Thursday, September 10, 2015

The star of Bethlehem? An Edison mystery in Hunterdon.

Once again, it was proven to us: travel around North Jersey and you're bound to find something related to Thomas Edison.

This time, it came when we made a left turn off Route 57 West, passing Earle Eckel's Autogiro Port on our way southward to points unknown. After an enlightening stop in Asbury (more to come on that soon), we found ourselves driving on an undulating road through beautiful farmland. We weren't quite sure where we were, except that we'd left Warren County.

The unusual two-story springhouse next to the sign
that started our mystery.
And then, there it was: a Hunterdon County historic marker. Titled "TOWER HILL FARM," it continued, "Dating back to the 1840s, this farm was purchased for Thomas Edison's storekeeper, Frederick Devonald, in 1932 and remained in the family until 1983. Unusual springhouse consists of two levels."

Devonald was a name I hadn't come across in my reading on Edison's life and career, leading me to believe that he wasn't one of the Muckers, the tight-knit group who worked closely with the Old Man on his experiments. He's not referenced in two of the latest and most comprehensive Edison biographies, nor does Mucker Francis Jehl mention him in his Menlo Park Reminiscences. Who was this mystery man?

Considering that Edison's Stewartsville Portland cement plant is a 12 mile drive away from Tower Hill, I wondered if he'd been one of the many employees who'd never worked in either Menlo Park or West Orange. And who had purchased the land for Devonald a year after Edison's death? Was the gift connected to his work service at all, or was I just reading too much into a sign author's attempt at economical writing?

Back at Hidden New Jersey HQ, we set ourselves to finding out. Checking first with Hunterdon County Parks and Recreation, we discovered that in addition to the stone springhouse we'd seen, the property hosted a farmhouse that had been built in 1848. Interestingly, the Parks and Rec website said that other Devonalds than Fred -- Ira and Margaret -- bought the farm in 1932 as a family weekend retreat, with three of them eventually making it their full time home. Records of the 1920 census list Ira and Margaret as two of the eight children being raised by Fred and his wife Julia in Orange.

There went my supposition that Edison had bought the property for Devonald, but what about Fred's job? His family being from Orange made it doubtful that he worked at the Stewartsville cement plant. Was he, in fact, one of the keepers of the famous storeroom in the Building 5 machine shop at the West Orange lab? The wondrous room that Edison famously claimed to have everything from the hide of a rhinoceros to the eye of a United States Senator, all in order to speed the process of invention?

As it turns out, it's entirely possible. A search of the online archives of Rutgers' Thomas Edison Papers project reveals more than 70 documents referencing or signed by Devonald, mostly related to the procurement of supplies for the storeroom. One even went directly to Edison at his Ogdensburg iron mines, asking for approval to purchase chemicals. (Edison asked for prices and said he'd see Devonald to discuss.) Another source noted that Fred once turned to Julia, herself an Edison employee, to make a motion picture screen.

And that leads us to Fred's brief star turn. While not a key employee, he was accorded a role in the development of one of Edison's most noteworthy inventions -- literally. A small room on the second floor of the West Orange labs was, in effect, the world's first motion picture studio, and the Edison movie making team needed animated subjects to test the kinetoscope technology. Hams like Mucker Fred Ott were more than happy to fake a sneeze for the cameras, and it seems that Devonald was open to participating, too. You have to wonder if he's one of the men in the brief dance scene in this film. We may never know which one of the subjects he was, and he certainly didn't go on to screen stardom. But it does go to show: in the right work environment, you can have a lot of fun if you show a little personality.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Backed up on the road to Sandy Hook

On a warm summer Sunday, we weren't surprised to run into people just trying to make it to Sandy Hook. What surprised us was how long ago they'd started their trip and the massive delay they suffered -- maybe New Jersey's first huge traffic jam. Certainly, it was the biggest hassle anyone has experienced in trying to get to the shore.

We'd started the day avoiding all things beach. In fact, we were at a sod farm in eastern Mercer County, looking for 'grasspipers' - a general description of the shorebirds that hang out in grasslands. The fields weren't quite as productive as we'd hoped, leading us to wander a bit aimlessly until we found ourselves in the western Monmouth County community of Allentown.

Full of Colonial, Georgian and Federal-style buildings dating to the earliest days of the nation, Allentown was built around an old grist mill on Doctors Creek. A picturesque mill pond offers a nice focal point to downtown and, of course, is irresistible to intrepid birders. The part downtown isn't quite so interesting -- it's the part that extends back to the residential areas that's tempting.

Finding the right road wasn't hard -- it's called Lakeview Drive. Before we got to the lake, though, we noticed an old graveyard by the side of the road. The landscape is well tended, the grass is short, but its old stone border wall has seen better days, and its grave markers are well worn. In a lot of ways, it's not much different from any number of other small cemeteries dotting the more remote areas of New Jersey.

Not exactly a rest area, but sufficient for the need.
What got our attention was a shorter stone flanked by two American flags. According to the plaque affixed on top, we'd stumbled on the pit stop for somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 travelers who were just trying to get to the shore during some of the hottest days of June.

This seeming horde of Bennies weren't headed to sun, fun and maybe some debauchery on the Boardwalk. They were members of what was acknowledged to be the best trained fighting force in the world: the British Army of 1778.

Led by General Sir Henry Clinton, the troops had left Philadelphia and were on their way to the British stronghold of New York at Manhattan. Originally, the plan had been to evacuate troops via ship down the Delaware River and around New Jersey northward, but a shortage of transports forced a change of plans to an overland route. Crossing the Delaware, the troops moved in a northeasterly direction through Mount Holly and beyond.

The trip was arduous. Heavily encumbered by a 12-mile long wagon train of equipment and supplies, the Brits and had been struggling to make their way despite demolished bridges and harassment by local Patriots. Even nature seemed to be conspiring against them: thunderstorms, mosquitoes and oppressive humidity made the trek especially onerous.

After encamping at Allentown overnight, Clinton decided to direct his troops toward Sandy Hook. It was a logical move: the British had captured the peninsula over a year before and fortified it against attack, though Patriots occasionally attempted raids to disable Sandy Hook Lighthouse. Several British naval vessels were usually stationed offshore as further protection, and from there, safety in Manhattan was just a reasonably short sail away.

Clinton and many of his troops eventually made it to Manhattan, but not without a serious fight, and that's an understatement. General George Washington, seeing an opportunity to strike, advanced the Continental Army to confront the British at Monmouth Court House - present day Freehold. The battle that ensued on June 28, 1778 was the largest artillery battle of the American Revolution and one of the longest engagements of the entire war.

Consider that the next time you're stuck in shore traffic.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Black Gold, Texas Tea: the hidden corporate headquarters in Flemington

For many years, New Jersey had the reputation of being the home for corporate headquarters. It seemed that if you were a Fortune 500 company, you either located your CEO here or had a major installation somewhere in the state. Some of them moved here from more expensive digs in New York City, finding good transportation routes and pleasant suburbs to attract employees. In any case, it wasn't hard to pick out the corporate HQs dotted along our highways, with their sprawling lawns and low-slung buildings. 

Curiously, as I discovered recently, one of the largest and most famous among them had much more modest digs on a small lot in Flemington. You might know that corporation as ExxonMobil. Back then, it was Standard Oil of New Jersey.

To say that the history of Standard Oil is complicated is a vast understatement, and I couldn't hope to explain it all in a readable blog post. For the purposes of today's story, what you really need to know is that at one point in the 1930s, the corporation's headquarters technically was a lawyer's safe on Main Street in the Hunterdon County seat. John D. Rockefeller's oil behemoth was broken up in a 1911 Supreme Court antitrust ruling, with Standard Oil of New Jersey (or Jersey Standard) being the largest of the resulting "baby Standards." Operating refineries at Bayonne and Linden, it continued to evolve after the mandated breakup, making several acquisitions and eventually becoming the world's largest oil producer.     

Flemington has never been known to be a big oil town, nor has there ever seemed to be a potential for anyone to strike black gold somewhere off Route 31. And, in fact, there doesn't seem to have ever been a Standard Oil office anywhere in town, except maybe for a desk and chair at a filling station. This was not a traditional arrangement by any means.

As you might have already guessed, the company's reasons were purely economic. In one word, taxes. New Jersey law at the time stated that a company was headquartered where its incorporation papers were housed. By moving its headquarters from Linden to Flemington in 1937, Standard Oil was able to shave its tax bill by 80 percent. The company's operations continued without missing a beat.

Exxon corporate histories say nothing about this move to the heart of New Jersey's farm country, though I guess it's not surprising. The fact that the company had previously moved its headquarters to Linden from Newark to save a half-million dollar tax payment leads me to believe that the stay in Flemington was a relatively brief one, lasting only until a more attractive tax haven could be identified.

Despite Standard Oil's penchant for bending the rules, it's likely that its new neighbors in Hunterdon County wouldn't have minded a bit that the company had done this bit of corporate legerdemain, if they even knew the move had occurred. The boost in revenue to the county meant their own tax bills would decrease. While no new jobs were created, nor was there any additional burden placed on local roads and utilities. Maybe they hadn't struck oil, but who ever complained about lower taxes?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Eggs came first in Flemington (at least that's what we figure)

When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher gave me a project that opened my eyes to the diversity of our state. Everyone in our class had to write a report about a randomly-assigned county in New Jersey and present it to our fellow students. With 21 kids in the class, we were all guaranteed to learn about areas of the state we knew little of.

I got Hunterdon. Hunter-who? Clear across the state from my Union County home, I'd never heard of it. Dutifully, I sent a letter to the courthouse in Flemington, wondering what this far-off place had in store for me.

A few weeks later, I got a big manila envelope from the Hunterdon County clerk, loaded with pamphlets chock-full of facts and figures. While some of my classmates had gotten pretty tourist brochures featuring shore locations or historic sites in their assigned counties, the data-laden Hunterdon literature made one thing very clear: the county was where food comes from. And it was big business.

I was reminded of this recently as Ivan and I wandered just a block off Main Street in Flemington and came upon an office building labeled "Old Egg Auction Prestigious Offices." With a liberal number of rooster statues strewn about, the building clearly had been repurposed after an industrial past.

A county historic marker told the tale: "FLEMINGTON EGG AUCTION. The country's first, and, at one time, the largest cooperative egg auction operated here from 1932 until the death of the egg business in the 1960s."

The "first and largest" fit perfectly with my childhood impression of Hunterdon County, but what was this about the death of the egg business? Isn't that just a little dramatic? I mean, I'd had a Taylor ham, egg and cheese that morning for breakfast. Obviously, this warranted a bit more research once we got back to Hidden New Jersey headquarters.

Our usual sources gave but a hint of information. Published a few years after the auction's founding, the Flemington chapter of The WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey noted that the auction had started in 1930 to ensure the county's poultry farmers could attract better prices for their wares than they presumably could by seeking buyers independently. More research revealed that the auction had operated from the basement of one of the downtown stores before moving to a Park Avenue factory that had once housed the Empire Glass Company. Not long afterward, the Flemington Egg Auction expanded to live chickens and other livestock, eventually becoming a model for other agricultural cooperative auctions around the country.

That was just the start. These days, the big Mid-Atlantic chicken states are Delaware and Maryland, but poultry was big business for New Jersey in the early- and mid-20th century. More than 1200 egg and livestock producers participated in the Flemington Auction in the late 1940s, and Hunterdon County wasn't even the largest poultry producer in the state. By 1956, sales of meat chickens and eggs accounted for nearly a third of all farm cash receipts, and we were fifth among all states in egg production. The Egg Auction alone was pulling in about $2 million a year.

Not long afterward, the tide turned, as oversupply and grain prices led egg producers out of the marketplace. Undoubtedly, improved transportation systems made it easier for lower-cost southern factory farms to ship fresh product to New Jersey at competitive prices, too. Maybe the egg business didn't die, but its New Jersey division wasn't doing very well. Farmers around the state, Hunterdon included, were discovering their land was worth more to developers than it would ever be if they continued producing eggs. Starved by a lack of suppliers, the Flemington Auction closed in 1976.

Its property festooned with painted rooster statues, the Old Egg Auction building got us thinking about evolution -- not just the fate of the egg industry, but the old chicken-and-egg question. In Flemington, the egg was clearly sold at the auction before chickens ever came before the gavel. Will it ever come back to roost? That's a debate for another day.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Going to church: the amazingly well-preserved Old Broad Street Presbyterian

I've long been of the mind that keeping a historic building in continuous use is the best way to keep it from deteriorating. An impressive structure on West Broad Street in Bridgeton proves that sometimes, the direct opposite is true.

Standing on a full city block along the main road, surrounded by scattered gravestones from the late 18th century to the present, the Old Broad Street Church owes a good part of its fine condition to the fact that it was largely abandoned in 1836, just over 40 years after it was built. According to the church's website, it may be the most pristine example of Georgian high ecclesiastical architecture surviving in the thirteen original states.

We visited on a recent Sunday afternoon, when the congregation generously opened the doors to a curious public. From the outside, the two-story brick building appears both stately and simple, designed in the manner of the Philadelphia churches of the day. Doors on three sides of the rectangular church welcome visitors; curiously, the only side without a door is the one that faces the road. One of the side doors was open, and as we walked past, I noticed what appeared to be a metal beam running from a metal box diagonally up to the ceiling. Was this some sort of reinforcement, added during a restoration attempt? Hopefully we'd find out.

A bit of neck strain for the folks in the expensive
seats? Photo courtesy Library of Congress. 
Walking inside, we were welcomed by a member of the friends organization, who gave us a brief history of the church, the first Christian congregation organized in Bridgeton. Its original members had been worshiping at far-flung churches and wanted their own meeting place in the growing town. By 1795, they had their own church, complete with box-style pews. The more prosperous congregants usually purchased pews closest to the front of the church, but as our hostess observed, prominence may have come with a cost. Sitting so close to the elevated pulpit, the rich folk had to strain their necks to see the minister in his elevated pulpit. Meanwhile, the view from the back pews was just fine.
The building's simplicity reminded me of a lot of Colonial-era Presbyterian churches I've visited, but unlike those, I could easily imagine early Americans sitting in Old Broad's pews to worship. Instead of wood floors, this church had brick, and the white paint on the pews both looked and felt sturdier -- more durable -- than what you usually see in a building that's been converted to central heating. The only concession to weather extremes is that curious metal contraption I'd noticed earlier, a two-stove and piping system constructed at nearby Atsion and installed in 1809. No other modernization has been done to the building since then: no plumbing, no electrical work, no mechanical systems.

This plaster medallion adorns the center of the ceiling.
It's a wonder the ornate plaster ceiling details have lasted so long, given the lack of climate control. That said, the absence of complications like plumbing and a constantly-working furnace may be what saved it. Uneven heating and leaky pipes have been the downfall of countless neglected historic structures.

As our hostess shared the history of the congregation, another docent told us we absolutely had to check out the balcony level, especially the east side. Religion had been part of the curriculum at the local school in the early 1800s, so students were brought to the church for instruction. Separated by gender, the girls sat in the western balcony, the boys opposite. How can we know for sure? The wood of the western pews is pristine, while those on the east are marked with carved initials and names. Come to your own conclusion.

So why was the church abandoned so early in its history? The growing city's population shifted eastward in the early 19th century, and Presbyterians understandably wanted to worship closer to home. They built a new church on the east side of town and left Old Broad Street. As will happen over time, the congregation has seen splits and mergers over its 230 plus year history, but they haven't forgotten their roots. Family plots in Old Broad Street's sizeable churchyard still take in new burials, adding to more than 10,000 graves that include resting spots of several members of Congress, New Jersey Governor Elias Seeley and a good number of veterans of the American Revolution and the Civil War.

The living are welcome, too, just a little less often. The doors of Old Broad Street open for worship during August and a special service on Thanksgiving Day. And if you're lucky, as we were, you'll happen by when they're having an open house. Between the truly striking architecture and the welcoming spirit of the church's friends and congregants, you'll be glad you stopped by.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A tankard of liberty at Potter's Tavern in Bridgeton

If we've learned anything in our travels, it's that the terms "first" and "oldest" are often up for debate when it comes to historic places and events. Sometimes the claims have to be qualified (as in "oldest existing governor's mansion still at its original site") while other times, the boast is the well-meaning exaggeration of a proud community. Either way, there's usually a good story to be found, making our visit well worth the time.

A first was what led us to Potter's Tavern in Bridgeton: some contend that New Jersey's first Patriot newspaper was published there. Since we'd already told a similar story about the New Jersey Journal, the Continental Army-endorsed paper founded by Essex County printer Shepard Kollock in 1779, I knew we had to get the scoop.

On our first Hidden New Jersey visit to Bridgeton last year, we discovered the city holds the state's largest historic district, an impressive array of 18th and 19th century structures. Potter's Tavern stands prominently on West Broad Street, across from the latest of several successive courthouses to stand in town. While several taverns operated locally in the late 1700s, Potter's was especially popular with lawyers, who would would stop in before or after conducting their business at the courthouse, engaging in discussion of current events.

The tavern's contribution to history starts in 1775, several months after the initial battles of the American Revolution were fought in New England. New Jersey soil was untouched by bloodshed at that point, but a small group of Greenwich men had already acted on their displeasure with British rule by conducting their own version of a tea party, burning a shipment of the English import in the community's market square. Others were actively debating the various options of an evolving relationship with Great Britain: maintaining status quo, negotiating with the Crown on issues where colonists had grievances, or continuing the armed battle for independence.

Sometime before Christmas of 1775, one of those tea burners and other patrons of Potter's Tavern decided to issue their thoughts in a handwritten document on a weekly basis. Several wrote essays that were then collected and given to a scribe to be penned into one long document that was posted at the tavern. None of the essays was signed; the fact that they were transcribed by one person assured that no particular man's handwriting would betray him for advocating treason and rebellion. Tavern owner Matthew Potter wasn't one of the authors, but he could have been arrested just for allowing his customers to work on the newspaper on his property.

More than a dozen issues of the Plain Dealer were published from late 1775 to early 1776, helping to galvanize support for independence from British rule. Though Cumberland County's Loyalists attempted to find the writers and hold them legally accountable for their rebellious words, no-one was ever identified. After the war, several authors came forward, including two future New Jersey governors -- Richard Howell and Joseph Bloomfield -- as well as local physicians Jonathan Elmer and Lewis Howell. Copies of the Plain Dealer are housed in Rutgers University's Special Collections in New Brunswick.

The Cumberland County Historical Society opens the tavern to the public a few times a year,* including the day we visited. The smallness of the place seemed about right; you could see how the intimate setting would encourage the regulars to share dangerous ideas. We learned that the Potter family not only operated a food and drink establishment in the building, but lived there, too. The seating area on the first floor was about the size of a small living room, with a cozy fireplace and a barred-in counter where the alcohol was locked up. An authentic colonial kitchen in the back brings visitors back to colonial days. One of the restored rooms upstairs is interpreted as a bedroom, while the other exhibits historic maps of Bridgeton and Cumberland County and a collection of military swords used by Potter men from the Revolution through World War I.

All of this brings us back to the original claim and a question: was the Plain Dealer, indeed, New Jersey's first newspaper? The state's now-deceased de facto historian, John Cunningham, felt its regular publication schedule was enough to qualify it as a newspaper, while others say no. I contend that the label we put on it doesn't matter nearly as much as the impact of its existence. Unless another example can be found, it marked the first time New Jerseyans regularly put pen to paper to debate and promote the merits of independence from the British Empire. That's clearly enough to recommend it, and to place Potter's Tavern on the list where Americans risked their freedom to express their heartfelt beliefs.

* Those who'd like to arrange a private tour can make arrangements through the Historical Society.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Uncovering the Blue Comet in blueberry country

Near the center of the Pinelands community of Chatsworth, there's a sandy, partially grass-covered clearing on the side of the road. In it, there's a square plot marked off by a decorative black chain, and within the plot, a pair of rails embedded in the ground.

Apologies for the bad framing.
Photo shot from the car.
It's hard to see in the picture, but those rails extend far beyond the clearing, well into the woods in the distance. They mark the remains of Chatsworth's ties to the rise and fall of New Jersey's version of glamorous land travel.

Today, the strongest connection any of us have to passenger rail travel is likely to be with New Jersey Transit commuter trains and light rail, but for our earlier neighbors, that wasn't the case. In the first half of the 20th century, particularly before air travel became the norm, trains could be something very special. Long distance travelers could enjoy luxury accommodations on express lines like the 20th Century Limited, and even local commuter trains sometimes sported cars specifically for the first-class set.

By the 1920s, Central Railroad of New Jersey President R.B. White saw glamour as a way to attract riders to what had become the company's rather pedestrian, unpopular line to the state's southern shore destinations. The Blue Comet would run from New York to Atlantic City, but with style that lived up to its name in appearance and engineering. Capable of traveling up to 100 miles an hour, the train was said to be the first east of the Mississippi River to use roller bearings for smooth starts and stops.

White spared no expense in furnishings and design: passengers enjoyed luxurious upholstery and carpeting, fine dining and windows hand-etched with comets and stars. Each of the cars was named for a comet, including an observation car whose back deck could accommodate six travelers. The train was swathed in blue and cream colors, representing the sea and sand of the Jersey Shore, with nickel-plated accents. Even its whistle was distinctive, with Pinelands residents recalling a foghorn- or steamboat-like tone. When the Blue Comet made its maiden trip in February 1929, it became CRRNJ's flagship train.

Its introduction was ill-timed. Eight months later, the stock market crash plunged the nation into the Great Depression, leaving most potential travelers without the resources for luxury travel. By 1933, the train was making just one run a day, and competition from the Pennsylvania Railroad took additional ridership away. However, the Blue Comet soldiered on, logging an on-time record so reliable that people along the route set their clocks by the train's arrival. Legend has it that the people of Chatsworth counted on the northbound train to slow enough to drop off the New York and Philadelphia newspapers that passengers had read and discarded.

In fact, Chatsworth was little more than a brief blip of scenery to the Blue Comet until August 19, 1939. More than a foot of rain fell during a tremendous storm that day, with cloudbursts delivering the vast majority of it after 2:00 p.m. Poor visibility forced the train's crew to reduce speed to about 40 miles an hour, but restricted sightlines were just part of the danger ahead. 

By 4:30, flooding had washed the sandy Pinelands soil out from beneath the tracks at milepost 86, about a mile west of Chatsworth. The train's crew had no idea of the hazard they were approaching. Though the locomotive and coal tender made it over the now-unsupported track, the five passenger cars separated and came off the rails, resting at angles nearly parallel to the railbed.

Despite crashing in the sparsely-populated Pinelands, help wasn't long in coming. Realizing that the ever-reliable Blue Comet was late to the station, the concerned people of Chatsworth waded to the scene of the crash. Word went out that 100 or more souls could have died in the crash, drawing ambulances and doctors from distant communities. Of the 49 souls on board, 38 suffered mostly minor injuries, though the train's cook was fatally crushed and scalded when the dining car stove fell on him.The crash scene was so flooded that local residents later recalled wading through chest-deep water to help passengers in the train's last two cars.

The track was quickly repaired and service restored after most of the Blue Comet's cars were reconditioned, but the flagship train's days were numbered. Just over two years later, it made its final run, never having made much of a profit, if any, for the Jersey Central.

After finding the brief bit of track commemorated in downtown Chatsworth, we headed east on a road alongside the old railbed. The area may have become more developed over the years, but it wasn't hard to imagine what residents might have faced as they attempted to help the Blue Comet's passengers after the derailment. The track runs pin-straight for what seems like miles, often on berms of that classically-sandy Pinelands soil. Portions of the track were obscured by overgrown weeds and trees that had sprouted between the rails. Other stretches seemed to be clear enough to accept a train on a moment's notice. Someone with a good imagination could stand there at night and will herself to hear the roar of the Blue Comet, its foghorn whistle alerting local residents of its approach.

As seems to be the case with so many legendary trains, bits and pieces of the Blue Comet are still out there for the finding, with four complete cars still in New Jersey. One car, Biela, stands near Route 22 West, having been converted to a dining room at the Clinton Station Diner. Another three are owned by the United Railroad Historical Society of New Jersey, with plans for restoration and eventual return to the tracks.

Sopranos fans might also remember the train's fateful appearance on one of the series' final season installments. Model railroad aficionado (and Tony Soprano's brother in law) Bobby Baccalieri is admiring an antique Lionel Train version of the Blue Comet when he's dispatched by two hitmen from a rival crime family. Perhaps the show's producers didn't resolve the story of the famed Russian of the Pine Barrens episode, but ironically, someone in Tony's crew received a Pinelands-related payback of sorts.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Pileated Woodpeckers: the excavation professionals

Ever have one of those days when your work brings you onto the road a little earlier than usual, the weather is clear and balmy and you find yourself driving near one of your favorite places? The coincidence is just too good to pass up a visit.

It doesn't seem to happen often enough, but that's where I was this afternoon. Near perfect weather, assignments complete for the day, and deliciously close to one of my favorite birding spots, Watchung Reservation. What else could I do? With binoculars already in the car, I was ready for a leisurely afternoon hike.

My usual target spot for an impromptu walk through nature at Watchung is the bridle path alongside Surprise Lake. Broad and well-worn, it's a safe, tick-free route for dog walkers, runners or folks like me who weren't exactly dressed or shod for a day in the woods. I wasn't sure I'd see or hear many interesting birds, given the time of day, but even a quiet walk is well worth the effort.

Finding my way to the bridle path, I considered trying to call out a Pileated Woodpecker. They're regulars, if not abundant, at Watchung, and we've heard and/or seen them several times near Surprise Lake, their loudly distinctive "WUK-WUK-WUK-WUK" being one of my favorite bird vocalizations. (Check it out here.) As a species, they prefer forests with a good choice of standing and fallen dead trees. Even if you're not lucky enough to see one, you'll probably see evidence of them in a decent-sized woods -- large chunks of bark and inner tree trunk laying on the ground where they've pecked for insects. Square-shaped holes mark where they've excavated nesting holes.

Not the Pileated I saw today,
but a good representation.
You may be wondering what the big deal is about Pileated Woodpeckers. Quite simply put, they're huge, and they look like an old school Woody Woodpecker. At an average of 16 inches long, with a large, powerful bill and distinctive red crest, they're more than twice as big as the Downy Woodpeckers you might see on a backyard tree. And rather than drilling in a rapid-fire pecking motion, they chip rather deliberately at their target tree trunks, cocking their heads as if contemplating the perfect angle to get to the inects beneath.

Just as I was thinking about imitating the "WUK-WUK-WUK" to bring one out, I saw movement at the base of a tree on the side of the trail about 10 feet ahead. Expecting to see a Robin or two, I was astounded to see two Pileateds low on the tree trunk. It was clear they'd been there a while: one was standing on a pile of wood chips it had clearly excavated from the large hole it was still pecking away at. If I didn't know better, I'd believe it was a contractor working on a new factory for the Keebler Elves. The companion Pileated seemed either to be standing watch or perhaps waiting for a few good morsels exposed by its more industrious partner. Was this a parent-child situation, with a hungry adolescent waiting for mom to provide dinner?

Post-Pileated damage.
Whatever their work plan and relationship, they made for fascinating watching. My plans to go any further down the trail evaporated instantly as I set to watch one of my favorite species from the closest vantage point I'd ever had. It's not often you can view woodpeckers situated closer to the ground than you are! As the excavator continued his work, the other bird alternately turned up bits of piled detritus or hid around the side of the tree, his head occasionally popping up in a somewhat startled-looking "peekaboo" fashion.

Then, suddenly, I heard the "WUK-WUK-WUK" sound of a third Pileated from a tree about 10 feet beyond the working pair. Seeing two at once was a treat -- three was unprecedented for me. Could this have been the other parent, or maybe another offspring? Was it possible that there were even more in the vicinity?

I stayed just a few more minutes to enjoy the activity, then left the apparent family to their dinner. It wasn't clear they'd even noticed me, but they deserved their privacy and a measure of safety. And besides, they were making such short work of that hole at the base of the tree that I couldn't be sure it wouldn't come tumbling down at some point.* For a spur-of-the-moment stop at the Reservation, I'd been nourished by a peek at nature that I won't soon forget.

*I kid, I kid. To my knowledge, no tree has ever been felled, beaver-style, by an overenthusiastic Pileated Woodpecker.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

America's first cattle drive? Salem County's Great Cow Chase

New Jersey isn't especially known for its wide open prairies, ranches and cowboys. According to some, though, Salem County just may have been the sight of the nation's first cattle drive. And no, I'm not talking about a Saturday night rodeo in Cowtown, though the historic drive took place nearby, led by a brigadier general known as Mad Anthony Wayne.

Venture back to early 1778, when General George Washington's army was encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Beset by desertions by February, Washington still had to feed more than 2000 men, as well as the horses they relied upon, even as the British conducted their own foraging expeditions and dealings with help from sympathetic Pennsylvanians.

This specimen would have fed a LOT of Continental soldiers.
Across the Delaware River was New Jersey, known as the Breadbasket of the Revolution for its plentiful forage for animals and food for humans. Washington sent Wayne with about 550 troops down Jersey to Salem County to retrieve the life-sustaining supplies. Starting from Wilmington, Delaware to avoid the British-controlled river near Philadelphia, Wayne and his troops made their way to Salem and to the area near present-day Pilesgrove, where they gathered about 150 head of cattle. Horses and wagons, however, were in short supply, meaning that the Continentals would have to drive the cattle on the hoof back to Valley Forge, rather than transporting butchered beef.

By this point, a local Loyalist had tipped off the British and more than 2000 Redcoats were sent to track Wayne and his troops down. After an initial stab at transporting some of the cattle to New Castle, Delaware to evade the British, Wayne led the procession northward and west along the Old Kings Highway on the 50 mile journey to Valley Forge, eventually crossing the river north of Philadelphia, somewhere between Burlington and Trenton. While some say that the herd was diminished to a mere 50 head by the time Wayne reached camp, the Jersey beef and hides undoubtedly made the difference for countless hungry and shoeless Continental soldiers.

The Great Cow Chase, as it's now known Down Jersey, has been commemorated a few times in recent years. Back during the Bicentennial, Cowtown founder Stoney Harris and friends drove 50 cattle up Kings Highway, with cheering spectators lining the road. And last year marked the first running of the Cow Run 10 Miler road race for humans, starting at Cowtown in Pilesgrove and ending 10 miles away in downtown Salem City. It may not be the running of the bulls, but it's a truly unique way of celebrating a little-known yet important part of our Revolutionary history!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Firing up a celebration of joy in New Brunswick

John Adams famously predicted that the anniversary of America's independence would "be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty." In a letter to his wife Abigail just after the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the states, he said, "It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."

That brings up the question -- when did celebrations actually begin? Who declared the day an official event for commemorating the act of separation from Great Britain and the official birth of the United States? I'm sure if you go to Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, you'll find people who say their forebears were the first to make July 4 a major holiday, but they'd be wrong. Like so much of what occurred during the Revolution, the first celebration was held in New Jersey, ordered by General George Washington himself. You can't get much more official than that.

The story brings us to 1778, just after the Continental Army fought the British at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28. Having demonstrated to the enemy in a daylong conflict that the Americans were a force to be reckoned with, Washington led his 11,000 Continentals to New Brunswick to rest. The Raritan River would provide refreshment to the parched and exhausted troops, who camped on both banks during the first week of July while the General made his headquarters at Ross Hall on River Road in Piscataway.

Marking the route of the 1778 Independence Day celebration
on River Road in Piscataway.
Washington capitalized on the massive gathering of soldiers to make a LOT of noise on the Fourth. He ordered them to line the Raritan's edge in a single file that ran two miles from White's Farm -- the present-day Buccleuch Park -- to Sonman's Hill, where Douglass College of Rutgers University now stands. Bolstered by an artillery force of more than a dozen cannons, the men then fired their muskets one by one in sequence in a feu de joie, or fire of joy.

That was just the start of the celebration. Every soldier was issued an extra ration of rum, and the officers gathered at Ross Hall for an evening party. Notables including Baron von Steuben, Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette were among the 100 people in attendance at Ross Hall.

Imagining the celebration as it occurred is a little difficult these days -- subsequent development and Route 18 have obliterated the 18th century landscape in New Brunswick, though the terrain remains a little more natural once the Raritan flows into Piscataway. Ross Hall was torn down in the 1960s after a destructive fire, though a single wall was saved for eventual restoration; plans are to have it displayed at the nearby Metlar-Bodine House. However, anyone driving the length of the highway along the river can appreciate the sheer mass of humanity it took to create a two-mile long shooting range, along with the duration of the gunfire they created, firing one after the other in sequence.

We can still get a little taste of the 1778 celebration every year on Independence Day. On the afternoon of July 4, reenactors gather at New Brunswick's Buccleuch Park for a smaller though no less enthusiastic feu de joie, a reminder not only of our fight for independence, but of New Jersey's significant sacrifice toward the goal.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

No pita with this Gyro: Earle Eckel's hidden airport

State Route 57 in Warren County seems like some sort of supernatural entity. No matter how well I think I get to know it, no matter how many times Ivan and I travel its length, subsequent trips always seem to reveal something new.

Or, more accurately, something old.

Just the other day, we were driving the road west of downtown Washington when I looked to the left and saw this:

How could we have missed Eckel's Autogiro Port near the corner of Route 57 and Mill Pond Road? Look a little closer at this seemingly freshly-painted sign, and you can see a claim that this is the first exclusive autogiro airport in America. THAT I would have remembered; we're always happy to find new airfields.

As I discovered with a little research, we'd stumbled upon one of Washington's more accomplished citizens, Earle S. Eckel. Born in 1891, he showed a remarkable combination of entrepreneurship and ingenuity from a very young age. By the time he turned 20, he'd already fulfilled a contract to string telephone wires from Philipsburg to Washington, built a steam engine that both powered his mom's washing machine and heated the wash water, and operated his own mobile movie theater enterprise, among other ventures.

Detailing all of Eckel's enterprises will make for a good future Hidden New Jersey entry, but for now we'll stick with the autogiro port. Long story short, an interest in motorcycles eventually got Eckel into automobile sales and repairs in Washington, and then to gasoline and fuel oil. Petroleum was good to him: in partnership with his brother, he opened a chain of nine service stations, which they sold to the Tidewater Oil Company in 1930. The windfall was substantial, and he used a portion of it to buy his own airplane. Predictably, that led to another business: Eckel Air Service, which offered flying lessons and charter flights from Easton Airport.

Eckel eventually left the airline business when it proved to be less than profitable, but the venture whetted his interest in aviation, particularly when it came to a craft that he could keep on his Mill Pond Road property. He didn't have enough room for an airplane, so he selected the recently-developed Pitcairn autogiro. Sporting both a nose-mounted propeller and a helicopter-type rotor above, it offered the joy of flying at slow speeds with the convenience of shorter takeoffs.

Reflecting his usual enthusiasm for new ventures, Eckel built a well-equipped airfield on his property in 1931, clearing a runway, installing floodlights and erecting a hangar. Two years later he bought a second craft, building another hangar to store it.

Eckel with Tidewater's autogiro Miss Vedol.
According to some accounts, Eckel held the nation's first transport autogiro pilot's license and flew the first airmail from Washington NJ to Newark during National Air Week in 1938. Locally, the autogiro made Eckel a few bucks in towing advertising banners and offering flying lessons, while he often traveled to out-of-state air shows to fly stunts competitively. He found his real success as a pilot for the Tidewater Oil Company, which hired him to fly two multi-state promotional tours for their Veedol motor oil. Estimating that he flew a total of more than 4000 passengers in the autogiro, he told the Schenectady Gazette that "safety is the keynote of the autogiro, these ships being able to land in small patches of level ground far too small for conventional type planes."

Eckel continued to keep his autogiros at the port even after selling the property in 1942, but as his interests turned to other pursuits, the field reverted to its former use as farm fields. Meanwhile, improvements in helicopter technology and the relative costliness of autogiros pretty much sealed their fate in the commercial market. Improved versions of the technology are still available today and are occasionally used for surveillance

As for Eckel, he died in 1978, having lived an interesting and varied life. Today, his former home and gyro port are the basis of the Pleasant Valley Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Only a small wooden sign and the bright side of the one remaining hangar indicate anything remarkable about the placid little area where once an adventurous mind took flight.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Visiting the Governor's house in Perth Amboy

A few years ago, we were absolutely blown away by the history we found nestled among the old industrial grittiness of Perth Amboy. Once the capital of East Jersey, the city is home to the oldest public building still in use, the state's oldest Episcopal parish, what was arguably once the oldest corporation in America, and the vestiges of a once-busy port. We barely scratched the surface on our visit and vowed to return sometime to see more.

The opportunity came with the arrest of a governor. Well, the reenactment of an arrest -- of William Franklin, the last Royal Governor of New Jersey. As befits his title, Franklin was a Loyalist allied with the government of Great Britain during the time of the American Revolution. His home, known as the Proprietary House, survives, representing the only royal governor's home still standing on its original grounds.

I'd seen photos of the house's exterior, but I was still taken aback when we pulled up. This was a massive pile of bricks in a residential neighborhood, a real survivor. How could it have been there all these years without being more widely known?

The inside, what we could see of it, was just as impressive. We walked in to find a spacious center hall flanked by two parlors, one of which was decorated as a stately dining room. One of the basement rooms was interpreted as the kitchen, complete with massive hearth, while a barrel-vaulted storage room was set for a future event. Upper floors were off limits, but a view up the center of the staircase sent the imagination reeling. How many rooms are up there, and how many stories could be told in them?

No doubt, the awe we felt was exactly what its architect intended for the home of a provincial leader. Construction on the first portion of the house began in 1761, funded by the Proprietors of East Jersey as the official residence for the Royal Governor. The design, while somewhat severe on the outside, was grand: constructed of brick imported from England, its two stories, plus an attic and full basement made it one of the largest houses in the 13 colonies. Four chimneys served its many fireplaces.

Franklin was appointed governor in 1763 but didn't move into the Perth Amboy mansion until 1774; he'd lived at his Burlington estate until funding issues for the home could be worked out. While he sometimes gets a bad rap due to his loyalist leanings, Franklin enjoyed moderate popularity in the early years of his tenure, developing a welfare program of sorts to help farmers during lean years, and running lotteries to fund bridges and roads. After the start of the Revolutionary War, he supported a reconciliation with Great Britain, a stand that eventually led to his arrest on June 17, 1776. While his wife Elizabeth remained at the Proprietary House until escaping to New York in 1777, Franklin was imprisoned in Connecticut. Neither ever returned to the Perth Amboy house.

Wow, that's a lot of stairs!
Reportedly the house was used by both the American and British forces at various points during the Revolution; what's known for sure is that it suffered a near-devastating fire. A merchant and real estate investor named John Rattoon bought the property in the 1790s, repaired the damage and sold it to New York hotelier Richard Woodhull in 1808. Renaming it Brighton House, Woodhull envisioned two new wings for the house, which, with its location on a bluff above Raritan Bay, became what was arguably one of New Jersey's first seaside resorts. However, he only managed to get one wing built before the War of 1812 prompted an economic downturn. By 1817, he'd sold the property to Matthias Bruen, one of the wealthiest men in America, who made it his family estate.

Following his death in 1846, Bruen's heirs made the property a hotel once again, later donating it to the Presbyterian Church as a retirement home after another financial downturn in the 1880s. Ultimately, the Proprietary House became a rooming house known as the Westminster, the spacious land surrounding it sold as separate lots, and Kearny Avenue run through what had been its front yard. Conditions deteriorated in the early 20th century, but local historians raised hopes that the building would eventually be restored to tell the story of Franklin and the turbulent Revolutionary years.

Today, the Proprietary House is owned by the State of New Jersey and managed by the local Proprietary House Association, which is responsible for raising the funds to restore and interpret the ground floor and first floor of the building. A separate organization is managing the restoration of the 1809 wing and the upper floors of the main structure as offices, reflecting the realities of historic preservation today. While the dream of any historian would be to restore a building to its original condition, the economic realities of managing such a large structure usually point to finding tenants. And buildings nearly always fare better when they're occupied.

Walking around the house, I could understand why the Proprietary House Association folks are proud of the building and eager to tell the story of Franklin and his arrest. The Revolution was more complicated in New Jersey than most people realize, and Franklin seemed to be doing the best he could in what quickly became a no-win situation for him and his family. While he supported reconciliation with Great Britain, his own Assembly pushed for independence, a force too powerful for him to deny. It's a story not often told, and fortunately the Proprietary House still stands to help tell it.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Summer with the merchant class at the Strauss Mansion

When summer finally gets its grip on New Jersey, the idea of whiling away a warm afternoon on the expansive porch of a rambling shoreside Victorian home starts to sound pretty good.

That was the thought that came to mind a few weeks ago, during the Weekend in Old Monmouth when I found my way up a steep hill to the Strauss Mansion, home of the Atlantic Highlands Historical Society. I'm a sucker for Queen Anne-style Victorian homes, and this one is the only mansion of its kind in Monmouth County that's open to the public. The closer I got, the more I could see the wear and tear on the house, but its pleasantly jumbled arrangement of turrets and gables drew me up onto the broad wrap-around porch and inside. The prospect of walking into one of these homes brings out the little kid in me: how awesome would it be to play hide and seek there?

I was just as awed when I got inside as I was when I saw the house on the drive up. Welcoming me into the expansive entry hall, a Historical Society member shared a brief history of the home, which was just one of several "cottages" built in the neighborhood by prominent New Yorkers seeking a respite from steamy Manhattan summers. Built in 1893 for the family of importer and merchant Adolph Strauss, the 21-room mansion was designed by Solomon Cohen and built by Adolph Hutera. Strauss himself would stay in the home only on the weekends, returning to the city by ferry during the week for work while his wife Jeannette and seven children would remain in Atlantic Highlands. They were part of a Monmouth County summer enclave known to some as the Jewish Newport on the Jersey Shore, with their specific group known as the "49ers" after their 49th Street neighborhood in New York. Other homes in the neighborhood of similar vintage are still well maintained, and a nice drive around Prospect Circle will give you a good idea of the community where the Strausses relaxed during the warmer months.

Following Mr. Strauss' death in 1905, the house was sold, eventually becoming a rooming house in the 1960s. By 1980 conditions in the building had become so dire that the town condemned it for code violations, leading the Historical Society to wage a campaign to raise funds to purchase and save it. The house by that point was a shadow of its former self: asbestos shingles covered the original cedar shakes on the exterior, the roof was in serious need of repair, wall-to-wall carpet covered its floors.

Some of the original flooring. Wow!
The house's current stewards are candid about the limitations of their preservation work to date, and as you walk through the rooms on the first and second floor the need for new plaster work and paint are evident. That said, the potential is enormous. You can't help but be impressed by the craftsmanship of the Victorian-era builders, hidden for many years. The hardwood floors are laid in intricate patterns not seen in homes built these days, and the original stained glass has been returned to its rightful place after having been sold by a previous owner.

Much of the house is curated to reflect the Strauss era of ownership, with beautiful furnishings and clothes representing the 1890s and early 1900s, but a good portion of the second floor is dedicated to local history. Everything from Sandy Hook's lifesaving history to 19th century tools and hardware to the old 20th century White Crystal diner is represented in the Historical Society's varied collection. They've also assembled an impressive reference library and archive that's open for those interested in researching aspects of the town's history (yearbooks and maps are always fun to peruse!).

And for those like me who'd love to while away a summer evening on the porch, the Historical Society hosts a series of concerts, suppers and other gatherings. With such an amazing asset to help them raise restoration funds, they're taking a creative - and fun - approach to bring people to the house.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Shorebird migration: good news on Red Knots at Brig?

The lives of us Hidden New Jerseyans get complicated this time of year. There are always festivals, great events at historic sites and more opportunities for us to make friends within the conservation community. And spring migration gives us limited chances to see birds decked out in their finest plumage on their way to their mating territory. Even the birds that raise families in New Jersey get frustratingly hard to see as they settle down and build nests in trees whose branches have suddenly become so leafy they obscure anything within.

This larger-than-life representation of a Red Knot
memorializes Moonbird, who's been commuting
via the Delaware Bayshore for 20 years (and we hope still is!).
And then, there are the Red Knots. You might remember them from our story last year. They're the endangered shorebirds that make a pit stop on the Delaware Bayshore enroute from their winter homes in Argentina and Chile to their summer breeding grounds in Arctic Canada. The window to see them is pretty darned small: generally a few weeks or less in May and June, after the horseshoe crabs have come out of the water to lay their eggs on the shore. Knots take advantage of that ever-reliable cycle to fatten up before flying the final leg of their 9000+ mile journey.

Similarly, scientists flock to the Bayshore in large numbers this time of year to assess the health of the Red Knot population and its potential for growth. The fate of the species and the horseshoe crab are obviously intertwined, and efforts to bolster the crab population will have a major impact on these amazing travelers.

Given other obligations, we didn't have the luxury of journeying to the Bayshore on a May weekend, as much as we would have liked. And given that Memorial Day came so early this year, there was no way we were going to go as far south as the Cape May County peninsula. Instead, we took our chances with Forsythe NWR, a.k.a. Brig, figuring we'd be able to see at least some of the shorebirds we needed to bolster our year lists.

Still, I was hoping that a Red Knot or two would be in the mix. Considering how many warblers we'd missed seeing in New Jersey this spring, it seemed the fates owed us a treat.

As we started our drive along the eight-mile Wildlife Drive atop the impoundment berm, we noted that the tide was out, leaving broad expanses of mud between large islands of marsh grass. Normally conditions like that leave a lot to be desired; a bit more water would concentrate the birds into a smaller area of drier ground. As we scanned broad swaths of mud, we considered the possibility we'd have to do a second sweep a few hours later, once the tide had come in.

Still, though, we were finding occasional groups of shorebirds as we drove further along. Small Sandpipers and the occasional Willets gave us hope that we'd at least see something on our first go 'round.

Then we heard the ruckus. A pebbly expanse just past the grassy shoulder of the berm was alive with birds busily pecking in the dirt for their mid-morning meal. The noise was extreme as dozens of Ruddy Turnstones pecked and dug and, well, turned stones to search for their meal. A couple of sizeable horseshoe crab shells stood motionless nearby, sending the silent message that yes, in fact, there might just be some eggs there, fairly far from the oceanfront. This was a gathering well worth leaving the car to investigate.

Like bargain-seekers at the discount table, Turnstones pushed Sandpipers and their breed brethren aside to get a better angle on the possible horseshoe crab egg bonanza just below the surface. They were fun to watch, but both Ivan and I had the feeling a good surprise could be there for us, too. Scanning the group, I decided to get a bit closer to see if I could spy the birds that were so close to the berm they were obscured by grass. And, I saw... yes....

A Red Knot! Milling among the Turnstones, the sole bird of its kind plucked its way through the stones and sand for a good meal. While the Knot was a singleton, it looked rather healthy and plump, as if it might have been chowing down for a good couple of days. Forsythe isn't generally known as the place to go to see Red Knots, being on the Atlantic Coast rather than the Bayshore, but at least one decided to grace us with its presence.

As we later discovered when checking in with the Conserve Wildlife folks who keep track of such things, this year's count of migrants to the Delaware Bayshore has been especially good. That got me thinking about how our Red Knot found his way to a beach within viewing distance of Atlantic City. It's always possible that this single individual got a little confused or misplaced from the flock that usually ends up farther south and west, but I'd personally like to think that he's the harbinger, maybe the trendy guy who thinks he discovered the next great place for migrating Red Knots to spend their brief but meaningful Jersey Shore vacation.

Yes, I'll admit I'm anthropomorphizing, but we can always hope that these small but mighty shorebirds will become so abundant that they'll need to stretch out a bit when they visit here in future migrations. Would it be the worst thing for Red Knots to visit AC every once in a while?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fun with Flags at the Old Barracks*

One of my favorite parts of exploring New Jersey is that there's always the chance of finding something extraordinarily cool in a spot you're not really expecting.

Like the time we found a bamboo forest at Rutgers in New Brunswick. Or when we discovered a piece of Grover Cleveland's wedding cake at his birthplace in Caldwell. Or found a taxidermied specimen of the now-extinct Heath Hen at the Drake House in Plainfield. Usually, they're not the things you're initially looking for in the place you're visiting, but they become one of the dominant aspects of your memories of the place.

I had a similar experience recently in Trenton. As part of my work with the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area, I'm at the Old Barracks several times a month. Said by some to be the last remaining colonial British military barracks in North America, it was constructed in 1758 as part of a larger defensive system during the French and Indian War. It played a pivotal role in the American Revolution and had a checkered past until it was purchased by local preservationists in the early 1900s. Now owned by the state of New Jersey, it's been fully restored to tell stories of colonial life and defense. If you're into military history or early Jerseyana, it's an amazing place to visit.

Among the many artifacts is something you'd never expect to find at a small museum in New Jersey: one of the oldest surviving flags in North America and maybe the British Isles. It's hanging unassumingly on a wall in the Barracks' French and Indian War exhibit space.

The Pine Tree Flag. Photo courtesy The Old Barracks Museum..
In the interest of full disclosure, the flag's story is tied more to Connecticut than to New Jersey, but there's no shame in that. Some of our best friends came here from other places. It's known as a Pine Tree flag for the small conifer affixed to the upper left portion near the St. George's Cross. Embroidery in the center stripe of fabric appears to label it as the banner of the 5th Connecticut Provincial Regiment, which hailed from somewhere east of present-day Hartford. The soldiers of the 5th served at Fort Ticonderoga during the French and Indian War, and many of them likely clipped pieces of the flag for souvenirs at the conclusion of their service. That's why the damage to the banner would seem so uniform in spots. Flags carried by regiments during the Civil War sometimes suffered similar damage -- one could say they were sort of loved to death. (Coincidentally, New Jersey's Civil War flag collection is just a few blocks away at the State Archives, with select few examples on display.)

How do artifacts like this survive, and how do they end up in Trenton? This one seems to have been the beneficiary of the forgetfulness of the soldier who might have been its creator. Flagbearer and Ensign Jacob Woodward took the homemade flag when his service was complete, tucking it away in a chest, much as many of us do when we move from one stage of our lives to the next. Maybe he took it out occasionally to view it, maybe not. All we know is that 200 years later, a Woodward descendant sold the chest and its contents in an estate sale, leaving the new owner to discover what he fortunately recognized to be a treasure. Professional textile conservators have estimated that the flag dates to the mid-1700s, if not earlier.

One thing led to another until, in 2009, the Pine Tree flag found a home within Trenton's own French and Indian War relic. Though the Barracks and the flag weren't acquainted in their primes, it's fitting they should be together now, much like centenarians who meet at the VFW and build a friendship based on similar wartime experiences. Together, they tell a story of pre-Independence American history that so many of us know so little about.

*Apologies to fans of The Big Bang Theory

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

None shall pass! Sandy Hook's hidden fort

Our birding excursions at Sandy Hook usually lead us close to the tip of the hook, where Fort Hancock's Nine Gun Battery and Battery Peck continue to molder, unrestored. Part of the search for interesting species takes us close to the Coast Guard base, where, if you look in the right direction, you might notice an odd bit of construction: a very sturdy granite block structure topped by a water tank.

The big stone walls seem like a bit of overkill to protect a water tank, both regal and like a discarded part of the set of Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Then again, they probably stood up well to the surges of Hurricane Sandy. It wasn't until recently that we noticed an additional, less medieval-looking wall coming out from one side and continuing eastward for a short bit, looking rather vestigial beneath overgrown vines.

Ni! A portion of the old Fort at Sandy Hook.
We did not bring it a shrubbery.
I didn't think much of it until my recent visit to the Strauss Museum in Atlantic Highlands (more on that to come), where I came upon a 19th century map of Sandy Hook. Rather than illustrating the location of Fort Hancock's many batteries and functional buildings, the map portrayed a pentagonal structure at the tip of the hook, labeled only as "fort." Part of the location matches the site of the still-standing walls. After a little research, I realized we'd inadvertently stumbled on the remnants of the Fort at Sandy Hook, the Civil War-era predecessor to the army base that had operated from the late 1800s until 1974.

The fort's intended shape is illustrated
near the top of this 19th century map.
Who knew? Sandy Hook's strategic location near the entrance to New York Bay makes it a perfect defense location, so it's not surprising that Fort Hancock wasn't the first Army base there. To start the tradition, the wooden-walled Fort Gates was built there in 1813 to protect the harbor and city. The rather obviously-named Fort at Sandy Hook was part of the next generation Third System U.S. fortifications as advances in weapons technology drove construction of granite-walled defense systems. Construction began on the hook in 1857 as part of a larger network of forts within New York Harbor that was designed to protect shipping channels into the city along with Forts Richmond (now Battery Weed), Tompkins, Hamilton and Lafayette near the Verrazano Narrows.

As the map portrays, the fort's pentagonal shape was highlighted with bastions at each corner. Though construction was far from complete at the start of the Civil War, the Army outfitted the fort with more than 30 cannons of various sizes and capacities. Company E of the 10th New York Heavy Artillery was assigned to the fort in April 1863. By July 1866, the fort was vacant again, apparently never to be used again.

Three years later and only 70 percent built, the Fort at Sandy Hook was declared obsolete. New artillery technology, in the form of rifled cannons, could easily destroy the granite-walled fortress, rendering it useless. However, portions of the fort were reportedly incorporated into the still-standing Nine Gun Battery built in the 1890s through the early 1900s.

For safety reasons, Nine Gun remains closed to the casual visitor, so it's not easy (or prudent) to figure out exactly where the old fort walls exist in the newer construction. However, there's still that wall below the Coast Guard water tank, visible from Lot M at the base of the Fishermen's Trail near Battery Peck. Look carefully to the east of the tank, and you might be able to follow a line to additional parts of the fort wall. Don't attempt, however, to get too close. While the Coast Guard base is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, the site remains an active military installation, and you can't just walk in. Even if you bring a shrubbery.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The bus from Baltimore came in: Orioles reach New Jersey

Maybe it's a coincidence, but just as their baseball namesakes have come north to play the Mets and Yankees, Baltimore Orioles -- the winged ones -- have made their way to New Jersey.

It's not entirely unusual - I generally see my first Baltimore Oriole of the year sometime in late April or early May. What's really getting me this year is the sheer numbers of them being reported in different areas around the state. I saw my first pair at the Deserted Village in Union County's Watchung Reservation over the weekend, typically the place where I find them for the year.

I wasn't quite prepared for my next run in with a member of the species. My local neighborhood park -- a little common space in the midst of long-developed suburbia -- is home to an absurdly loyal series of Black-crowned Night Herons that has shown up every year, along with the usual small park coterie of sparrows, geese and Mourning Doves. Kingbirds and American Goldfinches will arrive from time to time, but Orioles? Never.

Until the other day. Just about the time their human counterparts were probably starting batting practice at Citi Field, I heard a very fluid yet unfamiliar song as I was walking through the park. Who could it be? Fortunately I had my binoculars with me, making it substantially easier to scan the upper reaches of a large sycamore for whoever was vocalizing.

And then... I spotted a bit of bright orange. Preferring the high perches as they do, Orioles, in my experience, at least, are far easier to identify from their color than from the black-and-white patterning of their wings or the darkness of their heads. That hue and the uniformity across the underside of the bird made the bird unmistakably a Baltimore Oriole. He hopped along a bit and gave me confirmation with a turn of his body.

As I watched, I could see the bird singing his heart out. When he stopped, another Oriole within earshot began his vocalization. Could there be two in the neighborhood? And even more important, would they both find mates and build nests here?

I haven't heard them since that evening, but I did find another in a park just a few miles away. Will he find a friend and make his summer home where I can visit easily? Will they raise offspring that will return next year and thrive as well? I can only hope they have better luck than the baseball team did with the Mets this week.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Doc in the box: Dr. Robert W. Cooke's very small clinic

County historical weekends are always reliable and often a scavenger hunt. They're reliable in that they all promise a bevy of local sites, many of them house museums where you can learn about life in a given town during the 1700s or 1800s. The houses are all wonderful in their own way, playing an important part in helping people appreciate local history. That said, there's only so many times you can hear about chamber pots and bed warmers before you start yearning for something a little different.

That's where the scavenger hunt comes in.

This past weekend, I checked out the Weekend in Old Monmouth, the two-day event encompassing more than 40 open sites on four separate driving routes in the county. Finding all of them would take a navigator or a GPS, and with Ivan on an out-of-state birding foray, I had neither. Thus, I picked a few spots and hoped for the best.

Eventually, my strategy had me heading for the doctor's office. The Holmdel Historical Society contends that Dr. Robert Woodruff Cooke's office, built in 1823 or thereabouts, is the nation's first and oldest building used exclusively for a medical practice. In fact, they're so confident in the assertion that they're willing to give a cash reward to whoever can prove them wrong. Okay, the reward is only $25, but hey, they're willing to back up their claim.

The building as it looked in 1940,
courtesy Historic American Buildings Survey.
I was prepared for an old building when I drove up. What I wasn't expecting was how small it was. Boasting impressively detailed Federal-style architecture, the structure nonetheless looked more like a children's playhouse than a doctor's office. Indeed, when I walked in, I discovered that the entire first floor consists of a reception area, a smaller side room where examinations presumably took place, and a closet. A door next to the fireplace opened to an extremely steep staircase leading to a second-floor bedroom that may have been used for overnight patients. How an ailing patient would be able to negotiate those steps was beyond me.

A view from upstairs, over the railing and looking down.
The second generation of his family to go into medicine, Dr. Cooke was born in Newton, grew up in Somerset County and attended medical school in New York. Ready to start his own practice after an internship with an older doctor, he purchased 14 acres of land in Holmdel in 1823 and built the office building. He later married and built an impressive house nearby for his growing family.

One of the doctor's four children, Henry Gansevoort Cooke, followed him into medicine and took over the practice when Robert died. The younger Dr. Cooke was also a Civil War veteran, serving first with the 29th New Jersey Regiment at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and later as a volunteer surgeon at the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. (Family history courtesy Gregory Cooke.)

As unique and interesting as the building and its history are, the real treat of the visit was talking with the members of the Holmdel Historical Society. Cooke family members have very kindly lent some of the doctors' medical instruments to help tell the story, and one of the docents almost gleefully explained their use (tonsil snipper, anyone?).

Situated near the corner of McCampbell and Holmdel-Middletown Roads, the building was actually moved a few years ago to accommodate the construction of a McMansion development. It's now safe on the grounds of the Village Elementary School and listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places, hopefully preserving its place in history permanently.

Likewise, the historical society folks seem genuinely excited by this little gem they saved, and eager to discover more of its story. I had to wonder why Dr. Cooke had built a totally separate building for his practice, rather than designating a room or two in his house to see patients, as some doctors do today. Had he, perhaps, actually lived in the building before he got married? And had any of the building served as a de facto post office during the 19 years the elder doctor was Holmdel postmaster? The folks I met there had their own theories, but the facts are still to be proven. Like any great piece of local history, the story of Dr. Cooke's office continues to develop.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Hitchcock on Sandy Hook: My adventure with The Birds

Spring this year has been hit and miss, with very few warm days. Any nature lover with a flexible schedule would have headed to a favorite birding spot when the temperatures promised to reach 75 degrees on a sunny day.

For me, that's Sandy Hook. It's one of the state's top birding spots any time of year, but during spring migration, it's especially promising. I had no specific reason to believe it would be spectacular today, but you never know. And to paraphrase a popular saying, a mediocre day at Sandy Hook is still better than a great day in a lot of other places.

What I didn't realize was that my visit would land me a screen test for a remake of a Hitchcock movie. No, not Psycho (I'm not that obsessed with birding). Yes, The Birds!

Now, over the past several years, Ivan and I have seen plenty of large flocks of small avian visitors, and smaller flocks of large avian visitors, and sometimes they take flight in ways that might be scary to those who aren't familiar with their general behavior. Like anyone else would, I sometimes make Tippi Hedren jokes, especially when gulls or blackbirds are involved, but I've never felt stalked.

This time, though, I got a fish's view of a predator, totally by mistake.

Sandy Hook's varied habitats offer several different places to bird, depending on what you'd like to see. My first choice today was an area at the tip of the hook called the locust grove, known to attract warblers and other songbirds. It's nestled between Battery Peck and the northern end of Nine Gun Battery, accessible from a gate in the chain link fence, and it leads out toward the pond on the Fisherman's Trail.

An Osprey overhead -- photo not taken
during the event described in this post.
The farther north you go on the hook, the more likely you are to see Osprey, and I was thrilled to see a half dozen or so in the air as I got out of my car. Where it was once news to see one nesting pair at Sandy Hook, the population has soared in recent years. By my informal count, there are at least five active nests on the hook this year. Some are on platforms built by the National Park Service specifically for the Osprey. Others capitalize on existing man-made structures like a radar tower on the Coast Guard base and, despite the efforts of the NPS, the chimneys of a few Fort Hancock buildings. Their success says a tremendous deal about the improved health of Raritan Bay and the efforts of environmentalists to make the region more hospitable to the ol' fish hawk.

Thing is, there are so many of them that you have to wonder where else they're nesting. A couple of years ago, I was scolded away from Battery Kingman by an angry Osprey parent protecting its young, and there are other platforms tucked away in locations less accessible to human wanderers. I think that's how I got into trouble today.

I was probably about a third of the way down the locust grove path when I heard insistent peeping from the sky. Looking up, I saw three Osprey -- two circling broadly and a third hovering almost directly above me. I kept walking, only to look up again to see the same bird over me, now flapping its wings busily. I'd seen that flap before, but over water: it's the maneuver of an Osprey readying itself to strike at a fish.

Hmm. Perhaps it's time to look for birds elsewhere.

In the Hitchcock masterpiece, the birds' hostility comes out of nowhere. My experience is easily explained. The closer I got to my car, the less disturbed the Osprey seemed to be, leading me to conjecture that I'd unknowingly approached a nest. By this point in the season, they're well-established and already incubating two or three eggs, one parent keeping the unhatched offspring warm while the other guards the area or goes fishing for the family. They've got enough to worry about from predators without having to warn me off.

A big part of birding is understanding the place of the human. We're there to observe and enjoy but not to disturb or harass. When a normally-quiet bird like the Osprey starts to vocalize, or a usually sweet-sounding songbird calls harshly, it's a cue to depart. We know our intent is pure, but the bird doesn't.

Birding is good all over the hook; I had no specific need to be on the locust grove trail. If the Osprey wanted me gone, I was more than happy to cooperate.