The Historical Society of Moorestown selected the perfect evening for the October installment of their History Speaks Lecture Series. A 94 degree day served as the backdrop for Dominick Mazagetti’s speech entitled “The Jersey Shore: the Past, Present and Future of a National Treasure.” The Moorestown Library hosted this event on October 2nd.
Mr. Mazagetti is an atypical historian. A banker and attorney by trade, one of his former employers inspired him to take an interest in historical topics. Mr. Mazagetti became a history columnist for the Hunterton County Democrat. His interest in the past led him to write full length books on the subject. The first, True Jersey Blue, featured a series of letters from two New Jersey Civil War soldiers. A biography of Continental Army General Charles Lee served as the topic of his second.
Mr. Mazagetti then chose to chronicle the history of the Jersey Shore. It’s difficult for modern Garden Staters to imagine the shore as anything other than a haven for recreation. They weren’t always. They do have a lot of history, however.
During the seventeenth century whaling drew people to the beaches. Consumer products manufactured from blubber, baleen (more commonly known as ‘whalebone’) and ambergris, a substance used to manufacture perfume, were in demand. Shore communities sought to satisfy the public’s interest.
The speaker added an interesting historical aside to this phenomenon. He explained that early Cape May whaling families could trace their ancestry back to Mayflower passengers.
The Jersey Shore provided a haven for those operating outside the law. Such individuals took advantage of the opportunities its isolated location provided.
Pirates set up shop along the Garden State’s coastline. Mr. Mazagetti explained that New Jersey residents enjoyed working with them. The buccaneers sold goods for cheaper than market price without charging tax.
Smugglers utilized the opportunities afforded by the state’s abundant shorefront. They had a reputation comparable to the marauders of the high seas. According to the speaker, contemporaries thought of them as, “Like pirates, only quieter.”
The boundary between freebooting and entrepreneurship blurred with the advent of the American Revolution. “Privateers” received licenses from either the state or the Continental Congress. They operated out of locations such as New Brunswick, Tom’s River and Chestnut Neck. These mercenaries proved themselves effective allies. The British described one of their bases of operations as a “nest of vipers.”
As the shore developed into a center for shipping and commerce, lighthouses became a necessity. The one located at Sandy Hook is the oldest continuous operating lighthouse in the United States. Mr. Mazagetti added that George Meade designed several in the state. While most famous for his exploits as a Union general during the Civil War, Meade also worked as a civil engineer.
At the turn of the nineteenth century the modern era of the Jersey Shore began. In the 1830s, the concept of “vacation” came into vogue. Shore towns became retreats for Philadelphians. Communities such as Cape May, Long Branch and Tucker’s Island thrived.
Dr. Johnathan Pitney utilized crafty advertising to take advantage of this interest in shore based recreation. He marketed the benefits of Absecon’s “sea air”; capitalizing on the mid-century belief that salt water carried medicinal properties. He advocated for a railroad to transport vacation goers to his hotels. His efforts encouraged construction of the Camden-Absecon Rail Road.
These developments provided for the growth of Atlantic City. Less than twenty years later, 300,000 people traveled by train to that community.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Long Branch became a sophisticated resort community. Its prominence attracted some notable vacationers. Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park received its name from the fact that number of American Commanders-in-Chief spent their holidays there.
These days one when one thinks of the Jersey shore, images of gambling, bikini clad bathers and posh resorts come to mind. Mr. Mazagetti explained that religion played a major role there beginning in the eighteenth century.
Itinerant preachers visited shore communities early 1700s. In the 1820s the Second Great Awakening impacted the area’s development. A Vineland camp meeting founded Ocean Grove in the 1860s.
Throughout the twentieth century, different shore towns worked to establish their own unique identities. The speaker described these as “boutique communities.” In the 1970s, Cape May rebuilt into a “Victorian showplace” based upon the local architecture. Long Branch rebranded itself as “high-end chic.” Atlantic City became an East Coast alternative to Las Vegas with the return of legalized gambling.
The speaker assessed the current state of the Jersey Shore. He mentioned how the region’s geography has changed over hundreds of years. Climate change has added its own additional complication. It raised the issue of who should be financially responsible for beach replenishment.
Mr. Mazagetti concluded his remarks by stating that the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that the “beach is a public trust.” While legal for communities to charge for access to them, they must provide that ingress. That ensures the people of New Jersey will continue adding to the history of this wonderful natural treasure for generations to come.