Modern history

The Distance Swimmers

That morning, the ocean was calm and smooth as blue fabric, and waves came spaced at long intervals like decorative fringes of lace.

A breakfast was served early with glimmering views of the ocean at the Essex and Sussex, the morning papers unfurled above clouds of steaming French coffee. The quiet on the western front was a small breather as the British and French prepared for more fighting at the Somme; Sir Edward Grey had been made an earl; Harry Vaughn, the “dry” candidate for New Jersey governor, declared, “Prohibition is not a new breakfast food. It is a scientific fact. Science tells us alcohol is poison.”

The presence of the First Family continued to titillate the social set. The President's daughter, Margaret Woodrow Wilson, had made her singing debut that week in Spring Lake, performing “My Old Kentucky Home.” Society was especially atwitter over the arrival of the first divorced First Lady. A plainspoken woman, Edith Galt Wilson was said to be offended by the palatial ostentation of Shadow Lawn, particularly the “seventeen complete sets of porch furniture, all different” and “staircases grand enough to fit an entire army abreast.”

As the First Family's every move was chronicled by the press that summer, Wilson became the first American president to achieve celebrity. Perhaps the most unsettling news was that forty-five miles north, in the tenements of New York City, twenty-four children in the past twenty-four hours had died of infantile paralysis. Spring Lake seemed, with its fresh and healthful sea breezes, the safest possible place.

Spring Lake was a haven designed for the wealthy to cavort amid the beauty of nature. The Reverend Alphonso A. Willits, the nineteenth-century “Apostle of Sunshine,” had inspired the affluent of New York and Philadelphia to build around the lake-by-the-sea an Arcadian village.

Two days after ex-President Taft's speech, Spring Lake unwound in breezy summer reverie. Men in high-collared Oxfords and women in corseted skirts and parasols took their fresh-air strolls by the sea, a leisurely cadence softly echoed in the wooden timbre of the boardwalk. Rowers crossed the town's namesake lake, while boys and girls marveled over the porcelain swans and porcelain chicks in porcelain nests that rested on its grassy shores. Live black swans were imported for aesthetic reasons but failed to thrive and were removed. Nature was a classically refined, orderly element in Spring Lake, yet men and women by the lake, as all along the shore, were experiencing the out-of-doors, for the first time, as a balm for the ills of the industrial cities.

The shore was an idyll for the inhabitants of America's largest cities, all of which except Chicago were on the East Coast—New York, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. “We are crowded and hustled and irritated to the point of physical desperation in our thoroughfares and markets, our tenements and tiny apartments, our shops and street cars,” The Craftsman magazine cried in 1907. “Give us more air and sun and ground under foot and we will give you fewer instances of unfortunate morality, knavery, greed and despair.”

James A. Garfield, while campaigning for President in 1880, had outlined the challenge for America's emerging leisure classes. “We may divide the whole struggle of the human race into two chapters,” he said. “First, the fight to get leisure; and then the second fight of civilization—what shall we do with our leisure when we get it.” The solution for hundreds of thousands was the beach. By 1885, a contemporary noted that the whole East Coast, from Mount Desert, Maine, to Cape May, New Jersey, “presents an almost continual chain of hotels and summer cottages.”

The back-to-nature impulse at the beach, however, did not extend to the bathing costumes. By the proper mores of Spring Lake, women's bodies were draped in dark wool, and men covered up in black, two-piece bathing costumes—mid-thigh trunks and a long, sleeveless jersey covering both groin and chest. The male chest in 1916 was a scandalous zone prohibited from public view. Not until the 1930s, freed by the new glamour of Hollywood, would the male torso be exposed in swimsuits. The California style of the 1930s also inspired the Technicolor explosion of swimming wear, but in 1916, the palate, on man at least, was limited to black. Almost a century later, in the first worldwide study of great white attacks— covering one hundred and seventy-nine cases—nine of ten human victims wore bathing suits or wet suits, gear or clothing that was dark—74 percent were clad in black, 15 percent in blue. Thus, as they entered the waves in dark bathing costumes that July, swimmers were unknowingly true to the back-to-nature spirit of the shore, appearing underwater in harmony with the natural world, in the dark coloration exhibited by many marine animals—the great white's chosen prey.

On July 6, the newspapers declared it a fine beach day, made more precious by the rain predicted to arrive over the weekend from the South and Midwest. As the sun climbed that morning, bathers made their pilgrimage to the sea. On the broad, sandy beach, knots of children built sand castles, a beach activity being popularized by Lorenzo Harris, the one-armed sculptor from Philadelphia, who was molding “Neptune's Court” nearby. Wispy clouds decorated a china-blue sky, the air was warm and brilliant with light.

If young women on beach and boardwalk were demurely watching young men in their swimming sports, the glances that morning turned frank and blatant, for as the sun tipped toward afternoon, a young man suddenly demanded unseemly attention. Robert W. Dowling, nineteen years old, stood on the beach and declared he was going to swim four miles straight out into the Atlantic, sharks be damned. Long-distance swimming being an amateur sport of the Edwardian wealthy, men and women would have taken the measure of the young man in a glance, then turned toward the horizon, bidding their children do the same. It would be an impressive sight from shore, a story for a postcard or a letter home, something to witness. The quick feet of gossip deepened the anticipation. Robert W. Dowling was the well-known son of Robert E. Dowling, president of the City Investment Company in New York. The boy had made headlines the previous summer, making a forty-mile swim around Manhattan Island. This new feat should not tax him, and the presence of a shark was not a true concern. And so Dowling swaggered to the line of the surf and plunged in. Soon he was as an arrow splitting the blue.

Not far south on the beach, Leonard Hill attracted no such attention. He was a wholesale druggist from New York City, treating his wife to a stay at the Essex and Sussex. That a hardworking American businessman could mingle with the social queens and princes said something about democracy then that William Jennings Bryan would have cheered. More ambitious, perhaps, was Hill's planned swim. He intended to swim straight out a quarter mile from the coast, then stroke five miles due south. If there were rogue waves about that day, Hill would be more likely to find them, but he was a strong swimmer and unafraid. He was unconcerned, too, about the reported shark attack down the coast, in the direction he was heading. Few people saw Leonard Hill as he gracefully turned in the water some distance from shore, and, powerfully windmilling his arms, struck out in the direction of Beach Haven.

Both swimmers grew smaller on the horizon, dissolving finally in distant trails of white.

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