By Gwen Toline
Long Branch, NJ known for Pier Village, shopping and some very good ocean view restaurants, was once known as the “Brighton of America”. The term refers to its similarity during the Victorian era (1837-1901) to the seaside resort of Brighton in the UK, which rose to new heights of popularity thanks to a train running from London. The train brought a large influx of visitors nicknamed “day trippers” looking for summer time relief from the crowds of London and along with them the further development of new attractions, grand hotels and piers.
In 1788 a private residence in Long Branch was converted to the first boarding house welcoming guests. By 1870 after over 80 years of steady growth, Long Branch had become an internationally known “watering place” for the upper social set and offered approximately fourteen hotels on and off Ocean Drive, now Ocean Avenue. Written about by journalists for its location on a natural bluff providing a panoramic view of the Atlantic ocean and cool afternoon breezes, vacationers, (mostly wealthy) from New York City and Philadelphia were traveling to Long Branch to escape the sweltering heat, crowded conditions and to reap the health benefits of the ocean. So many years later these same reasons still hold true. In the eyes of these vacationers the reward of spending time in Long Branch was well worth the sometimes two-day trip via stagecoach from Philadelphia. In 1860 the Raritan and Delaware Bay Rail Road extended its line to include Eatontown to Long Branch. An existing steamboat stop running between New York City and Port Monmouth brought visitors to Eatontown to catch the train. With a total travel time from New York City of two and a half hours the popularity of summers in Long Branch greatly increased.
Upon arrival in the Long Branch of 1868 visitors had their choice of spending the then pricey sum of $20-$25 per week for a stay in a first-class or “grand” hotel including The United States, the Bath, the Lawn, the Metropolitan and Mansion House. These hotels boasted the architectural style of the times, which incorporated already existing Gothic, Italianate, and Neo-Classical revivals and paid close attention to hand crafted details, intricate wooden decorations, lattice work, and multiple window frames. The interiors were just as ornate as the exteriors and the hotels served guests their meals in luxurious dining halls where dressing for dinner was a must and provided men with deluxe gambling rooms to play card and dice games.
For those that could afford it, a visit to the Jersey shore during Victorian times wasn’t about taking the sun as much as it was about being seen by the right people. Sun bathing and exposing one’s skin was frowned upon in these extremely conservative times, especially for women who wore heavy bathing costumes covering almost all of their bodies and held umbrellas in order to maintain their porcelain complexions.
The 1870’s saw a further jump in the popularity and economy of Long Branch with the opening of Monmouth Park for horse racing and the 1879 opening of Ocean Pier for strolling and social gathering.
In 1893 Ocean Pier was damaged by a severe tugboat accident branding it an eyesore and by 1908 it was torn down. By the late 1890’s Long Branch was becoming less exclusive and more accessible to people coming for short visits and day trips as opposed to the entire summers spent by well to do predecessors.
Today none of the original “grand” hotels or pier exists. Most of the hotels fell victim to fire or demolition and the original enchantment and hotels of Long Branch are alive only through memories, illustrations and the written words of those who were there to experience it or have written of its history.
Gwen Toline is a local fan, follower and contributor of Jersey Shore InMotion
Research acknowledgements to:
Victorian Summers at the Grand Hotels of Long Branch, New Jersey by George H. Moss Jr. and Karen L. Schnitzspahn