Down by the Bayshore: Charting Raritan Bay’s Recovery

Hurricane Sandy is just the latest calamity to strike the tough old towns along the Raritan Bay. From Keyport to Keansburg to Highlands, here’s how they’re bouncing back.

Raritan Bay Map
Newhouse Design.

The night Hurricane Sandy struck, the Union Beach Police Department received several calls saying that two men and a woman were trapped in their home on Brook Avenue, one block from Raritan Bay. The tide was rushing in, the streets were flooded and emergency vehicles were unable to reach the stranded trio. With the water rising, the three climbed out a second-story window and onto the roof. Seeing their plight, neighbors had begun calling for help.

“The calls just kept coming in,” recalls police sergeant Chuck Ervin. “People could hear them screaming.”
At about 1 am, a frustrated Ervin jumped into an old Ford Explorer the department used for undercover narcotics operations and drove toward the house. When the water reached the SUV’s grill, he pulled over and began to walk. Slogging through waist-deep water, he felt for the curb with his foot to avoid the manholes in the middle of the road. He knew the pressure of the tidal surge could blow off a manhole cover, opening a perilous, 20-foot-deep hole.

By the time Ervin reached the house, it had collapsed. The two men were still on the roof, which lay atop a pile of rubble. Both were suffering from hypothermia. A neighbor had broken into a nearby house, bringing the woman inside. One of the men, her boyfriend, was injured and unable to move; the other man did not want to leave him.

“They were almost paralyzed from sitting there so long,” Ervin says.

Both men recovered and within days were spotted by Ervin digging through piles of rubble in search of their belongings. Before the storm, about a dozen houses stood on that block of Brook Avenue. Afterwards, only one remained. Similar carnage was seen throughout Union Beach, the hardest hit of the towns along Raritan Bay. Police estimate that about a third of Union Beach’s 6,250 residents left town that night, their homes ravaged by the storm. Some may never return.

Sandy was not the first calamity to befall the Raritan Bayshore, a stretch of small waterfront towns from South Amboy and Laurence Harbor in Middlesex County southeast to Highlands in Monmouth County. Past hurricanes, industrial pollution and modern transportation systems bypassing the Bayshore all have taken their toll on the region.

The area was once a summer oasis for city dwellers from Northern Jersey and New York. As far back as the 1830s, they would come by ferry to stay in hotels, bungalows and tents along the water. By the mid-20th century, train lines and the Garden State Parkway made New Jersey’s ocean beaches more accessible. Bayshore tourism suffered; it never fully recovered. The local fishing industry has also seen better days. And the Raritan Bay itself has been so severely polluted that many advise against swimming—although locals do take the plunge.

There have been encouraging signs in recent years. Waterfront areas and beaches have been updated with modern facilities. Condo developments and ferry service have attracted new home buyers. And environmental laws have halted the most egregious pollution practices.

Jakeabob’s Bay in Union Beach, top left, was a popular bar and restaurant with seating by the bay.

The Bayshore is rich in history. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Raritan Bay was a favorite anchorage of pirates, who raided New York and New Jersey coastal towns for booty. Blackbeard, Captain Morgan and Captain Kidd are rumored to have dropped anchor in the bay. During the American Revolution, patriotic Bayshore residents staged a Monmouth County Tea Party, similar to the Boston Tea Party, at Sandy Hook Bay.

The hurricane levelled the outdoor seating area, left, and reduced the restaurant itself to rubble.

During Prohibition, rumrunners—mostly commercial fishermen and clam diggers—unloaded illicit booze bound for New York at the Bayshore ports. Gunfights with Coast Guard patrols were not uncommon. One night in January 1930, the Coast Guard sank a rumrunner off East Point in Union Beach, leaving 500 cases of rye floating in the bay. A second boat, fearing attack, dumped another 700 cases before making its getaway. By the next morning, local residents slipped into the water to salvage what they could.

The new Jakeabob’s Off the Bay is located inland on Union Avenue. Owner Gigi Dorr has made the best of the situation, outfitting the new building with tables made from doors salvaged from homes destroyed by the storm.

“People were out in the bay up to their armpits retrieving all this bounty,” says local historian William Burket, 70. “Everyone in town knew what had happened because they’d heard the gunshots.”

Keyport, the Bayshore town closest to the Garden State Parkway, was historically the region’s main port. In its heyday in the mid-19th century, steamboats departed from Keyport carrying local produce to New York and returned with mail for the region. Shipbuilding also thrived.

Keansburg Amusement Park, top right, is the Bayshore’s entertainment capital.

The town’s fortunes began to slide in the early 1880s, when the rail line from Manhattan reached Keyport, says Tom Gallo Jr., board member of the Keyport Historical Society. This created an all-weather route—the bay sometimes froze in winter—for Monmouth County produce shipments, competing with and ultimately ending the steamboat trade.

Hurricane Sandy’s fierce attack wrecked many of the park’s rides, right, and scattered games throughout the town.

In recent decades, Keyport has seen something of a revival thanks to its little downtown, which some liken to a Maine fishing village. Keyport tried to build a reputation as an antique center, but that died down about 15 years ago because the town offered little else. Things have improved with the emergence of additional shops, restaurants and a waterfront park.

Co-owner Hank Gehlhaus stands amid the skeletal remains of the Wild Cat roller coaster, which was dismantled and sold. The park and its adjacent waterpark have since reopened with many new attractions.

Sandy’s floods were the latest setback. “The surge was like a bathtub overflowing, but 10 times faster than you think it would,” says Gallo, who is also an emergency management coordinator and fireman. The town’s waterfront Keyport Steamboat Dock museum, a fixture for 40 years, was damaged beyond repair, as was Ye Cottage Inn restaurant, which opened in 1906. For the most part, the town’s antique district and its downtown shops and eateries—located on higher ground—were unharmed. One popular destination damaged by the storm, Drew’s Bayshore Bistro, has reopened in a new, higher location.

Union Beach, a few miles to the east, was not as lucky. “The loss there was beyond dollars. It was beyond structures,” says Gallo. “There, they have neighbors who aren’t coming back…. The fabric of a community was just wiped out.”

Jacquelyn Shipley, a police dispatcher in Union Beach, fielded calls from distraught residents during the storm. Meanwhile, floodwaters were pouring into her house on Lorillard Avenue. By the time she got home, it was chaos inside. She found her refrigerator lying on top of her stove, a log had rammed through her sliding glass doors, and the piano she’d just gotten from her grandmother was filled with vegetation from the bay. “It was like the inside of a washing machine,” says Shipley, 42. “Everything tumbled around.”
Some have likened the destruction in Union Beach to a war zone. On Prospect Avenue, 12 out of about 35 houses are gone. At Shipley’s mother’s house, the roofs of two neighboring homes crashed down and wrecked her pool and deck.

Union Beach is so close to Keyport that it never developed a downtown of its own. But in 2008, the township renovated its small waterfront, installing a new black-top walkway and a children’s playground and replenishing the beach with new sand. That helped bring back the weekend visitors and improved the quality of life for locals. Luckily, little damage occurred at the renovated waterfront.

This promises to be a difficult summer in Union Beach. The recovery has barely begun, and many of the town’s blue-collar homeowners may never be able to rebuild. But there are signs of hope: Some homeowners have begun to rebuild (at new flood elevations), the waterfront area is being repaired, and the popular waterfront bar, Jakeabob’s Bay, which was destroyed in the storm, has reopened at a new location several blocks inland on Union Avenue as Jakeabob’s Off the Bay.

Keansburg, just east of Union Beach, has long been the Bayshore’s entertainment district. In the early 1900s, William A. Gehlhaus, the son of German immigrants, began developing real estate in the area and decided to turn it into a vacation spot. He built roads to the beach, as well as a hotel, dance hall and a boardwalk. In 1910, he founded the Keansburg Steamboat Company to transport vacationers (and potential home buyers) from Manhattan to Keansburg.

The summer population in Keansburg was a few hundred in 1910; by 1913, it ballooned to 10,000. On weekends, there might have been as many as 40,000. The visitors were mostly working-class Irish immigrants. By 1940, this so-called Poor Man’s Riviera had as many as 100,000 visitors each week during the summer.

The steamships stopped running in the early 1960s after a series of hurricanes destroyed the piers. At about the same time, rail service to Keansburg stopped. In the ensuing years, the town developed a reputation for gang violence and drugs. The neighborhoods of East Keansburg, which is in Middletown, and West Keansburg, which is in Hazlet, lobbied to change their names. (East Keansburg, was renamed North Middletown by municipal ordinance in the late 1980s.)

Still, Keansburg Amusement Park—founded by Gehlhaus in 1905—remained popular. “It was like Coney Island, but quaint,” says Joe Sheridan, 46, a Keyport councilman who grew up in Port Monmouth and operated rides at the amusement park as a teenager. “In the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was the place to go.”

Last summer, the amusement park and its neighboring waterpark were still going strong, attracting a total of 400,000 to 450,000 visitors between Easter and Labor Day. Then Sandy hit. The hurricane wrecked the Wild Cat rollercoaster, the landmark Old Heidelberg Inn and the Fun City Arcade. About half the park lay in ruins. Rides and games were scattered as far as a half-mile away.

“When the tidal surge came through, it destroyed everything in its path,” says Henry “Hank” Gehlhaus, who owns the amusement park with his brother, William. They are the grandsons of the founder. “Rides, walkways, buildings, the contents of those buildings, restaurants, utilities—everything in the water’s path got wiped out.”

“We had 400 pieces of electronic equipment washed into the street,” says Hank. “People were in rowboats with hammers after the storm trying to break into the arcade equipment to get the money.”

For three days, park employees drove around town trying to salvage equipment and games that had washed away. They managed to find about 97 percent of the lost equipment, including all the bumper cars. They rest, says Hank, were likely hauled off by souvenir hunters.

The park has spent tens of thousands of dollars restoring the damaged rides, he says, but some—including the 30-year-old Wild Cat rollercoaster—were beyond repair. The Wild Cat is being replaced.

“The damage is too catastrophic to have every single thing done, but we’ve been working every day since October 30 to right the ship,” says Hank, who promises that the amusement park and adjacent water park will be fully functioning by Memorial Day.

East of Keansburg lie the tiny unincorporated communities of Port Monmouth, Belford and Leonardo. Belford, one of the oldest commercial fishing ports in America, got a shot in the arm in 2002 when New York Waterway began high-speed ferry service from its pier to Manhattan and Jersey City. The trip to midtown Manhattan costs $21.50 one way and takes 50 to 70 minutes.

With the advent of the ferry came the development of waterfront townhome condominiums, built by Hovnanian in 2004 on the site of the old J. Howard Smith Fish Factory, once a major employer. The 123 condo units—which withstood Sandy—brought a stream of new taxpayers to Belford.

Despite the influx of newcomers and daily commuters, much of Belford clings to its seagoing past. The Belford Seafood Co-op, one of the largest fishing co-ops in the Northeast and among the oldest in the country, remains the key engine of commerce. These days, about 100 individuals in the Raritan Bay, Sandy Hook Bay and Navesink River area make a living harvesting local shellfish and finfish. That’s small compared to the hundreds, if not thousands, who lived off these waters prior to World War II, says Joseph Reynolds, co-chair of the Bayshore Regional Watershed Council, a Keyport-based volunteer group concerned with improving water quality.

The oyster beds have disappeared, and environmental regulations have placed severe limitations on the fishermen. This, says Reynolds, is largely the result of pollution and poor managment of aquatic resources.
“The regulations on commercial fishing are a lot tougher,” says William Caizza, assistant manager of the Belford Seafood Co-op. “We have to go farther out to get them. We have to work a lot harder. And we fish for different species. Right now, it’s porgies and whiting, but they haven’t showed up too much. But the porgies are way out into the Hudson Canyon. That’s a 12- to 15-hour ride from our dock. It’s way off Long Island, in the canyon.”

Winter flounder has been off limits to commercial fisherman since 2010, though the ban was lifted May 1. A statewide ban on commercial fishermen catching striped bass has been in force since the late ’80s. “It’s been harder the last 10 years to make a good living, mostly because of the regulations,” Caizza says.
Although the area needs a boost, locals like Brian Boyce, 58, who was born and raised in Belford, don’t necessarily look kindly on the new condos and ferry service. A fisherman all his adult life, Boyce has a beef with the commuters who rush through town to the ferry pier.

“They cause a lot of traffic,” says Boyce. “I walk my dog with my wife at night, and we have a time when we walk so we don’t get run over.”

Boyce claims the commuters do little to help local commerce. “They come flying down the road so fast, they don’t stop to buy a gallon of milk,” he says.

The Bayshore’s easternmost towns are a study in contrasts. Atlantic Highlands is New Jersey’s Sausalito. Large, beautiful Victorian homes line Ocean Boulevard as it undulates along a hill that is one of the highest points on the Eastern seaboard. Offering great views of Manhattan and Seastreak ferry terminal service to Wall Street and midtown, the town has become a magnet for wealthy commuters.

The borough also has a burgeoning artists’ community. Its main drag, First Avenue, has a five-screen movie theater that, for the last four years, has hosted a film festival for short movies called FilmOneFest. This year’s event is planned for July 20.

Atlantic Highlands largely escaped hurricane damage because of its higher elevations, but its waterfront was hit hard. “The harbor took a big beating,” says Jane Frotton, chairperson of the seven-member Atlantic Highlands Harbor Commission. Waterfront damage is estimated at $30 million. The storm destroyed the interiors of two iconic restaurants—the Shore Casino and Sissy’s at the Harbor—as well as the disembarkation point for the Seastreak Ferry and other piers. A temporary barge is still used for ferry access.

An entirely different scene played out in neighboring Highlands—actually located in the lowlands at the edge of Sandy Hook Bay. A tightly knit, blue-collar town of about 5,000, Highlands was swamped by Sandy. The storm dumped up to 10 feet of water in the streets, flooding homes as far as six blocks from the waterfront. Many of the town’s restaurants and bars were destroyed, including Laura’s Pancake House, the Clam Hut and Claddagh Irish Pub. Others, like the Original Oyster, were damaged beyond repair. Doris & Ed’s, an award-winning seafood restaurant, was still trying to reopen after Hurricane Irene; Sandy appeared to be its death knell.

The history of Highlands is tied to clamming. The tiny borough has its own clam purification plant, the James T. White Depuration plant—one of just three such facilities in the nation. “This town is known for clamming,” says Frank Brooks III, 23. “It started on clamming. There was someone in every family who clammed.”

Luckily, the purification plant escaped damage. The rest of the town is attempting to bounce back. The Inlet Café, which suffered $750,000 in damage, opened in mid May. Bahr’s Landing, an iconic seafood restaurant that dates to 1917, escaped serious damage and reopened almost immediately after the storm. At press time, it was unclear when the Twin Lights Taphouse might be back in business.

Not all Bayshore problems have been acts of Mother Nature. For years, factories in New York and Northern New Jersey disposed chemicals and metals into waterways that spilled into Raritan Bay. Most of those facilities have ceased operation, and the dumping of untreated waste has stopped thanks to the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, but the legacy of contamination remains in the bay and on its banks.

Making matters worse, population centers like New York, Newark, Hoboken and Jersey City have antiquated sewer systems that combine wastewater with stormwater runoff. When the systems overflow, untreated sewage flows into New Jersey waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 23 billion gallons of sewage is dumped annually into New York Harbor, Raritan Bay and other New Jersey waters. Last year, two advocacy groups, the NY/NJ Baykeeper and the Hackensack Riverkeeper, sued the state over the practice but lost in the state appellate court. The state Department of Environmental Protection has promised action to reduce combined sewer discharges, but as of press time environmentalists say nothing has been done yet.

Hurricane Sandy was also a polluter. The storm surge overwhelmed berms near industrial sites and carried oil into nearby waterways, including Raritan Bay. Two 3.15 million-gallon-capacity tanks at the Motiva petroleum storage facility in Sewaren, for instance, were damaged during the storm. The surge then flooded the gravel-lined containment area around the tanks that was meant to contain spillage. Wastewater treatment facilities also flooded and in some cases were knocked off line, sending millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Raritan River and other waterways that drain into the bay.

“I think what’s been overlooked, as part of the impact of the storm, was the damage to the crucial infrastructure, especially along our suburban coasts,” says Debbie Mans, executive director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper.

Concern about bacteria and high fecal counts resulted in fishing advisories in the bay in the months after the storm. Most have been lifted. However, long-standing advisories against eating fish caught in the bay—including popular species such as striped bass, winter flounder, summer flounder and weakfis­h—remain in effect.

As for swimming in the bay, the beaches are rarely closed, except after heavy rains, when runoff increases pathogen levels. But Reynolds of the Bayshore Regional Watershed Council says the beaches stay open not because the water is safe, but because it’s rarely tested.

“Exact water quality is always a mystery in Raritan Bay,” Reynolds says. “Public information about exact water quality conditions on a daily or weekly basis throughout the year does not exist.”

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, says the bay is thoroughly monitored, but because it does not have recreational beaches, there is no routine beach testing.

“You swim at your own discretion,” Hajna says. “The same thing can be said for Delaware Bay beaches. People swim there, but we don’t monitor them because they are not lifeguarded. Having a lifeguard is a key criterion determining whether or not a beach is routinely monitored.”

So, is it safe to swim? “Water quality generally meets recreational standards,” says Hajna, but adds, “after rainfall, the water is not likely to meet recreational standards because of urban runoff.”

Despite its problems, the Bayshore remains attractive to newcomers drawn by the ferry service and the affordable waterfront homes, some with views of Manhattan. Other newcomers like the small-town feel of places like Keyport, Union Beach and Highlands, and have made full-time homes of the little one- and two-bedroom cottages originally built as summer retreats.

Some buyers looking for something larger or more modern have purchased those cottages and torn them down or expanded them. Still others have moved into the waterfront condominium communities in Keyport, Union Beach and Belford.

The condo market has been volatile at times. When Hovnanian’s two-, three- and four-bedroom waterfront condos in Belford hit the market in 2005 and 2006, there were so many potential buyers that the developer had to hold a lottery for bidding rights. “When the condos first sold, they were in the $700s, $800s,” says Donna Markowitz, manager of Gloria Nilson’s Bayshore office.

Prices fell sharply when the market went soft for a few years starting in 2008. These same condos bottomed out at about $455,000. These days, they sell in the range of $527,000 to $595,000.

The condos changed the look of parts of the Bayshore. Thanks to Sandy, bigger changes are ahead. New flood-elevation rules and larger lot-size requirements for new homes will create a different look, says Laura Piccinich, manager of the Keyport office of Better Homes Realty. “You’re not going to see homes on top of each other,” she says.

Lawrence Vecchio, who owns Better Homes Realty, agrees the area is likely to look different in five years—and in some ways, better. He worries about the Bayshore’s working-class residents, who might not have the wherewithal to come back after the storm. A lifelong resident of the area, Vecchio held post-Sandy town hall meetings at which mortgage lenders, contractors, attorneys and government officials helped explain what people could do to save their homes.

In the meantime, developers are chomping at the bit to buy up damaged properties and build larger, pricier homes. Vecchio predicts home values in towns like Union Beach will increase over the next three to five years.

“Who’s going to be able to afford to build? Not the population that’s there now,” Vecchio says. “That’s the sad part.”

Click here to read about things to do by the Raritan Bay.

Caren Chesler is a frequent contributor. She lives in Ocean Grove.

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