Modern history


Trailing a pennant of thick black coal smoke, the Beach Haven Express steamed toward the glittering sky, the freshening breeze. Five miles from the coast, over the Manahawkin meadows, Charles and his sisters were forced to shut the windows as mosquitoes, gnats, and greenhead flies swarmed the car. The Pullman grew suffocatingly hot.

Straight ahead, set against the horizon and the sea, defining the center of human presence, stood the tall, conical spire of the Engleside Hotel. The great wooden arc had weathered forty years of hurricanes and storms that had ruined many islanders; it was said misfortune never met the Engle family. Just south of the Engleside was Reuben Tucker's community of Tucker's Beach, once America's fashionable first sea resort, now in the course of becoming a ghost town and being consumed by the ocean. In a few years a gale would blast Tucker's Beach clean off the tip of Long Beach Island, creating Tucker's Island, whereupon the waves would complete the process of slowly engulfing two hotels, post office, school, lighthouse, Coast Guard installation, and eighteen homes, until not even the birds had a place to stand.

The Pennsylvania Railroad's Beach Haven station rose nobly from the quagmire like the colonial seat of a distant new territory—a small Queen Anne hymn of dormers and shuttered windows overlooking awesome stretches of sea grass and swamp. A porter from the Engleside rushed forward to hoist suitcases and steamer trunks onto the island's first motorized vehicle, an extended Model-T with a green canopy and ENGLESIDE AUTOBUS stenciled on the door. As Charles disembarked, he posed for a photograph he no doubt planned to treasure as a keepsake. In the photograph he is wearing a black double-breasted suit and boater hat and standing proudly next to the giant black Pennsylvania steam engine, his eyes bright with summertime joy. He is carrying a suitcase in each hand for a long and leisurely stay.

Seeing his son, tall now and filling out, standing by the railroad engine, pleased Dr. Vansant, for the boy was at last coming into his own. After the dandyism of his early years, the male camaraderie and roughhousing he enjoyed in college had hardened him. Charlie, or “Van,” as his Penn friends called him, had thrown himself, half naked, into the freshman class fight, and taken a good beating while shouting the class motto, “Wring their necks; smear 'em green; Pennsylvania nineteen fourteen.” Like Amory in Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, he viewed college as a place to “go in for everything” to “see what he was made of.” What Van was made of was not just the French Club and German dramatic society, the humor magazine, literary journal, and yearbook, but also golf and cricket, baseball, soccer, and crew. He mourned a classmate who died on the Titanic,shared the outrage over a plan to make the university coed—“desecrate not the sanctity of bachelor hall!”—and drank his way through the senior class banquet with the rest of them, carousing through a revelry of ragtime and vaudeville and feasting, a night memorialized in a ditty he fondly recalled: “Bouillon of clam, filet of sole, a brew made by Anheuser/We see them coming home next day—A little pale Budweiser.” He wasn't the best at anything, except the Wireless Club, of which he was made president senior year, but the young man who disembarked at Beach Haven was a grown man, not just clever but capable and athletic, a fine swimmer, a son a father could be proud of.

If Dr. Vansant felt a wave of foreboding, he could have been forgiven, for the entrance to Long Beach Island recalled his memories of the island as a tragic place in the Age of Ships. Walt Whitman, the bard of Camden, New Jersey, and a frequent visitor to the island, wrote of mountainous waves concealing “unshovelled ever-ready graves.” The doctor knew the shoals off the Barnegat Inlet as the graveyard of the Atlantic in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the watery tomb of four hundred to five hundred ships and men beyond counting. The schooner Powhatan breached by a wave that swept to their deaths all twenty-nine crew and three hundred and eleven passengers, German immigrants bound for New York; a passenger ship from Liverpool, grounded on the bar in a winter gale, thirty souls perishing from the cold; the New Orleans packet Auburn, loaded with cotton and hemp, lost with nineteen of her crew; the schooner Surprise, of Baltimore, down with another thirty men. By the bay was a mass grave of fifty souls who had washed onto the beach from the Powhatan, including a mother and baby who were still said to haunt the island.

Miles Carey, the Engleside's porter, signaled the official start of vacation as he cried, “Engle-siiiiide!” ushering the final stragglers aboard the autobus. Woody, his rival from the New Baldwin Hotel, boomed “New Baaldwin!” It was a beloved annual ritual to the Philadelphia summer colony that ended up in the local newspaper and letters home and memories long after other events faded. Adding to the majesty of the scene was a new feeling of importance for the summer colony at Beach Haven. The four-times-a-day Pullman from Philadelphia to Beach Haven was truly extraordinary. The newspapers boasted of the future of Beach Haven as a great coastal city now that the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad had reaffirmed its importance. Beach Haven was six miles at sea, advertised as farther from land than any New Jersey resort, free of “land breezes” and pollen. The American Medical Association had endorsed it as one of the finest resorts for sufferers of hay fever on the East Coast. Promoted by Quakers for its rustic and healthful appeal, it billed itself as “the only practical resort in America.”

Soon the Vansants were motoring down Beach Haven's main street, Beach Avenue, a baking promenade of sand and crushed shells lined with kerosene lamps and bayberry bushes. Mosquitoes hovered everywhere despite the fortune spent on drainage ditches west of town. To the surprise of Dr. Vansant, who often recommended the island as an escape from allergies, ragweed sprouted on every corner, and goldenrod surfaced in the middle of the street. The railroad had unknowingly imported the seeds with carloads of gravel for the first paved roads. Domestics slowly moved in and out of small shops in the heat, buying fresh meats and groceries for their masters in the hotels and cottages, for there was no refrigeration, and iceboxes were inadequate. The servants called the street Mosquito Alley.

In a few blocks the autobus turned left into a large park a block long, and there, at the end of the park, facing the sea, was the massive Victorian “stick” architecture of the Engleside. Bunting draped the long veranda on the front of the hotel, American flags flew from porches and peaked roofs, streamers rose from the portico to the turret five stories above. Dust whirled on Engleside Avenue as Packards and Model-Ts, Overlands and Pierce Arrows moved in a continuous stream in front of the hotel. Gone were the lazy days of ships. Robert Engle, eager to build his business, had pressed politicians to build the automobile causeway to the mainland in 1914. Now Beach Haven had an enormous parking garage, and Bay Avenue was called “the automobile speedway through the heart of Beach Haven.”

Through the portico, under a wooden sign hand-lettered in Gothic script announcing THE ENGLESIDE, was a changeless world, an Edwardian parlor by the sea. Out on the veranda, gloved waiters served English tea and pastries and offered Philadelphia newspapers. Gentlemen and ladies in promenade dress took a stately constitutional, enjoying the grandeur of the sea from the boardwalk, lifted safely above the muddle of sand and tide. Tennis players volleyed on the clay courts by the ocean, near the grand bathing pavilions, and as the light deepened just so, two or three men and women could often be seen practicing the new fad of plein-air painting, recording azure and sapphire seas. The sea breeze carried the pollen and mosquitoes away.

Porters escorted Louisa, the girls, servants, and nannies to the Vansant suite of rooms. In the lobby, Robert Engle warmly greeted his old friend Dr. Vansant. The doctor felt at ease in the refined atmosphere of the Engleside. Two blocks away rose the Victorian turrets of the massive New Hotel Baldwin, owned by a Philadelphia railroad mogul. The Baldwin catered to the sporting and drinking crowd, a “modish” set that made the doctor uncomfortable. At the Baldwin, wine flowed at every meal, dances were held nightly, and women taught the latest ragtime steps such as the grizzly bear, the turkey trot, and the bunny hop. The new music out of New Orleans, jazz, was heard there for the first time that summer of 1916. The Baldwin Grill foamed with German beer at all hours, and during Prohibition, would be a speakeasy disguised as a café, where swells sipped whiskey in teacups. The Engleside remained, to the doctor's taste, a temperance house.

A raucous spirit prevailed at the Baldwin that put a Philadelphia gentleman ill at ease. In the marshes west of the hotel, sportsmen raised Winchesters and Parkers and shot birds out of the sky before such practices were outlawed. Riflemen stood on the shore and picked porpoises off in the surf as cheering crowds watched. Dr. Vansant preferred the quiet elegance of the Engleside, and its emphasis on wholesome exercise, particularly ocean bathing. The doctor recommended swimming and exposure to sea air for a variety of ailments.

A gentle breeze fluttered the white cotton draperies on the windows over the sea, a placid silver-gray mirror glinting here and there in the late sun.

The Engleside tower faced directly on the Atlantic, but the long, narrow body of the hotel stretched back perpendicular to the ocean in respectful retreat from wave and gale. None of the eighty-eight windows on each long side faced the sea, but “every room has a view of the ocean,” Engle advertised, “many of both ocean and bay, none with objectionable outlook. The rooms on the third sleeping floor have a large attic between them and the roof.” This mercifully let hot air rise beyond the guests in the days before air-conditioning. The hotel was built in 1876 with no electricity, plumbing, or heating, and guests had used candle-lanterns to find their rooms at night; now it boasted new electric lights, a bath on the west end of each hallway, spring beds and hair mattresses in every room, and running water for toilets and sinks in some of the suites. The rusticity summoned pleasant childhood memories for Louisa, for it was the height of elegance of her summers past in the Railroad Age.

In contrast to their surroundings were the elaborate clothes the servants unpacked—cottons, georgettes, silks, and delicately printed satins with gauzes and eyelets and décolletage, the new “modish” checks and stripes and solids, gauzy evening dresses—enough for the Vansant women to change four to six times a day during the summer, which they fully intended to do given the heat and demanding social occasions.

As the servants set up houskeeping, Louisa couldn't escape the niggling sense that something was wrong. Louisa was a flamboyant personality whose highs swept the children into joyful adventures of art, music, and play, and whose lows demonstrated the depths of a mother's concern. She was never quite comfortable at the shore of the new century. Old Philadelphians never warmed to the modern concept, borrowed from the Romantics, of ocean swimming as hedonistic expression of the beauty and freedom of the body. In Louisa's day, the beach was best experienced from the veranda or boardwalk; to enter the water was to risk encounter with undertow, sea creatures, or moral failing, flesh improperly exposed. Louisa's misgivings were more than Victorian prudishness. Many men and women at the turn of the century didn't know how to swim yet threw themselves into the currents and undertow to join the fad. Often, a resort afternoon ended in a drowning.

It was a normal maternal instinct she experienced every day, most acutely in the nineteenth century, when the children were babies and their breathing faltered or their appetite waned and there was nothing she could do but pray until the fear passed. Over the years she had learned to feel secure as the children grew and life amassed its comforting rhythms of normalcy. Yet now the prickle of unease returned.

Charles also unpacked, but didn't linger with his mother and sisters. The temptation to join the first seating for dinner was strong for young men. Robert Engle advertised exclusively in Boston newspapers for summer help, and the dining room was filled with a fresh crop of attractive young Irish waitresses with lilting accents, many of whom the young men ended up dating. But Charles decided to attend the second seating at eight. He said good-bye to his sisters and mother and headed down to the bathhouses.

As the day came to its end, Louisa, wearing a long dress and a wide-brimmed hat, lifted her train and led her daughters downstairs for the customary twilight stroll before their 6:30 seating for dinner. A lady appearing for the evening was an event. Women in long, flowing dresses, corsets pinching in the abdomen and thrusting out the bosom, strolled regally with veils and broad-brimmed hats bedecked with ribbons and towering arrangements of flowers and feathers, the fashionable Gibson Girl style. Many women spent the entire day inside the hotel, attending morning concerts, whiling away the afternoon over whist or bridge, retiring upstairs to rest their delicate constitutions. More adventurous women were directed to the gentler waters west of the hotel, to go crabbing in the bay or sailing with their children across the bay, or to Tuckerton for a picnic along the shores of lovely Lake Pohatcong.

The ocean was the realm of men. The masculine ideal was Richard Harding Davis, the Philadelphia and New York war correspondent and icon of Anglo-Saxon dash and derring-do, the young Ernest Hemingway's hero. It was the custom for a man to take a dip in the ocean every day of his vacation. Many made a hardy show of heading down to the beach during a strong rain or big storm to challenge the waves. It was de rigueur for young men, upon checking into their hotel, to take an immediate dip in the ocean—morning, afternoon, or evening, no matter how cold the water or how rough the weather. It was a test of mettle. To shy away from the ocean was to break the masculine code of a strenuous life set by ex-President Roosevelt.

Louisa found her son on the wide beach playing with a dog. At this hour the sea was nearly deserted. Sand whipped across the boardwalk and beat against the bathing pavilions; dusk was gathering on the horizon. The sea was empty of swimmers. Louisa cast an appraising eye on her son's one-piece black bathing costume, a standard she accepted. Louisa disapproved of the new men's suits that bared the chest, and often, in 1916, got a man arrested. But Louisa's mood lightened. Charles, frolicking with a large, energetic retriever, had drawn attention. The few people on the boardwalk and veranda were watching, amused.

It swelled Louisa's heart to see her son, young and handsome, relaxed and at play for the first time in many months. She was struck by what a fine young man he had become, but it was a bittersweet sight too; it was Charles's last summer away with the family before he married and started his own family, his own life.

Louisa and the girls joined the doctor on the boardwalk. The Vansants, proud of their athletic son, stood looking out over the sea, enjoying the light breeze, the balmy twilight air, the grandeur of the ocean, and the knowledge that a fine dinner and a comfortable bed awaited. The moment was crowned by the joyful sight of Charles charging into the surf, and, to the delight of the small crowd, the dog leaping after him into the waves. Splashing and kicking in tandem, trailing a wake of bubbles and froth, both of them, man and dog, began to swim.

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