The Jersey Shore is rich in history, from Native Americans to the Revolutionary War and WWII. The towns and cities along the coast are full of intriguing facts and mysteries. We touched on some of our favorite Jersey Shore history, which ranges from pirates to patriots and even some sunken subs. The best thing about it? It’s all in our backyard. No museum required!
Some Interesting Jersey Shore History
Jersey Shore Pirates
We may not have been known for Captain Jack Sparrow, but turns out the Jersey Shore from the Raritan Bay to Cape May saw the likes of famous pirates including Blackbeard aka Edward Teech and Captain Kidd. Maybe all those pirates swashbuckling the shore inspired Robert Louis Stevenson when he visited Osborne Island in the Manasquan River to write his “treasured novel,” Treasure Island. Oh and did we mention there’s still those that believe there’s treasure buried at Higby’s Beach in Cape May and Del Haven?
Sandy Hook Lighthouse
Known by many for guiding vessels to safe harbor, what may not be known is that the oldest operating lighthouse in the United States (established in 1764) went “dark” during the Revolutionary War. Colonists removed the light to keep the British “in the dark” as they voyaged through the New York Harbor. The lighthouse was also the target of red coat cannonball fire, however the thick walls of the lighthouse remained unharmed.
Set 200 feet above sea level in the hills of Atlantic Highlands resides the Twin Lights, which has been guiding ships safely into the New York Harbor since 1828 (the current lighthouse was constructed in 1862). Known for being the site of a lot of firsts including the use of the Fresnel lens, which has led to everything from camera lenses to fiber-optics cables, the wireless telegraph, and “Mystery Ray” aka radar.
What remains a mystery is the origin of the “Mystery Cannon,” which was buried in front of the keeper’s quarters. Unearthed in 1841, it was recognized as a ship’s cannon, fourth quarter, 17th century of Dutch provenance inscribed with the marking “1756 XXJ.” Some speculate that the cannon was part of the American defenses during the Revolutionary War, however others still believe it was used as a fog signal cannon, and then there’s always the pirate theory.
Jersey Shore Subs (Not the Kind You Eat)
In 1991, a German submarine U-869 of Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine was discovered off the Jersey coastline. The divers’ six-year exploration was later chronicled in the documentary Hitler’s Lost Sub on NOVA. During Hitler’s Operation Paukenschlag (or Operation Drumbeat) in 1941, Nazi U-boats were swarming the Atlantic Ocean, attacking Allied warships, tankers, tenders, and supply ships, sinking a total of 2,775 Allied vessels. Some Jersey Shore beach goers have even had surreal experiences, witnessing visions of Allied convoys being attacked by the U-boats, or being awoken from their beds to the sounds of explosions at sea. There are many theories as to how this particular U-boast was sunk, but the honor was given to two destroyers negating the circle-running torpedo theory.
The “City By the Sea”
Built in 1927 by architects Warren and Wetmore, the same designers of New York City’s Grand Central Station, Asbury Park Convention Hall was an architectural masterpiece. Spanning over 60,000 square feet of which 215 feet extended over the beach and the waterline, and boasting a 3,200-seat convention center, the hall was the largest of its kind when built. Known as the site for Bruce Springsteen’s rehearsals in the 1990s, Convention Hall was also home to acts including Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Ray Charles, and even the New York Yankees spring training in 1943. Even though Babe Ruth had retired by then, he was a fixture in Asbury Park, staying with friends on 8th Avenue. The Babe was known to hit balls into the Atlantic with other legendary ball players of the period in well publicized events.
Architects Warren and Wetmore also designed the boardwalk’s south side including the Casino, arcade, and the Carousel House where Carousel #87 from the Philadelphia Toboggan Company was installed in 1932 featuring wooden horses. After the amusements shut down, the famed Carousel #87 was bought and moved to Family Kingdom Park in Myrtle Beach, S.C. in 1990. The carousel is again for sale and can be found on EBay. Bidding starts at $250,000. It would be great to bring this icon home to the Jersey Shore!
The S.S. Morro Castle Disaster
On September 8, 1934, a cruise ship caught fire off of Long Beach Island on its return trip from Havana to New York. While being towed by the U.S. Coast Guard, the S.S. Morro Castle severed from the line and drifted towards Asbury Park, eventually resting on a sandbar a few yards in front of Convention Hall where it remained throughout the fall and winter. Various reports say the ship was bound to meet its demise after talk about mistreatment of the crew. The night before the fire, Captain Wilmott died of an undetermined death and it’s been said that William Warms, the Chief Officer who took over the ship the day of the fire said “I’m afraid something is going to happen tonight, I can feel it.” The loss of 137 passengers and crew led to major changes in maritime fire safety.
Atlantic City’s Famed Organ
Housing the largest instrument ever constructed by mankind, the earth rumbling organ officially boasts 33,112 pipes (there’s still dispute), holding multiple entries in the Guinness World Records including the loudest musical instrument ever constructed. Built between 1929 and 1932, the organ is more powerful than a dozen orchestras, bringing music to the 5.5 million cubic feet of air space in the main arena. The organ was flooded by a hurricane in 1944, which compromised some of its sound until it fell completely silent in the 1980s. In 2013, the organ came back to life for the first time during the Miss America Pageant and with the help of a grass-roots restoration project, is anticipated to be fully restored by 2023.
It’s no surprise that the Jersey Shore was not happy about the terms of Prohibition from 1920-1933, and it’s also no surprise that the largest “Rum Row” was off the New Jersey coast, where as many as 60 plus ships would be seen at one time, originally three-miles off the coast until Congress changed it to 12-miles in 1924. Local fisherman would travel out to “Rum Row,” purchase the “goods,” and then bring them back to shore in small, quick boats that could easily outrun Coast Guard ships and dock in any small river.
Treasures of Cape May
Picturesque Cape May may be home to grand Victorian houses, fresh seafood, and sandy beaches… even one with a massive World War II bunker sitting right in the middle of it. Not what you expect to see when you visit the beach, this concrete bunker built in 1942 boasts walls that measure seven feet thick. Cape May is also home to the last remaining World War II tower in New Jersey, Fire Control Tower No. 23, which was restored in 2009 and is now open to the public. These towers were a part of a network of towers along the Atlantic Coast, an integral part of coastal defense.
Atlantic City – A Condensed History
We all know that the beloved America’s Playground has a rich history of scandal (the popular hit series Boardwalk Empire was based on Enoch “Nucky” Lewis Johnson, the undisputed boss of the Atlantic City of the early gambling era), showmanship (horse-diving became a permanent fixture on Steel Pier), and beauty (the Miss America Pageant became synonymous with the city since holding its pageants in 1940). However, since it’s official opening on June 16, 1880, Atlantic City, home to the streets of Monopoly (don’t take those other town Monopoly games seriously), is also home to a wealth of history. Before Atlantic City made its mark in 1880, a vessel carrying German immigrants sank on April 16, 1854, leading way to the lighthouse being erected just a year later. In 1870, the first boardwalk was erected, not for reasons today, but in an effort to keep the sand out of hotels and train cars. The eight-foot wooden walk from the beach to the town cost the town half of their tax revenue from that year. Since then, the boardwalk has grown… a lot. Atlantic City was also home to the first landing of a passenger flight on May 3, 1919 from New York. This town is ripe with Jersey Shore history.
Original Ron Jon Surf Shop
Some may not associate surfing with New Jersey, but ask any surfer and they’ll tell you there are plenty of waves along the coast, as long as you’re willing to put on the wetsuit in the winter! Founded in 1959 by Ron DiMenna who shaped surfboards as a pastime, in 1961 he was able to open up the “Original” Ron Jon Surf Shop in Long Beach Island in 1961, selling surfboards out of his tiny shop (much different then the structure standing there today!)
The Blue Comet Railroad
Hitting all the major Jersey Shore towns, the Blue Comet Railroad would whisk beachgoers from Jersey City down to Atlantic City in just under three hours in ultramarine, Packard Blue, and cream colored cars, representing the ocean and the beach. Running from 1929 to 1941, we can only imagine how popular the line would be today.
Underwater Train Locomotives
Believed to be washed overboard by a large wave around the 1850s, these two locomotives sit on top of the ocean’s floor, becoming a favorite discussion point for divers. Originally founded in 1985 by Captain Paul Hepler, the two “Pioneer” locomotives are covered in marine growth and unfortunately have little remaining except for the engines as the wooden engineer cabin has long since rotted away.
Establishing the U.S. Coast Guard
Remember that green-shingled roof building sitting in Long Branch before Superstorm Sandy got a hold of it? Turns out, the 1897 boathouse was the second to last of the U.S. Life Saving Stations (No. 5) surviving in Monmouth County, the second one surviving the storm in Manasquan. Turns out, these stations were a part of the Federal government’s involvement to protect mariners off the coast and were actually the beginning stages of what would later become the U.S. Coast Guard. There’s also Station #30 in Ocean City that’s currently being restored.
Shrewsbury’s Christ Episcopal Church
Founded in 1702, this white church surrounded by a white picket fence is one of the oldest churches standing in the U.S. The church was granted its official charter in 1738 by King George II, however during the Revolutionary War the church was used as barracks by patriot soldiers. Since the church was initially a symbol of the British crown, the soldiers shot at the pulpit and the orb and crown on the steeple on top of the building. The damaged orb and a wood-embedded musketball can still be seen today.
The “Summer White House”
Not just home to locals, presidents (seven of the to be exact) also were constant visitors, especially during the summer. Back in 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant declared Long Branch the nation’s summer capital while in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson stayed at what is now known as Wilson Hall on Monmouth University’s campus (and was home to the movie Annie) during his campaign, terming it the “Summer White House.” The popular state park, Seven Presidents Park is named after five more presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley who all shared the love for the shore.
Formerly a defense site for the U.S. Army, Evans Area in Wall was home to a transatlantic radio a receiver and various World War II and Cold War laboratory. Even though much of what was done remains under contention (locals have countless stories), it was also home to the Ku Klux Klan headquarters from 1925-1935… not a proud moment in Jersey Shore history.
“God’s Square Mile”
Founded in 1867 by Reverend William B. Osborn, a Methodist preacher, Ocean Grove, also known as “God’s Square Mile” to locals was originally founded as a permanent camp meeting site. In 1870, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association was granted the authority to purchase and hold real estate. Rules including the banning of alcohol, Sunday beach bathing, and carriages and cars on Sundays even pertained to President Grant who arrived on a Sunday to visit his sister in 1875 only to walk the sandy streets while leaving his horse and carriage at the gate. Many still come to see the tents (114 of the original 660 tents are still standing) that are set up during the summer around the Great Auditorium. It’s also noteworthy to know that the gates on the footbridges from Asbury Park to Ocean Grove are still locked after midnight – no exceptions. For some great video of Ocean Grove and the rest of the Jersey Shore, check out our Jersey Shore Drone video!
A Shoreline that Rivals Rainforests
Occupying land from Brick to Atlantic City, the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge is home to the largest shoreline nature preserve on the East Coast. Covering 47,000 acres, 80% of which is salt marsh, the preserve rivals tropical rainforests as one of the most biologically productive habitats on Earth. Who knew?
The “Most Haunted House in America”
If you don’t believe us, go visit the Spy House in Port Monmouth for yourself. Now home to the Seabrook-Wilson Homestead and the Bayshore Waterfront Park Activity Center, the Spy House was originally owned by Thomas Seabrook who spied on British troops during the Revolutionary War. There’s even rumors that there are pirates buried in the cellar. Often called the “Grand Central of Ghosts,” it’s definitely one of the creepiest places at the shore.