Modern history

The Creek

In the cool, shaded embrace of the swimming hole, the other boys leapt into the creek. The sun was high, and a breeze stirred the grasses on the opposite bank, rousing warm odors of decay. Their legs disappeared in darkness toward the bottom, mucky and cool between their toes. Silvery fish wriggled on the edge of the muck, and there was the small thrill, different from anything else, of being part of the creek. The light that speckled through the trees afforded privacy as the naked boys splashed and shouted echoes off the old limeworks. The noise of their play momentarily obscured the wailing pitch of a scream, a sound absorbed by the spartina grass on the opposite bank.

Moments after Rensselaer Cartan entered the water of Matawan Creek, it betrayed him. He was in almost up to his neck, and the pleasing sensation of a refreshing dip gave way to a searing warmth ripping across his chest. It was a strange sensation that fourteen years of experience couldn't process. He was bleeding and he didn't know what was in the water, what was tearing him, and in an instant the knowledge of what was happening turned to a long, high scream.

With a rush, unseen in the murky water, the shark came like a torpedo and hurtled past Cartan. The splashing in the swimming hole, barely a mile from the mouth of the creek, had drawn the great white shark to investigate. The creek teemed with life, but none of it large enough to sustain a great white shark. So when the shark spied the whirling porcelain limbs of the boy underwater, it grew excited and charged. In the view of some researchers, the shark's pass may have been investigative or even a form of play. There are numerous accounts of sharks bumping surfboards and surfers and not attacking, frolicking in a rather one-sided game only the apex predator understands. But the great white's true motive that afternoon was likely ominous. Its thick skin was so abrasive that shark hide, called shagreen, was once used by carpenters to smooth the hardest woods. Shark attacks on man are often preceded by a bump that causes gashing wounds. The purpose of the bump seems to be to determine size and strength of possible prey.

Renny Cartan had no idea he had been bumped and scraped by a great white shark. He knew only that it didn't hurt at first, then the pain was like hot needles, and larger than the pain was the loss of control and the unknowing. In that instant he saw something dark moving in the water, something larger than any fish he had ever seen. And then it was gone. The water was washing against his chest, sharpening the focus on the pain and the surprise.

Renny Cartan scrambled out of the creek, screaming. His chest was bloodied, as if raked by the tips of knives. The other boys, streaked with mud, crowded around, trying to calm him. Cartan would not be calmed. He said he had been hit and wounded by something in the creek, something huge. None of the other boys had seen it. Renny's wounds looked painful but not serious, as though he had scratched himself on a branch. His friends listened as long as boys do when play has been interrupted and awaits and is calling them back. Soon Renny's cousin Johnson and the other boys scurried onto the dock and leapt back into the creek.

As Renny Cartan left the creek to get his wounds bandaged, he shouted at his friends to get out of the water, but his warning fell on deaf ears. After Renny left the swimming hole, Johnson Cartan was swimming happily along the surface of the creek, his friends nearby. They shouted and splashed and jumped from the dock, unaware that sonic cues were now exploding along the narrow banks of the creek to a great white shark, a shark that had taken the measure of the noisy mammals and was slashing now through the brackish water, highly stimulated.

The next morning, Wednesday, July 12, as ketches and small craft moved slowly on the creek, Thomas V. Cottrell, a retired sea captain, set out from his house at the mouth of the creek for his customary walk.

Captain Cottrell strode the creek with a prodigious energy for his fifty-eight years, making a pace that was the envy of his contemporaries, the few still above sea level. But that morning he was a bit more excited than usual, and excitement wasn't good for him. The old captain was an incorrigible storyteller and jokester, a man of a hundred friends and a thousand tales, who never troubled his wife or his seven children with his heart disease. It was known he wasn't well, but the captain had plenty of years left, everyone figured, and he kept his health problems to himself. He had the redoubtable strength of a man who made friends easily and was an admired local citizen.

As the captain strolled along the creek that morning, the sun was high and water lapped softly on the banks, and he found himself staring at the brown water more intently than usual. The captain had heard of the boy who cried wolf the day before, about something in the creek that bit or scratched him—the boy's aunt was Sarah Cottrell Johnson—and he felt bad for the boy, and a bit curious over what manner of fish Renny Cartan had seen.

No one monitored the waterway like Captain Cottrell. He lived in Brown's Point at the mouth of the creek, in the handsome old port town of Keyport, whose Victorian homes overlooked the bay. His walks took him out of town and over hill and meadow and down dusty roads bordered with split-rail fences and views of silos and horses and cows. He strode as if people were too numerous and the world too small, as if, having spent the prime of life sailing the seven seas in clipper ships, he couldn't shake the urge to stretch his legs, whistling as he went his favorite song, “Beautiful Island of Somewhere”:

Somewhere the day is longer,

Somewhere the task is done;

Somewhere the heart is stronger,

Somewhere the guardian won.

His walks always took him back to the creek. The captain had been born in Matawan in 1857, when it was still called Middletown, named for its position on the creek, once plied by steamers and paddleboats. As a young man, he had moved to Brown's Point at the mouth of the creek, where the Cottrell clan had built the first boats on the bay. He was of a prideful, seafaring family, and if a drawback of a garrulous old sea captain was a want of fresh stories, Thomas Cottrell would presently have that problem solved. For as he took his constitutional on that morning, walking over the new trolley bridge spanning Matawan Creek, he saw something for which neither man nor God, tide nor typhoon, had prepared him.

Rippling up the muddy waters of the creek, toward the bridge, was a large dark-gray shape trailing a long, pointed dorsal fin. In the moment it took for shock and disbelief to subside, Captain Cottrell recognized it as a shark, a big one, no different from the many he'd spied in the Pacific and Atlantic and Indian Oceans, winding slowly up the tidal creek past fields of oat and barley, chickens and dairy cows.

As the shark swam closer to him, it loomed bigger still, a wide, gray-brown fish, possibly nine or ten feet long, until it passed directly under Cottrell and slipped under the bridge. He turned to watch the fin disappearing up the creek. Thomas Cottrell realized with an incredulous shudder that the shark was headed unswervingly toward town.

If the retired captain shook his head over the ribbing the Cartan boy had taken, the musing lasted only a moment, and he was on the move. The town of Matawan could not have placed a better sentinel for the approach of the shark than Thomas V. Cottrell. The captain had brine in his veins and was accustomed to thinking under pressure. He had taken note of the newspaper stories about two recent shark deaths on the Jersey coast, and wondered if it was the same shark. Captain Cottrell was of the lot of seafarers who took shark legends seriously. He'd seen what they could do to living things, if not men. Furthermore, the captain knew well, since his own boyhood after the Civil War, the delights of swimming on summer days in Matawan Creek. And so Captain Cottrell, pumping new life into his aging seaman's legs, turned around on the bridge and raced toward town, breathing hard and walking fast, hoping to reach town before the shark did.

In minutes he had climbed up from the creek onto Main Street, his eyes wild, his face reddening, pushing his blood pressure to perilous levels. As he hurried past motorcars and horse teams and old colonial houses, trying to balance the skittering of his heart with the urgency of the moment, he saw everywhere men he knew, but he saved his message for the man who counted. Next to the small post office at 129 Main—where the postman that morning carried his usual bag of letters with no street addresses—stood a small white house with a spinning red and white pole out front. When Thomas Cottrell pushed open the door of John Mulsoff's barbershop, the men gathered there fell silent, for the old sea captain was gasping for breath, his face animated with a crazed look.

The burly German-born Mulsoff, the barber who moonlighted as the town constable, was one of the most admired men in town, personable and humane yet a tough cop who commanded attention as he strode Main Street with authority, a longtime resident remembers. Mulsoff had to have been a formidable man to have earned such respect as a German-American in a small American town in 1916, in a country allied with England against the kaiser. Yet Mulsoff retained such high regard that in 1917, when young men from Matawan went to war against Germany, the doughboys wrote letters home in care of John Mulsoff on Main Street. As townsfolk gathered in the barbershop, Mulsoff in his German accent read the letters from the boys at the front in a way that gave hope to mothers and fathers, friends and wives.

Now the stout constable turned his competent, compassionate eye toward Cottrell. Yet the old sea captain's story about a shark from the ocean, headed up the creek toward town, sounded mad. John Mulsoff considered it for a moment, tipped back his head, and laughed incredulously. Disbelieving chuckles rounded the barbershop. Flushed with anger and embarrassment, Cottrell stumbled out of the shop and took his story urgently to the sidewalk, where a cluster of merchants met him with more skepticism and puzzled looks. A shark in the creek? Old Cottrell must have been in one too many nor'easters. With growing frustration, the sea captain pressed his case up and down Main Street, to men who'd known him for years and admired his sea stories, but “everywhere the captain was laughed at,” The New York Times reported. This was not going over like a tale of plying thirty-foot seas at night. “How could a shark get ten miles away from the ocean, swim through Raritan Bay, and enter the shallow creek with only seventeen feet of water at its deepest spot and nowhere more than thirty-five feet wide?” the Times inquired. “So the townfolk asked one another, and grown-ups and children flocked to the creek as usual for their daily dip.”

Thomas Cottrell had not survived forty years at sea by distrusting his own instincts. Ignoring his ragged breath, his quickening heart, he hurried down to the docks by the creek and climbed in his small motorboat, the Skud. Coaxing the motorboat to a hiccuping start, he gave it some gas. He was soon chugging up the creek, cruising the center channel, on the water, where he'd felt in command all his life, but perhaps never so out of control as now. Shielding the sun with his hand, he scanned the narrowing distance for a fin and the boyish heads of swimmers. As he motored, he shouted warnings of a shark, shouted out over the creek until he was hoarse. It was hot and humid and his collar was beading up in sweat. Soon there was only the sound of the old man's ragged breathing under the rumble of the engine, loud and trembling in the midday air.

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