VISITING FORTESCUE today, you would never guess it was once a pretty wild and wooly place. After passing through a long stretch of pastoral marshland in Downe Township, Cumberland County, NJ, you’ll come to a small bridge over an inlet that meanders out to the Delaware Bay. You’ll see Higbee’s Marina on your right, occupied by a few fishing boats, some gulls whirling about, squawking at each other mostly, and a small number of boaters wandering around or shooting the breeze. It’s a sleepy scene to be sure.



Higbee’s is the last refuge of a huge fleet of party boats that used to carry hundreds of recreational fishermen out for a day on the water—every day. During the gravy days, visitors would stream into the bayside town for a chance to do some serious fishing in “The Weakfish Capitol of the World!”

Fishing was not the only recreation in Fortescue. During the 1930s, this seemingly innocuous little village was complete with rum runners, speak-easies and dance halls that stayed open until the wee hours. Places like the Green Door and the Gray Goose were raided regularly by the ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control) adding to the excitement of visitors and vacationers from all over the eastern seaboard. (More often than not, the officers in charge of the raids were just looking for free drinks). And it seems they actually had peep holes in their doors, just like the familiar cliches. Fortescue was just far enough off the beaten path of the ocean side resorts to make it an ideal spot for off-loading illegal liquor. A mother ship carrying the booze would anchor at “Rum Row” just outside the three-mile limit near the mouth of the Delaware Bay and the smaller but very speedy smuggling boats would pick up the illicit cargoes in the middle of the night. Boats like the Robbi, the Goose, Osenosisakak and Kashagawigamog would play cat and mouse games with the Coast Guard on a regular basis.

In August of 1933, a Coast Guard cutter from Cape May began chasing a suspected runner off Fortescue. The pursuit lasted for 15 miles before the cutter finally fired on the 50 foot boat causing an explosion and its eventual sinking. The bootleggers dove overboard and were hauled aboard the cutter and taken to Camden to await a hearing. Events like this were typical during prohibition.

Fortescue’s story goes back further than the 1930s however—much further. Back to the early eighteenth century when Lord John Fortescue’s wife Mary came into possession of about 10,000 acres of bayside property in Cumberland County. The Fortescues were from Cullington in England but it’s not clear if they ever visited their property. There were plans for development, but instead the land was sold in 1776 to one William Smith for a meager five shillings. He decided to retain the sellers name however, perhaps for status, or perhaps because Fortescue sounded tonier than Smith.

DURING THE Second World War and continuing for about twenty years, members of the Philadelphia Sketch Club ( visited Fortescue at the invitation of Herbert and Preston Foster, who owned side-by-side summer homes known as the Salt Box and the Seahorse Cottage. The Club is the oldest artists organization in the country, founded in 1860 by a group of “Bohemians” (as they called themselves)–students at the Philadelphia Academy of The Fine Arts. I have had some of my work displayed at the Sketch Club, but despite that indiscretion, they remain one of the class acts in the American art world. During the construction of the Academy’s new facilities in the 1870s, the club invited the school to use it’s building where Thomas Eakins conducted life drawing classes, and was made an honorary member.

The Club has an equally distinguished list of other members that included illustrators, painters, watercolorists and sculptors of the likes of N.C. Wyeth (father of Andrew and grandfather of Jamie Wyeth), Howard Chandler Christy, Henry Pitz, Joseph Pennell, Thomas P. Anshutz, Benton Spruance, and Edward Redfield, among many, many others. They also counted as a member the cartoonist Pete Boyle. I remember as a child watching a local TV show he hosted called “Lunch With Uncle Pete”. I would eat my lunch every day in front of the Philco while “Uncle Pete” would show off his drawing skills and run old cartoon clips. He was also the father of actor Peter Boyle who appeared in one of my favorite movie scenes ever—as the monster in “Young Frankenstein”. He screams out “Puttin’ onna Riiiiiiz!” which was being sung by Gene Wilder as he was presenting his creation to a group of doctors and physicians. It puts me on the floor every time I see it.

After spending a week in Fortescue painting and drawing, the visiting members of the Sketch Club would either sell or give away their work to local cottagers. It would be interesting to find out how much if any of those pieces still exist. At least some of the work made it back to Philadelphia and was exhibited at the Sketch Club galleries in 1950.


A Delaware River Primer

OCCASIONALLY on weekend mornings I like to jump in my car and head out on the road. I work at home and may never leave my house for weeks at a time except for errands. Usually I have no idea where I’m going but more often than not I wind up somewhere along the Delaware River. My good friend Rick says I’m one of those people who can enjoy going for a long ride to a place that has absolutely nothing. Rick never leaves his house either, but he’s happy with that.

There’s something about seeing a large body of water that stirs me, especially if there’s some ship traffic on it. I wonder where they’re going, where they’ve been. The water’s like that too. There’s a history to it, the river.

The Delaware River Watershed

The Delaware River Watershed

The American colonies declared their independence from Britain near its banks and it was crossed and re-crossed many times by troops in the war that followed, including Washington’s famous campaign on a snowy December night in 1776. Also near its banks the first brick house in the U.S. was built and the first log cabin; the first public school in the American Colonies was established; The American Weekly Mercury, the first newspaper in the Middle Colonies was published. The first successful trial run of a steamboat took place on its waters in 1787—and—Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, collected from a secret location along its banks is used to rough up baseballs for all of the Major and Minor Leagues.

Born as run-off from the receding Wisconsin Glacier approximately 10,000-15,000 years ago, the Delaware rises from the western slopes of the Catskill Mountains. Its headwaters are actually 2 branches: the East Delaware and West Delaware. They converge in eastern New York State and become a natural boundary between New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware during a run of over 350 miles. It is the longest un-dammed river east of the Mississippi.

The river takes its name from English nobleman Thomas West, the 3rd (or 12th, if you’re able to decipher the mysterious British titling system) Baron De La Warr (or Warre), who sailed for Queen, country and the London Virginia Company to North America and landed in the Virginia Colonies on June 10, 1610 (my birthday, although not that year). He had been petitioned to persuade the Jamestown settlers not to give up their nearly disastrous attempts to establish a colony and go home to England. The colonists had arrived in the middle of a drought in 1607 and were ill-equipped to live in a land that could be abundant in good times but completely wretched in bad times. Even the native Powhatan called it “the starving time”. These settlers were businessmen and English dandies who naively expected to step off their ship and literally find gold and other valuables waiting for them. Almost none of them possessed adequate survival skills and as a result, one in every five of the colony died.

Help was on the way however, in the person of Captain Samuel Argall, an English explorer and adventurer who had been appointed to find a northerly route to the New World to avoid harrasment from the Spanish—which he did. Until this time, the customary route was to sail south towards the Caribbean, and then catch the trade winds to the coast of North America. When he arrived at Jamestown, Argall unloaded his life-saving cargo of supplies and immediately headed back to England for more. On the way, however, he was blown off course in a storm and found himself in a very large bay, unaware that Henry Hudson had been there a year before, almost to the day. Where Hudson had not given any name to the bay, Argall took the opportunity to name it in honor of his employer– The Baron De La Warr.

So the entire river, state, valley and any number of other entities have been named for Thomas West, Baron De La Warr, even though he never laid his eyes on any of it. Even the native inhabitants were called the Delaware, although they called themselves by their own name–Lenni Lenape. It means Original People. They had lived in the area for thousands of years, nearly as long as the river itself, which they called Lenape Wihittuck –Rapid Stream of the Lenape.

Their particularly lyrical language remains throughout the Delaware Valley giving us place names like Allegheny, Lehigh, Kittatinny, Lackawanna, Navasink, Pocono, Manayunk, Wissahickon and of course Mauch Chunk.