Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Jersey Shore's first resort: Short Beach on Tucker's Island

As a kid, I was always looking for parallels: if there were North, South and East Brunswicks, where was West Brunswick? Same for the Oranges: South, East and West were there, so where was North Orange?

And if my curiosity had ventured a little further south, I might have observed that there was a Long Beach Island, so a Short Beach had to around somewhere.

Short Beach, circa 1839, courtesy Library of Congress.
Well, yeah, it was. Once. And it was a vacation destination before LBI ever was. Way before. As in, George Washington could have slept there, had he ventured to the very southernmost tip of Long Beach Island. Not that the Father of our Country ever spent the night there, but had he wanted to, there would have been a bunk waiting for him.

Today, though, that bunk and the island it would have stood on are gone, wiped from the map almost 90 years ago.

This very first resort on the New Jersey shore dates back to sometime around 1740, when a man named Ephraim Morse settled on Short Beach, bringing cattle to graze on the island's abundant salt hay. He appears to have made some extra money selling provisions to mariners who sheltered in the nearby bay during storms, and the summers eventually brought visitors who camped on the beaches to enjoy the shore breezes. Turbulent conditions eventually forced Morse and his wife from the island, after they lost their five children and house to a relentless winter storm.

Reuben Tucker's luck would be a bit different. After buying the land from Morse in 1765, he built his home and lodge on the highest point of the island, about five hundred feet from the shore. Attracted by a terrain of salt hay and maritime forest, Philadelphia-area game bird hunters and fishermen were more than happy to ventured through the Pinelands via stagecoach to get to the island for a sportsman's holiday, sailing the final leg of the trip from what became the town of Tuckerton. The inn grew in popularity as word of Tucker's hospitality grew, drawing Philadelphia Quakers who held camp meetings on the property for several summers after the Revolution.

Tucker's inn continued to draw visitors well into the 1800s, despite the continuing erosion that cut off a third of Short Beach to create Little Beach. With none of the riprap, jetties or dense development that somewhat anchor the barrier islands today, storms and the tides continued to shift the sands dramatically.

When the inn burned down in 1845, the Tucker's Island (or Egg Harbor) Lighthouse was built on the same site, starting what became a somewhat complicated relationship between the island, the U.S. Lighthouse Board and mariners attempting to navigate the area's inlets. The location seemed to be among the few places on the small island that seemed safe for construction, but the light itself was dim, and conditions within the inlet generally discouraged seafarers from approaching at night. When the towering Absecon Lighthouse was lit in 1857, Tucker's Island Light was extinguished.

The decision was fated to be temporary, with the lighthouse put back into service ten years later. Despite the shifting sands, the Lighthouse Board built a new keeper's house in 1879, topped by a lantern light. By that time, several homes and inns had been constructed on the island, as well, along with a school and a lifesaving station.

Still, the fates seemed not to have made their minds up about Tucker's Island or the lighthouse. Sands continued to shift, reuniting the tiny island with Long Beach Island and then forcing them to part again for good in 1920. Eventually the shifts began to take their toll on what man had built, and structures began to wash away with the sand beneath them, leaving the lighthouse as one of the few buildings left behind.

Finally, what seemed probable became inevitable. The Lighthouse Service ordered the decommissioning of the light in September 1927, and a few weeks later, the waves toppled it into the sea. If you visit the Tuckerton Seaport and Baymen's Museum's faithful recreation of the light, you can see dramatic photos taken as the building toppled off the last remains of its foundation, falling almost intact into the water.

Though Reuben Tucker's Inn and the lighthouse are just memories now, the story of Tucker's Island most likely isn't over. The ocean, as we've seen in recent years, tends to have its own plans for New Jersey's barrier islands, and rumor has it that Tucker's Island is once again emerging among the shifting sands. Given what we've learned about building on sandbars, though, I'd venture to guess that we won't be seeing much new construction when it appears.

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