Memories, fun facts, and Jersey firsts - we'll be featuring the best of our nostalgia and trivia from The BRJ archives, so check back soon for new posts!
In the summer of 1916, there had yet to be a recorded fatal shark attack on the eastern seaboard of the United States. The prevailing thought among most scientists was that sharks were “no more dangerous than any other fish with teeth” and not prone to attacking humans - but that would all change over 12 terrifying days at the Jersey shore. Read More
When baby-boomers growing up in the Chester area needed to beat the summer heat, there were three popular places to try out their first doggie paddle, splash around with their friends, or engage in a little sun-worship. Read More
When Mohawk raiding parties descended on the Native American villages in what is now Peapack, New Jersey, the local Lenape tribes would take refuge in the vast limestone caves beneath their lands. Read More
In the early 1930s, Richard Hollingsworth was working as a sales manager at his dad’s Whiz Auto products store when he thought of a way to combine the two things he loved most – cars and movies. Read More
In the summer of 1916, there had yet to be a recorded fatal shark attack on the eastern seaboard of the United States. The prevailing thought among most scientists was that sharks were “no more dangerous than any other fish with teeth” and not prone to attacking humans - but that would all change over 12 terrifying days at the Jersey shore.
On July 1, Charles Vansant, a graduate student from Philadelphia, was swimming in chest-deep water near the Engleside Hotel in the resort town of Beach Haven, New Jersey. Earlier, he had befriended a dog that he met on the beach. He was trying to coax the dog into the water with him when people on shore saw a shadowy figure in the water heading towards him. They shouted out a warning as a black fin broke the surface and sliced its way towards the unwary bather. Vansant let out a high pitched shriek and was yanked under the water. He resurfaced, thrashing desperately towards shore but the shark continued its attack. He was only in 3 ½ feet of water when Lifeguard Alexander Ott dove into the bloody surf and tried to drag Vansant to shore - but the shark wouldn’t let go. Two residents ran down to the water and locked arms to form a human chain and help Ott pull Vansant from shark’s jaws. The frenzied fish continued to tear at Vansant until it was dragged into water so shallow that it was threatened with being beached. Finally, it gave up and swam away.
Vansant’s left thigh was stripped to the hipbone and there was a severe gash in his right leg. Doctors, including Vansant’s own father, fought to save his life but he had lost too much blood. He died on a makeshift operating table in the hotel lobby. The gruesome attack shocked New Jersey but the newspapers, not wanting to scare off summer tourists during the busiest weekend of the year, downplayed the event as a freak occurrence and bathers were soon back in the water.
Five days after the attack on Vansant, Charles Bruder, a bell captain at the Essex and Sussex Hotel in Spring Lake, 45 miles up the coast from Beach Haven, was taking a swim with friends during his lunch break. A strong swimmer, Bruder had ventured out alone beyond the beaches lifelines when people on shore heard him scream. Two lifeguards grabbed a boat and launched into the water. They rowed towards Bruder, who was still shrieking as his body was being flung into the air like a rag doll. The shark circled and struck repeatedly. When they drew nearer, Bruder began begging for help. “A shark bit me!” he cried. “It bit off my legs!”
The lifeguards hauled him into the row boat and saw that both his legs were shorn off at the knees - he bled to death before they could get him to shore. A doctor on the scene had to postpone examining his body to aid witnesses on the beach who were vomiting and fainting from the ghastly ordeal.
This time the attack was taken seriously. Resort owners on the Jersey shore, desperate to save the season, cordoned off their beaches with steel shark netting; armed men in motor boats patrolled the waters offshore; and would-be shark hunters took to the waves equipped with everything from high-powered rifles to axes and harpoon guns. But there was no way anyone could have foreseen what happened next.
The town of Matawan is 30 miles north of Spring Lake and 16 miles inland, its only connection to the ocean is a meandering freshwater creek that shares the town’s name. On July 12, an old salt named Thomas Cottrell was crossing the drawbridge over Matawan Creek when he looked down and saw what looked like an eight-foot shark cruising upstream on the incoming tide. Cottrell ran for the nearest phone and called the town barber, who doubled as the town’s chief of police, but the chief chalked up the sighting to shark panic and went on cutting hair. Frustrated, Cottrell ran down Main Street telling anyone that would listen that a shark was in the creek but no one believed that a shark could have made it that far upstream, especially in freshwater. Taking matters into his own hands, Cottrell went to the favorite bathing spots to warn swimmers of the peril.
Shortly after he passed by Wyckoff Dock, a popular swimming hole on the creek, a group of boys who just missed his warning came by for a dip. “Hey guys, watch me float!” 12-year old Lester Stillwell called out to his friends as he laid back into the murky water and drifted away from the group. But most of the boys had their backs turned and were watching another kid attempt a trick dive off of the pier. Seconds after the diver hit the water they heard a short high-pitched yell and a big splash behind them and turned just in time to see Lester being yanked under the water. Someone shouted, “Lester’s gone!” but just then he broke the surface and the boys saw that he was locked in the jaws of a huge fish. Lester tried to scream out for help but could only manage a gurgle before the shark pulled him back under. His friends scrambled from the water and ran to town for help, crying that a shark had gotten Lester! But still, no one would believe that there was a shark in the creek. Instead they thought it was more probable that Lester, who was an epileptic, had a “fit” and drowned.
Within a half an hour a crowd had gathered at the Wyckoff Dock to watch volunteers search for the missing boy. As men in boats poled the muddy waters, several others including Stanley Fisher, donned swimming trunks and began diving for Lester’s body. After several attempts Fisher finally surfaced with the dead boy and was carrying him into shore when something struck his leg. Fisher staggered, dropped Lester’s body and shouted, “He’s got me! The shark’s got me!” Fisher punched and flailed at the shark. A group of men in a row boat got hold of him and tried to wrest him from the shark’s teeth, as deputy sheriff Arthur Van Buskirk smashed the animal over the head with an oar. The shark finally let go but Fisher’s right leg had been bitten off at the thigh. A local doctor did his best to staunch the bleeding and arrangements were made for the local train to ignore all stops and rush Fisher to Monmouth Memorial Hospital but he died as he was being wheeled into the operating room.
A half-mile downstream from where Lester Stillwell and Stanley Fisher were attacked, Michael Dunn and his twelve year old brother Joseph were swimming along the north bank of the creek with some other boys when someone shouted to them that there had been two shark attacks and that they should get out of the water. Heeding the warning, they swam to the dock and began clambering up. Joseph, who was behind Michael, had just begun climbing the dock’s wooden ladder when the shark reached up and clamped on to the back of his right leg and pulled him back into the creek. Seeing Joseph struggling in the mouth of the shark, Michael dove back into the water to save his brother. He grabbed hold of Joseph’s hand and tried to pull him to safety but the thrashing shark was too powerful and began to drag Joseph under. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a brawny bricklayer named Robert Thress, who was passing by and heard the cries for help, reached around and ripped Joseph from the shark’s mouth. His right leg was mangled but none of the arteries had been severed. After 59 days in the hospital, and several skin grafts, Joseph fully recovered from the attack and became the lone survivor of the 12-day feeding frenzy.
Hoping the shark would return on the next high tide, the people of Matawan grabbed sticks of dynamite, shotguns, pistols, pitchforks, hammers, and anything else they thought could kill a shark and lined the banks of the creek, while eager reporters stood by. Underwater charges were set and detonated, blasting geysers of muddy water into the air; shark sightings were reported up and down the creek, and the town shot itself out of ammunition, but at the end of the day it appeared that the shark had eluded their gauntlet.
As panic gripped the east coast, swarms of “armed posses” patrolled the waters off New Jersey in search of the rogue killer, destroying hundreds of sharks along the way just for good measure. Then on July 14, the day of Lester Stillwell’s (whose body was never recovered) and Stanley Fisher’s funerals, a taxidermist and circus animal trainer from Manhattan named Michael Schleisser netted a 7 ½ foot great white shark a few miles from the mouth of Matawan Creek. After a terrific fight and a few lacerations and bruises for his trouble, Schleisser and a friend were able to land the shark and bring it to shore.
During an examination of the shark’s stomach contents physicians found chunks of human flesh, an 11-inch piece of a boy’s shinbone, and what they believed to be a human rib. Schleisser declared that he had caught the man-eater. He stuffed the shark and put him on display in New York City. Thousands lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the infamous killer.
With World War One raging in Europe, a polio epidemic sweeping New York and New Jersey, and the Mexican Revolutionary, Poncho Villa, raiding across the US border, the media eventually lost their appetite for the shark story and by the end of the long, hot summer, wary bathers trickled back into the water.
Since the attacks, many skeptics have doubted Schleisser’s claim and theories have abounded as to the type and number of sharks that could have been responsible for the events of 1916. It seems that no one, especially those of us who are drawn to the water each year, wants to believe that a lone shark could acquire a taste for human flesh and single-mindedly stalk swimmers in salt as well as fresh water over such a broad range, but after Schleisser bagged the great white near the mouth of Matawan Creek, there were no more attacks along the Jersey shore that bloody summer.
When baby-boomers growing up in the Chester area needed to beat the summer heat, there were three popular places to try out their first doggie paddle, splash around with their friends, or engage in a little sun-worship. According to local historian, photographer, and Chester native, Joan Case, the first local swimming area that bathers flocked to in the late 1950s throughout the 60s, was Seals Pond on Parker Road near the Chester/Long Valley border.
Owned and operated by Dick Seals, the site had its grand opening on July 4, 1958. In addition to a swimming pond, the park also boasted an “authentic 15” gauge steam railroad” that chugged along on a one-mile loop around the pond, and a railroad museum.
Another favorite location was Hacklebarney Pond also known as Kay’s Pond, on State Park Road. Many of Chester’s kids, including Joan, learned to swim at Hacklebarney Pond, under the watchful eye of swimming instructor June Hinds.
The real swimming hotspot of the 1960s and 70s, however, was Chester Springs, more commonly known as “Grogan’s Pond.” Owned by the Grogan family, Chester Springs, now the site of the Chester Springs Shopping Center on Rte. 206 was the local place to go in the summer to take a dip, get a tan, tee-off on the driving range, munch on burgers, hot dogs, and fries at the snack bar, or test your courage on the high-dive board. “I loved that high diving board,” recalled Joan Case, “my sister and I would spend our time trying to perfect our dives! She was so much better than I and ended up on the diving team at Glassboro State College. And of course I remember the food stand and all the yummy things they had there. My favorite was their hamburgers!”
Grogan’s Pond was also the place to mingle, or as Rick Apgar recalls, torment, the opposite sex. “Grogan’s Pond was a special place for me especially on those hot, humid, sweaty summer days. I remember running across a short sandy beach and into the cold clear water and swimming to the floating wooden dock which sat on 55 gallon drums in the middle of the pond. There you could rest a bit with the girls, who were drying off in their bikinis, and dive off into the pond only to surface again to splash the girls making them scream. Sometimes I would go to the pond with my brother and cousins, who would often meet their own friends and leave me with the younger ones, who would bob around in the shallow end in their yellow ducky rafts or life preservers. The only relief from that boredom was taking them to the concession stand and buying hot crispy crinkle cut french fries for 25 cents.”
“Ahhhhhh the good ole days....,” said Joan Case. “I miss them!”
When Mohawk raiding parties descended on the Native American villages in what is now Peapack, New Jersey, the local Lenape tribes would take refuge in the vast limestone caves beneath their lands. It wasn’t until 1902, however that the caverns were rediscovered by workers at the Todd Lime Quarry.
Employees at the quarry had an idea that there were caves beneath them for some time, but the fissure in the rock, that appeared to be the only opening, was too narrow for a man to climb through. Eventually, curiosity got the better of two quarry men and they dropped sticks of dynamite into the crevice and blew a hole wide enough to crawl through. What they found astounded them.
After squeezing and wriggling through the narrow passage, they came to a chamber that was high enough to stand up in. It measures 100-feet long and 20-feet wide. The walls were covered in shimmering limestone and stalactites dripped from the dome-like ceiling.
At the far end of the vault, the found another passage and clawed their way up a 20-foot incline to discover a second chamber similar in size and as stunning as the first. A reporter from the Newark Evening News explored the cave shortly after its discovery and described it as “weird in the extreme.”
“When you enter with a lantern or miners hat,’ he wrote, “the stalactites flash from the dome as though suspended in air, the sides of the cavern glow with a mellow-red light. Before you is a formation of reddish crystals, shaped like a pulpit, and above, that what looks like a frozen waterfall.
At the far end of this upper corridor was athird chamber that even surpassed the grandeur of the first two. It was circular with a lofty ‘gothic’ ceiling that no architect ever designed… in more graceful lines. Opposite to the larger chamber was a passage that led to an underground lake with water as opaque as the air."
As news spread of the incredible caverns, people flocked to Peapack for a first-hand look. Enterprising merchants stocked up on overalls, lanterns and miner’s helmets, and one of the workmen, Elias Guest, allegedly put an old door in front of the entrance and began charging admission. Soon the local Methodist church put in walkways and a gate and was given permission to charge a 25-cents admission.
After a week, it was reported that souvenir hunters had stripped most of the stalactites from the caves but the sightseeing tours continued until 1907. No one is sure why the caverns were closed but the entrance was sealed and the quarrying operation started back up again.
In 1958, more caves were found when 600 tons of limestone collapsed into another underground chamber that contained 300 to 400-feet of passageways, with a series of branching rooms. The largest was approximately 50-feet in diameter and one of the rooms reportedly contained a small pool of water.
Over the decades, many former school kids confessed to playing hooky and hiding out in the caves but today, the entrances have been lost to history. A residential development now sits atop the underground wonder and for now the legendary caverns remain a fading memory.
Above: Photo of the Peapack Caverns (c.1907). Courtesy of the late Ruth Hill Thomson
In the early 1930s, Richard Hollingsworth was working as a sales manager at his dad’s Whiz Auto products store when he thought of a way to combine the two things he loved most – cars and movies. He began in his own driveway on Thomas Avenue, in Camden, by nailing a screen between two trees in his backyard and mounting a 1928 Kodak projector to the hood of his car. A radio behind the screen provided the sound. He then began experimenting with different weather conditions (a lawn sprinkler was used to imitate rain), parking, line of sight, and sound quality.
On June 6, 1933, with an investment of $30,000 and a new patent, Hollingsworth opened the first Drive-In Theater in the parking lot of his dad’s store, in Camden, using the back wall of the building as a screen. The price of admission was 25-cents per car and an additional 25-cents per person. On his first night, 400 cars lined up in eight rows to watch movies from the comfort of their cars. Richard and his cousin opened a franchise of “Park In Theaters” which began springing up around the country. When Hollingsworth’s patent was overturned in 1949, everyone got into the act and “Drive-In Movie Theaters” became the rage
At its peak in the 1950s and 60s, there were more than 4,000 drive-in theaters in the U.S. The largest was the All-Weather Drive-In, in Copiague, New York, which had parking for 2,500 cars, and an indoor 1,200 seat viewing area. The strangest was probably Edward Brown’s Drive-In and Fly-In Theater, in Asbury Park, NJ, which could accommodate 500 cars and 25 airplanes. An airstrip next to the drive-in allowed planes to taxi to the last row of the theater. After the show, a tow back to the airfield was provided.
Eventually, escalating real estate prices made the large tracts that new drive-ins required too expensive and the land that drive-ins already occupied too valuable not to develop. Other contributing factors that led to the drive-ins decline included the advent of color television, the VCR, and even day light savings, which trimmed an hour off summer viewing time.
Today there are less than 400 drive-ins left in the U.S. and only one in New Jersey, the Delsea Drive-In (delseadrivein.com), in Vineland, which was built in 1949, closed in 1987, and re-opened in 2004.
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