Oysters and Ada

OVER 600 OYSTER BOATS were built between 1846 and 1930 in towns along the Delaware Bay like Bridgeton, Greenwich, Cedarville, Dividing Creek, Dorchester, Leesburg,  Mauricetown; but very few boats are left today and those that are require a good deal of maintenance. All oystering was originally done by sail, but after World War II,  dredging under  mechanized power was allowed, so most of the oystermen cut their masts and installed engines. They’re a leaky fleet, named after families that have lived in the region for many generations: Robbins, Lore, Sockwell, Reed, and many more. New Jersey’s tall ship, the A.J. Meerwald is named for one such family, and was rescued from the mud by the efforts of Megan Wren, a native of Money Island in Downe Township. Wren began the Delaware Bay Schooner Project in 1988 as a conservation effort to restore the decrepit  schooner. With the help of many volunteers including boat builders who were forced to learn as they went along, the Meerwald (which was originally built in 1928) was relaunched in 1998. The Schooner Project is now the Bayshore Center at Bivalve and the A.J. Meerwald has become a floating classroom. Her home port is Bivalve, but she also docks in Cape May, Burlington, and occasionally in Philadelphia. Just about all crew and maintenance work is done by volunteers and I’m proud to say I was one of them for a brief time. I toted equipment, filled oil jugs for the Meerwald’s engine and painted the address of the organization’s headquarters on 50 gallon plastic trash cans. While I was there, the Bayshore Discovery Project (as it was called at the time) had also acquired another old schooner named the Cashier for $1. At the time it was the oldest continuously used fishing boat in the world. It began its life in 1846. The paint on it was an inch thick in some places. Sadly, the paint was the only thing holding the Cashier together. She is now slowly rotting in the mud at  the restored wharves of Bivalve.

The Ada C. Lore

The Ada C. Lore

 

BIVALVE is also home to the Bivalve Packing Company and it was on their premises that I watched another oyster schooner being rebuilt; this one practically from scratch using re-claimed lumber from an old New England barn. It was named early on–the Ada C. Lore. Once again local provenance. I would stop by the ship yard from time to time to check on the boat’s progress and once I had the opportunity to ask a few questions of the part time boat builders. How did they know where to begin? What plans were they working from? They just chuckled and gave me the old “scratch your head” look. They were honestly working from instinct I believe. Of course they had rudimentary boat building and carpentry skills but the real knowledge was in their blood.

The construction continued for several years and finally on one beautiful August day, it was time for the launch. Practically the whole town of Port Norris turned out for the spectacle; it was like a holiday. And it took all day. A very large crane capable of lifting 50 tons was hired, as was a semi trailer to haul the boat from it’s construction site to the nearby Port Norris Marina. One little problem though. In ordering the trailer someone had misplaced a zero and the trailer that arrived was only good for hauling 10,000 pounds when a 100,000 pound trailer was needed. A heated discussion ensued. The crane was already there, it would take another day to switch trailers, they would have to pay another day’s crane rental… Nobody was really sure how much the Ada C. Lore weighed but an estimate came in at about 25,000 pounds. It was finally decided to try and load her on the trailer and see what happened. These were either very stupid or very brave souls to risk several year’s worth of work on someone’s math error. But people who make a living on the water are used to risks. The crane was put into position, a huge harness slung under the boat, and she was carefully lifted onto the waiting trailer and chocked and shimmed into place. The back of the trailer sunk to about two inches from the ground and the rear tires were visibly splayed out unnaturally. But the truck driver got under way and very slowly the Ada C. Lore started on her journey to the water. Everyone held their breath when a tight turn had to be negotiated, but the only mishaps were a telephone pole bent to a 20 degree angle and a stop sign destroyed.

It was nearly twilight by the time the schooner arrived at her launch site with the crane following and setting up at the new location. The boat was harnessed again, lifted off the trailer and swung out over the water. In the best maritime tradition the owner, who was by now nearly totally drained, smashed a bottle of cheap bubbly on her bow and she was lowered into the muddy Maurice River, amid much celebration from all present.

New York Ship

DURING WORLD WAR II my father was one of more than 30,000 people employed by New York Ship Building Corporation located in Camden. It came by that name because in 1899, when the company was formed by industrialist Henry G. Morse, it was intended to be located on Staten Island. But a 160 acre farm on the Delaware just south of Camden had a much more attractive price tag. The name was already incorporated, so a state of the art ship yard was built with backing by financial biggies Andrew Mellon and Henry Frick. New York Ship initially landed lucrative government contracts to build warships and by 1917 was the largest shipyard in the world. So large was the operation that entire towns sprang up in Southern New Jersey just to house the workers, including ‘Yardship’, which is now known as Fairview. Over the course of its history, over 600 ships were constructed there. They built all nature of warships including aircraft carriers, battleships, submarines, landing craft, etc. The battleships Utah and Oklahoma were both sunk at Pearl Harbor on the fateful date of December 7, 1941. The Oklahoma was righted and sold for scrap, but the Utah still rests in the mud near Ford Island, a memorial to the unknown dead entombed there.

An unidenified young lady about to christen the USS Sonoma in 1912 at New York Ship.

An unidenified young lady about to christen the
USS Sonoma in 1912 at New York Ship.

New York Ship also built luxury liners, barges, ferry boats and in 1959 the first nuclear-powered cargo ship, the NS Savannah was launched. The aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, finished in 1961, was one of the last major shipbuilding projects at the yard. Too large to be constructed on the ways, a special drydock was built just for the Kitty Hawk. She turned out to be the first and last ship New York Ship ever constructed in a drydock. Orders from the Navy eventually began to dry up and New York Ship finally closed up shop in 1967 leaving many employees jobless. My father had been an electric draftsman at New York Ship and he was able to find work across the river with the Philadelphia Electric Company. I still have his case of mechanical drawing tools.

dadstools

 

Odd twist of fate: New York Ship built the first Navy destroyer sunk in World War I: the Jacob Jones (DD-61). They also built the first U.S Navy ship sunk in World War II: the Reuben James. Both were torpedoed by German U-boats. Another Jacob Jones (DD-130), launched less than a year after the first one was lost, was also sunk—twenty five years later.

The Jacob Jones destroyers’ namesake was a Delaware Valley native born near Smyrna, Delaware in 1768. An officer in the U.S. Navy, he served under Commodore John Barry, for whom the Commodore Barry Bridge over the Delaware is named. Jones saw action in a number of conflicts including the War of 1812 for which he received a gold medal from the United States Congress.

Reuben James was also born in Delaware around 1776. A Boatswain’s Mate, he served aboard the first USS Constellation. He also served as a volunteer on the American frigate Philadelphia with Lieutenant Stephen Decatur and was involved in a battle with Barbary Pirates at Tripoli in 1804. He was highly acclaimed for saving Decatur’s life during hand-to-hand combat with the pirates. After the ship named for him was lost, it was memorialized in a highly patriotic song written by Woody Guthrie.

Ringing Rocks

IF YOU EVER find yourself in Milford, NJ, be sure to stop in at the Ship Inn–New Jersey’s first brew-pub. I did a number of years ago to cash in on a ticket for a FREE!! beer that I had received at the Frenchtown Wine Festival for doing an imitation of my English mother-in-law. She sounded a lot like a Monty Python character, bless her soul.

And after enjoying a refreshing beverage and maybe a plate of steamers, cross over the bridge there into Upper Black Eddy Pennsylvania and you’ll be on your way to another attraction—of an entirely different sort. Turn north onto Route 32 and in just a short distance you’ll see a sign for Ringing Rocks County Park.

The Ringing Rocks

The Ringing Rocks

You’re in for a strange sight. A open field of 7 or 8 acres strewn with boulders as if some giant had just poured them out of an immense bucket. But that’s not even the weirdest part. There’s a reason they’re called “Ringing Rocks”. If you bang on them with something hard, like another rock, they make a hollow metallic sound, like a hammer on an anvil. And there always seems to be plenty of visitors testing them out, many of whom bring their own hammers. The boulders are composed of diabase–volcanic basalt which contains large amounts of iron and aluminum. In the nineteenth century a Dr. J.J. Ott collected rocks of sufficiently varied pitches to play some tunes accompanied by the Pleasant Valley Band. A rock concert?

There is endless speculation as to how this field of boulders came to be. The first thought is that it was created by a receding glacier, but glaciers were not known to have traveled this far south. And glacial deposits would be in a valley or hollow, but this boulder field is actually at the top of a hill. Inevitably there are fringe explanations of meteorites, comets, strange magnetic fields and of course, paranormal activity, but most probably the rocks went through thousands of years of freeze-thaw cycles that broke them up into so many boulders.

Near the rock field is a lovely little waterfall, that may not have much water depending on the time of year you visit, but well worth the short hike to get to it.

Minisink

LEAVING PORT JERVIS, NY and heading north on Route 97, the scenery shifts from aging industrial to mountain-river-sky panoramas. The road is also known as the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway. As it closely follows the river, you will begin to feel as if you are in an automobile commercial. That’s because many advertisers including BMW, Saab and Cadillac have filmed their high-perfomance products hugging the twists and turns of this stretch of highway known as Hawk’s Nest. It is small wonder–the road literally seems to hang dramatically on the mountain edge, shored up by sculpted stone walls. Guard rails are nonexistent here, but there are motorist pull-offs to enjoy the view without your hands on the wheel.

And just as you’re tooling along in your luxurious ride, the cameras still trained on your best side, the wind whipping your hair in dramatic waves, you discover that something a bit more somber has disrupted the Hollywood fantasy along the stretch of river north of Hawk’s Nest. At Minisink Ford, in July of 1779, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, 51 men lost their lives in a campaign far from the suburban battlefields of New York and Philadelphia. The Battle of Minisink began as a raid on Peenpack (current Port Jervis) led by Joseph Brant, a Captain in the British Army and a chief of the Mohawk Nation. This was the action that left the village and Fort Decker in smoldering ruins. Brant, educated at Moor’s Indian Charity School in Connecticut, began his career as a soldier at the age of fifteen, fighting for the British in the French and Indian War. Well educated, articulate and highly intelligent, he caught the attention of British officers and worked his way through the ranks, becoming acquainted with but never really warming to members of English aristocracy. He was even taken to London and received by George III from whom he solicited support for Mohawk participation in the upcoming conflict.

Joseph Brant

After the Peenpack raid, a patriot militia force was raised under the command of Lt. Colonel Benjamin Tusten, a physician from the village of Goshen. They encountered Brant at Minisink Ford and on a hill overlooking the Delaware were soundly defeated in an afternoon of brutal fighting. Those that did not run away were killed, including Dr. Tusten. The Colonial force was comprised of not much more than farmers, clerks and merchants; no match for the seasoned Indian veterans and Tories led by Brant. They are respectfully remembered today at Minisink Battlefield Park, which maintains not only hallowed ground, but some excellent hiking trails. I’m not sure how they manage it, but many of the trails are paved with moss. It’s like hiking on carpet. A beautiful park.

Dr. Tusten also has a mountain named in his honor below Narrowsburg, NY. A moderately strenuous climb to the top will afford a stunning view of the river down below.

River Jockeys

LEWES, DELAWARE is well known today as the southern terminal of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry which saves travelers heading north or south along the coast a boat load of time. The closest alternate crossing of the Delaware River is nearly 40 miles to the north at the Delaware Memorial Bridge. It’s also a very pleasant cruise, especially in the summer months when dolphins are often spotted swimming and feeding in the bay. So pleasant in fact, that the ferry carries many walk-on passengers who travel just for the sheer joy of a boat ride. But not many passengers pause to explore Lewes; most are on their way to the Delaware beaches, the Chesapeake Bay and points south, which is unfortunate since Lewes is a beautiful old town, full of history and leisurely activities. I’m betting though, that a lot of residents and visitors prefer it that way. Especially the Delaware River pilots, some of whom live in Lewes.

Delaware Bay Pilot Boat

Delaware Bay Pilot Boat

These are people whose families have made their living traveling the river going back many generations. It is the pilots job, 24/7 to personally board and guide commercial vessels over 100 feet long up and down the shipping channel to the various ports along the river from Cape Henlopen all the way north to Trenton. They board outgoing ships as well from Philadelphia, Camden, Wilmington, and Delaware City and are also responsible for leading ships in and out of the eastern portion of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. Their organization, the Delaware Bay and River Pilots Association has its main base at the ferry terminal at Lewes. It’s from there that the pilots board launch boats and are shuttled out to waiting incoming ships. They’ll then climb a 30 foot perpetually wet rope ladder, sometimes in very nasty weather and almost always at night, and make their way to the bridge where they’ll take over the helm to guide the ship upstream for the next six to nine hours. The pilots usually average two ships on round trips each week, spending about 50 hours on the job.

The job requires extensive training and apprenticeship, and, the final exam is little changed from Mark Twain’s days as a river pilot: on a blank piece of paper they must draw the river from Cape May to Trenton to scale from memory, including every lighthouse, buoy, bridge, pipeline, wreck, shoreline and depth marker.

So the next time you take the ferry, leave some time to explore Lewes. Park your car; it’s a great walking town. Or just park your butt and take in a breath of some very historic air.

 

Revolutionary Writer

“My heart and myself are three thousand miles apart; and I had rather see my horse, Button, eating the grass of Bordentown than see all the show and pomp of Europe.”

SUCH WERE Thomas Paine’s feelings when he wrote these words while living in France after the American Revolution. He had purchased a house in Bordentown, New Jersey at the corner of Farnsworth Avenue and Church Streets in 1783 and lived there off and on until his death in 1809. It was the only property he would ever own.

Born in England, Paine emigrated to Philadelphia at the urging of none other than Benjamin Franklin who wrote for him a letter of recommendation. Franklin’s suggestion turned out to be a good one, for shortly after his arrival in America, Paine authored one of the most incendiary works ever written: Common Sense. A pamphlet of just forty-seven pages and costing two shillings, it began to be sold on the streets of Philadelphia in January of 1776. Within three months 120,000 copies had been purchased and shared, sending an electric shock throughout the colonies. It bolstered the cause of the revolution, reinforcing the belief that freedom was the noblest of all things to fight for. John Adams declared, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Paine continued to write more inspirational works such as the Crisis Papers from which Washington read aloud to his troops: “These are the times that try men’s souls…”

Washington reading Thomas Paine to his troops

Washington reading Thomas Paine to his troops

Paine’s career continued not only as an author but as a military aide, statesman–negotiating France’s involvement with America; helping to organize the Bank of North America, and political activist in general. When the American Revolution was over, he moved to France and penned Rights of Man, another political tract encouraging the French in their own revolt. Paine was even an inventor, receiving a British patent for an iron bridge design, developed a smokeless candle, and worked with John Fitch in developing steam engines. Because of his intensely radical nature, which even deepened over time, Paine was not on everybody’s friendship list. While in France, he even attacked President George Washington as an incompetent commander and wrote to him personally: “the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.” He returned to America to no great welcome and finally passed away in 1809. Only six mourners attended his funeral. His obituary read simply: “He lived long, did some good and much harm.” His house in Bordentown is now a dentist’s office.

A Booming Business

In it’s formative years, the town of Wilmington, Delaware and its businesses became larger and larger, competing with New Castle as a major shipping port on the Delaware. Wilmington also became a major industrial center thanks to the enormous amount of waterpower generated by the Brandywine River, a tributary of the Delaware. Large mills were set up all along the river, processing grain from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware and transported by Conestoga Wagons. These were huge, horse drawn vehicles invented in Pennsylvania and later used, in slightly smaller versions, by pioneers in the great western migration. Tanning and paper making also made use of the Brandywine’s energy.

But perhaps the biggest industry of all began when Eleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours and family immigrated from France to escape decapitation during a little scuffle that was occurring there. They settled in Delaware and tried several business ventures that were ultimately unsuccessful. Then in 1802 they set up mills for producing black powder, also commonly referred to as gunpowder. (To view these early beginnings, be sure to visit the Hagley Museum on the beautiful Brandywine River: http://www.hagley.org)

The powder mills were built with only three massive walls of stone and no roof. The open sides faced the river in the event of an explosion which would send the force out through the openings. And as carefully as the workers were trained to perform–as their very lives depended on it–explosions did occur. Many of the workers and their families lived on company property close by the mills. But from the start of the work day until quitting time, a gate to the powder yard was locked and none of the family members were allowed beyond it.

The powder itself was a fairly simple composition of saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal. It was then ground between enormous milling wheels to the proper consistency. But it was the process of the mixing ratio and quality of the ingredients with which du Pont was able to manufacture a superior and dependable product. Soon, countries world wide were discretely buying du Pont’s black powder for both defensive and offensive purposes. He was becoming very wealthy.

gunners

 

The business grew rapidly and by the Civil War, du Pont was supplying at least half the powder used by the Union forces. Over the years the company became more and more diverse and successful. They eventually abandoned black powder manufacture, but branched out into an almost endless array of chemical-based products produced world wide that included the development of the world’s first synthetic fiber. Their physical influence can be seen almost everywhere throughout Delaware, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. The DuPont company is now worth more money than most people can fathom. Their corporate headquarters are still in Wilmington.

From the Civil War onward, the city bloomed in turbulent times due to the production of gunpowder. And other goods were either manufactured or made their way through Wilmington including ships, railroad cars, chemicals and leather goods. But in the 1980s, Wilmington turned from an industrial city to a financial mecca due to the Financial Center Development Act. Laws liberalizing banking restrictions led to the construction of gleaming office centers housing institutions like Bank of America, Chase, Barclays and others. Mostly, these are credit card operations.