Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Oysters to country club to bungalows: Laurence Harbor and Raritan Bay

You might notice the name on an exit sign as you drive along the Garden State Parkway: Laurence Harbor. Spelled as it is, in a slighly-unconventional manor, the community's name, for me at least, has always evoked a degree of exclusivity, or maybe just a little hoity, without the toity, so to speak. When I checked The WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey, I found it described as a "small resort," leading me to wonder whether it had been more along the lines of Keansburg or Deal, Seaside Heights or Avalon.

Today, it's part of Old Bridge, and we ended up there a few weeks ago, when our birding exploits found us exploring Raritan Bay via Route 35. It's not exactly the place most people think of when they're looking for interesting gulls and shorebirds, but it's been productive in the past, particularly at South Amboy, whose shoreline is a regular birder hotspot (and a particularly scenic view of Staten Island).

Fortunately, Old Bridge seems to be making the most of its shoreline with series of boardwalks in its Waterfront Park. The area was hit hard during Hurricane Sandy but to our eyes the walks and surrounding parkland looked largely (or at least convincingly) restored.

Laurence Harbor, back in the day.
In certain areas, small bungalow houses were packed tightly together, reminiscent of other shore communities that evolved from summer vacation enclaves to year-round residences. Laurence Harbor, in particular, seemed especially packed, hemmed in on one side by Route 35 and by the edge of a bluff on the other. It's ringed by the one-way, ovular Shoreland Circle, which we were basically forced to take if we had any hope of getting out of the neighborhood.

Once we got to the waterfront, we were taken by the views -- it's obvious why someone would want to live on the bay portion of Shoreland, with its modest altitude affording a beautiful perspective.

As it turns out, the shorefront community is just the latest in a series of settlements there. First the property of the well-heeled Provost and Travers families, who owned the property from the 1700s well into the late 1800s, it eventually came into the hands of the man whose name it now bears: Laurence Lamb. He converted 400 acres of shorefront land to a luxurious country club, complete with golf course, clubhouse and dining amenities. It's said that from its opening in early 1899 into the first two decades of the 20th century, the club attracted celebrities ranging from members of the Vanderbilt family and the Prince of Wales to Clark Gable and Guy Lombardo, coming to enjoy the bay's native chingarora oysters. (Both Gable and Lombardo would have been a bit young - and not yet celebrities, but heck, it's a good story.)

The current residences are the latest iteration of a community created in 1922 by developers who'd bought the storied Laurence Harbor Country Club. Plots of 25 by 100 feet were sold to bungalow dwellers at prices ranging from $75 for the more inland tracts to $500 for shorefront property the boasted panoramic views of Staten Island and the hills of Monmouth County. To complete the seaside atmosphere, summertime residents enjoyed a boardwalk with a merry-go-round, concessions, a dance hall and bandshell.

Evolution from summer haven to year-round residences came with the Great Depression of the 1930s, as many owners winterized their weekend houses and lived more cheaply at the Raritan Bayshore. The boardwalk lasted through the 1940s, but a combination of three devastating hurricanes and the construction of the Garden State Parkway in the 1950s spelled the end of Laurence Harbor as a shore resort. North Jersey residents, it seemed, were finding it easier to head farther south to towns along the Atlantic coast, rather than weekending on the bay.

Today, that boardwalk is replaced by a new walkway, but with a more natural setting. A portion of the Old Bridge Waterfront Park runs along the Laurence Harbor coast, phragmites blowing in the wind and gulls wheeling overhead. Our visit was curtailed by frigid gusts, but we'll surely be back when the breezes are a bit milder and we can explore a bit more.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the detailed post! I grew up in what we affectionately refer to as "The Harbor," ourselves being "Harbor Rats," lol. I've been researching the history, and appreciate your take on it. (Love the jab at boasts of Gable and Lombardo!) I knew it since before they built that waterfront park and was always drawn to the beach. This despite the garbage and debris that would wash ashore and be left to bake fishily in the sun. It can definitely get gusty in winter, but check it out again in the summer (on your way down to the rest of the shore, haha). I always feel lucky I got to grow up close to such natural beauty--sea and sky and sand.


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