Month: August 2018

Lecture Review – “Jungle of Weeds to War” by Melissa Ziobro

Who would have thought a luxury hotel and a racetrack could eventually become a military base? Sure enough, it happened. Well, it occurred on land once occupied by those paragons of pleasure. I heard the full story this August 7th.

The Historical Society of Moorestown presented the second outdoor installment of its History Speaks lecture series. Historian Melissa Ziobro delivered her “Jungle of Weeds to War” address in the garden at Smith-Cadbury Mansion. The speech focused on the history of Fort Monmouth.

The facility opened in order to train soldiers to fight in the First World War. The professor began her remarks with a brief overview of why the United States entered the conflict. She explained that Americans felt a stronger kinships with the people of the United Kingdom and France. Both those countries practiced democratic forms of government. Authoritarians led nations such as the German Empire, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire which comprised the Central Powers.

The United States viewed the war as an encroachment on its trading rights. Belligerents employed different means of deterring them.  British and French vessels turned US ships back towards North America. German vessels preferred to sink them. The German sinking of the Lusitania, in which some New Jersey natives died, played key role in the nation’s path to war. Germany’s ill-advised offer to help Mexico regain the Southwest cemented it.

The professor then expatiated upon a topic she knew well: the history of Fort Monmouth. “From Jungle of Weeds to War” proved an interesting subtitle. The base may have had the most interesting origins of any military facility anywhere. From the 1870s and into the 1890s a luxury hotel and a racetrack occupied the land.  A moralistic crusade against gambling at the close of the nineteenth century proved a boon for the army a little over a decade later. For a $75,000 lease agreement, the military obtained a facility accessible by good stone roads; a rarity at the time. The area allowed for ease of access to both water and a railway station. The port city of Hoboken was also nearby.

The base located at the old Monmouth Park Racetrack began its new purpose as Camp Little Silver. The base became a training ground for communications specialists. Perhaps that’s what inspired the army to rename it Camp Alfred Vail. The namesake hailed from New Jersey and worked with Samuel Morse.

During the war, the camp gave to the community and the community gave back. The facility paid higher wages than private businesses. Soldiers spent their earnings in the local towns. The troops even put on vaudeville shows for civilians. In return, some of the most talented people in the region worked at the base. As an interesting expression of gratitude, the Long Branch Elks club donated a barrel of tobacco to it.

Thanks to the base’s success, the US Government decided to make its use of the facility more enduring. In 1919 it purchased the land for $115,000.

In 1925, the military renamed the base once more this time calling it Fort Monmouth. Due to the facility’s continued focus on communications technology, it earned the unofficial title “Home of the Signal Corps” through the Vietnam War.

The facility that played such a significant role in the twentieth century wouldn’t endure long into the twenty first. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission opted to close it. The army reassigned Fort Monmouth’s personnel to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in 2011.

Fortunately for local history buffs, Professor Ziobro opted to remain in New Jersey. While working as the Professor of Public History at Monmouth University, Professor Ziobro also edits New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal. She served as a Command Historian at the US Army Communications-Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth, NJ from 2004 until 2011.

Thanks to the professor’s work, Fort Monmouth’s legacy will long outlive the actual base. I can take the luxury of writing: in homage to the land’s original use, that’s not an optional claimer.

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