Wednesday, July 29, 2009

United States Life-Saving Service

In 1766 the Scow "Nancy" was lost along the Cape May coastline in a violent gale. Witnesses watched in horror as twenty-three souls lost their lives. The Jersey Shore was littered with shipwrecks; some caused by storms and accidents and many caused intentionally by wreckers. An old trick was to hang a lantern from a mule's neck and to walk the beast back and forth along the shoreline on a dark, stormy night. An unfortunate captain who lost his bearings would think the light was from another vessel, a safe distance from shore, and would suddenly find his vessel snagged on a deadly shoal. " Pickens " filled many a seaside homestead or inn, and there were even reports of locals refusing to provide assistance, and rifling through bodies as they came to rest on the beach.
In one nasty two month period- Dec 1826 to January 1827 - two hundred wrecks took place along Absecon Island ( now Atlantic City. ) Lighthouses helped but more was needed. In 1848 New Jersey had the honor of being the first state to appropriate funds for surf boats, rockets, and other lifesaving apparatus to save life and property.
William Newell, a congressman and later governor of New Jersey, is credited with these appropriations and other lifesaving initiatives. He was responsible for improvements on the breeches buoy, which came to national attention during an event in 1850. A brig, Ayrshire, out of Scotland was wrecked off the wild shores of Absecon Island. More than two hundred Irish and British immigrants were aboard the ship in search of the American Dream, and had it not been for Newell's contraption they would have all gone to the bottom of the frigid Atlantic. A group of dedicated local fisherman carried a cannon-like device that fired a ball tethered to line that was then attached to the sinking vessel. A closed car was attached by a set of sturdy rings to the line, and over two days all but one of the passengers were saved.
The United States Life-Saving Service was formed in New Jersey from a group of battered huts along the windswept, desolate shores. An article in Harper's Weekly in 1884 mentioned Long Branch and how the summer visitors were unaware of the small, standardized stations and their fearless crews who faced hardship and danger from September to May. By the time the article was published, the coast of the United States was dotted with the stations, and loss of life in wrecks had been reduced by 75 percent. New Jersey had forty stations along its coast. The United States Life-Saving Service, forgotten now by most Americans, was absorbed into the United States Coast Guard at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Pictured here are two images. One shows a fearless crews launching their surf boat at the scene of a wreck. The other is the station at Deal, NJ. While the stations were supposed to be standardized, the wealthier communities wanted their Life-Saving Stations to reflect their affluence.
Emil R. Salvini

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Spring Lake, NJ - old school

A beautiful image of Spring Lake NJ on a summer day sixty-two years ago. The Essex and Sussex Hotel seen in the background dominates the oceanfront.

From: Boardwalk Memories, Tales of the Jersey Shore Emil R. Salvini ( Globe Pequot Press )

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Mt Vernon Beach and Hotel - Cape May NJ

In 1856 the world's largest hotel, the Mount Vernon Hotel, burned to the ground before construction was completed. It was built to accommodate 2,100 guests and its dining hall contained more than forty gas-burning chandeliers. Sadly the partially completed mammoth hotel had opened for the 1856 season to bring in some needed cash and just as it was closing in Sept - mercifully the summer crowds were gone - fire consumed the Mount Vernon. A co-owner, his four children and a housekeeper were lost in the conflagration.

The footprint of the doomed hotel was developed by a variety of firms - most failed - and building lots were eventually sold and cottages erected. I believe the hotel was located in present day Cape May from Broadway west along the beach where 2nd Avenue now ends. ( The Light of Asia - a giant wooden elephant related to Lucy in Margate was used as a gimmick to sell lots in the area but that is another story.)

The Mount Vernon Beach company produced a brochure and sold lots on a plot that began " 700 yards west of the West Jersey Railroad Station on Beach Avenue" ( current day Grant Street in Cape May.)

The development included what consists today of the western end of Cape May and the now deserted town of South Cape May. The resort currently ends on the western end of the beach and boardwalk which is today 2nd Avenue. Based on their brochure the Mount Vernon Beach company plotted streets that actually ran to 21 Avenue.

Building so close to the sea can be a gamble and most of the homes that extended t0 21st Avenue in South Cape May were eventually lost due to erosion and hurricanes. Many were saved and moved east. The streets in Cape May that extend west from and include Broadway - Patterson, First and Second Avenues- contain a number of the Mt Vernon Beach homes. The Thomas Weinman Cottage that once stood on a Mt Vernon Beach lot at Beach and Sixteenth ( see the image from the brochure) was moved to First Avenue ( see the new photo taken by me in 2009 .)
I often write that in an era when labor was less expensive than lumber homes were moved when the sea encroached. It was said that the movers were so skilled the cottage owners often left their china in their wall cabinets, and the cottage and plates came to rest on the new lot in one piece :)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Stockton Hotel = Cape May NJ

In 1869 the West Jersey Railroad built the luxurious Stockton Hotel at a cost of over $300,000. ( I am posting a rare view of the hotel from my collection )

The mammoth new hotel could accommodate over 475 guests and the dining hall could accommodate 800. The Stockton was designed by noted architect Stephen Decatur Button who created plans for over thirty buildings in the city. Many historians believe he was responsible for the "feel" of the Cape May we love and cherish today. He not only designed numerous buildings but his style was incorporated in "pattern books;" books used by local builders for cottagers who could not afford their own architect.

The Cape May Ocean Wave reported on the new hotel:

"By the time dinner and speeches were fairly over, the evening train from Philadelphia arrived, when guests crowded in, filling an extra page of the register with names of permanent boarders, and these have continued to daily increase ever since."

The hotel survived the Great Fire of 1878 that destroyed 35 acres of the city center. The Stockton Hotel had a long run eventually being torn down in 1910 to make way for new construction.  The next time you are in Cape May take a walk down Gurney Street from the beach and you will see the eight Stockton Row cottages on your left that were once shadowed by the massive hotel.  They were built by the same railroad in 1870/1871. 

( photo copyright 2009 Emil R Salvini )

Monday, July 6, 2009

Another July 4th

Love this image of Jersey Shore revelers on a July 4th over a century ago in Atlantic City.

Somethings never change


Saturday, July 4, 2009

THe Cake Walk - AC Style

It is believed that the African American dance form, the Cake Walk, originated on plantations in the deep South.

In the era before emancipation the best dancers would form a Cake Walk line and tradition states the winner often received a cake..thus the popular term, " That really takes the cake."

Atlantic City- and Young's Pier - was the first resort to feature Cake Walk dancers with African Americans as a popular act for tourists. Pictured here is a troupe posing on the pier circa 1910.

In later years white dancers would use black face to imitate the dancers but the genuine art form was an African American original. I would have loved to see this act in person.

( from the collection of Joseph Milligan III )