A. Lincoln and wife" as visitors on July 31, 1849.

Making the story even more appealing, some sources claim that Lincoln made a decision in Cape May that arguably affected the course of history. It's said that while he and his wife Mary were enjoying a respite by the sea, he received a letter from President Zachary Taylor, offering him the governorship of Oregon Territory. Mary reportedly balked at the prospect of living in the remote territory, among the Indians, and urged Lincoln to turn down the offer. The pair returned to Illinois, where the future president resumed his legal practice and later unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate.

It's a great story, but it's not true - most of it, anyway. Though Lincoln was offered the governorship, he wasn't in Cape May when he received the letter from Taylor, but in Illinois. Court records place him in Springfield, Illinois on July 31, winning a settlement on behalf of a client. Given the limits of 19th century transportation, there's no way he could have gotten from the Springfield courts to the Jersey Shore by the end of the day to make the story possible.

What, then, about the hotel register with the "A. Lincoln" signature? Two theories provide plausible stories. First, some believe the name might have been planted there, perhaps by Mansion House management, to raise the inn's profile as the lodging place of esteemed notables. Another story states that "A. Lincoln" did, in fact, stay there: Philadelphia merchant Abel Lincoln. So I guess you could say that if you were a Lincoln in 1849, you had to be Abel to be in Cape May.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Here's to you, Dr. Robinson: finding the 17th century in Clark

One of the fascinating aspects of Northern New Jersey is how history is sometimes obscured within the community that's developed around it. You can walk or drive past a centuries-old building and not realize it, given how it's seemingly shoehorned between a gas station and a Dunkin Donuts. I'm struck by this every time I drive through an intersection where the Merchants and Drovers Tavern stands in Rahway. Several buildings nearby look distinctly Colonial and old enough to be authentic, but there's no signage to confirm it.

Not far from the Merchants and Drovers is a house that had already been standing a century when the tavern and those other structures were built. In fact, the house in question was built in the days of East and West Jersey, 85 years before the start of the American Revolution.

The Robinson House, 21st century...
Now that's OLD. It's so old that when it was built as a farmhouse for physician and surgeon William Robinson and his family, the surrounding land wasn't known as a farm but as a plantation. Today, it's still got a nice piece of land around it -- by Union County standards, at least -- but much of the plantation has been replaced by a much newer housing development. And for a period of time, it was seemingly just another house, maybe appearing not so remarkable in context with its neighbors.

Dr. Robinson came to East Jersey in June 1684, as part of a movement of Scots encouraged to settle in the English colonies of the New World. Finding the area suitable, he returned to Scotland to retrieve his family to settle here in 1686. He'd bought a parcel of land on the Rahway River and built the a house in 1690, eventually expanding his holdings to nearly 750 acres.

... and a century ago.
Viewing the house from the street, it's difficult to believe that people lived there until 1965, a feeling that's perpetuated when you go inside to discover a rustic interior with authentic wooden beams and floors. However, it changed with the times, and archival photos show the exterior with additional windows and a dormer on the roof, suggesting that the interior was likely remodeled extensively over the years.

After gaining possession of the house in 1973, the Township of Clark restored the building to its original rustic, New England style look, eliminating extra windows and other features that had been added since Dr. Robinson's day. It's been lauded by historians as a superior example of early American architecture, one of the few still existing in the country that incorporates aspects of medieval architecture.

Likewise, the Clark Historical Society has assembled a fun collection of artifacts from Dr. Robinson's era and beyond. Regular visitors to Colonial house museums will recognize some of the staples -- spinning wheel, candle molds, butter churn, bedwarmer -- but the Medicine Room is a special treat. Besides a representative sample of herbs used by physicians of Robinson's day, artifacts include a blood-letting knife that would have been used to draw the "bad blood" from an ailing patient.

When you visit, be sure to check out the cellar and the attic, too. Upstairs, the Historical Society maintains a wall-mounted, poster-sized scrap book that includes photos of the restoration process, along with maps, an inventory of Robinson's property at death, and documentation on the house's provenance. The cellar, once the probable shelter protecting livestock from bad weather and predators, now holds an assortment of items that range into the 20th century. Depending on your age, you might remember some of them from your grandparents' garage or basement, or possibly from the Smithsonian.

Step outside and you're back in the 21st century, wondering about the mysteries other houses might hold. Could there be a home in your own neighborhood, older than it appears to be?

Monday, February 3, 2014

O, Wilderness: Untrammeled nature 26 miles from Times Square

The words "American wilderness" conjure thoughts of Davy Crockett, mountain lions and buffalo. Broad expanses of prairie grass waving in the wind. Deep forests inhabited by rugged outdoors people who've built their own roughly-hewn log cabins.

However, the first officially designated National Wilderness Area in the United States is located in the Morris County hamlet of New Vernon. That would be the eastern half of Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, comprising about 3660 acres of marsh, shrub and wetlands forest.

Great Swamp NWR, Hidden New JerseyHaving traveled the Great Swamp's roads and trails many times over the years, I was recently startled to find a sign announcing as much at a trailhead at the end of Woodland Road. Ivan and I were there to find Rusty blackbirds and had, as is typical only in New Jersey, driven past several houses to get there. Beyond the sign was forest and marsh untouched by humans, but for a small footbridge and blaze markers.

On its face, it seems odd that the first official National Wilderness should be here in New Jersey, rather than in the great untouched spaces of Alaska, Colorado or Arizona. Those states and their neighbors do dominate the roster of more than 750 designated areas, but when you understand the intent of the original Wilderness Act, the rationale for the Great Swamp's vanguard status becomes clear.

Enacted in 1964, when the fight for clean air and water was gaining traction, the statute was intended to protect areas "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man... land retaining its primeval character and influence." Federally-owned land is eligible for wilderness status if human impact is minimal, the land offers opportunities for solitude or primitive recreation, is large enough to be preserved in an unimpaired condition, and contains ecological or geological value. Naturally, wilderness lands are protected from future development.

If there's any place that could use a good wilderness, it's New Jersey, where rampant population and commercial growth place enormous development pressure on the remaining open spaces. The Great Swamp, which represents remnants of the ancient, glacial Lake Passaic, is a case in point. For many years, it was sparsely developed, its few farms dedicated to the production of salt hay. Many of the surrounding communities were home to large estates, but for the most part, the soft, murky ground of the swamp discouraged any further development within its informal boundaries.

Enter the Port Authority of New York, which apparently never met a wetlands it felt it couldn't tame. In late 1959 the development-minded agency announced plans for the construction, within the marshes of the Great Swamp, of an jetport twice the size of Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International) to support the existing Newark Airport. The community was aghast. Some feared it would wreak havoc on property values and forever change the area's quality of life, while others were driven by the prospect of losing an irreplaceable natural space that had been left largely untouched since the glaciers receded eons ago. On the other side, pro-jetport forces predicted economic ruin for the region if the project were not completed.

Jetport opponents tackled the project from two angles, confronting the state Legislature and Port Authority on one side while pursuing an environmental preservation approach on the other. As the government-facing faction challenged officials in hearings, meetings and the press, conservationists worked behind the scenes to raise funds to secure ownership of wide swaths of land within the region. Their goal: amass the minimum 3000 acres required to persuade the Department of the Interior to declare the Great Swamp a National Wildlife Refuge.

It's a long, involved story (told nicely on the New Jersey Conservation Federation website) with several heroes, but in brief, the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was ultimately dedicated on May 29, 1964, the same year the National Wilderness Preservation System was created. Designation as a National Natural Landmark came two years later, and the landmark recognition as a National Wilderness in 1968. A map of the refuge portrays the wilderness area, specifically, as essentially undeveloped, without even a paved road within. Score one for the forces of nature, clean air and clean water.

For the past 50 years, a broad range of mammals, reptiles, insects and more than 240 species of birds have continued to enjoy their homes or breeding spots in the swamp, while the dire predictions for the economy have yet to come true. The surrounding communities remain mostly bucolic in type, though some larger houses have been built on sizable plots of land. It's difficult to imagine what the region would have looked like had the jetport been built: runways and terminals replacing wetlands, two lane roads superseded by multi-lane access highways.

As for the Rusty blackbirds that brought us to the wilderness in the first place: they declined the opportunity to come out for us on our visit. Perhaps they'd retreated far beyond the trail, seeking that solitude the site has been preserved to protect.