I’m traveling deep into Pennsylvania, near Williamsport, when I pass a sign that says “Jersey Shore.” I figure it must be a mistake, but then I see another one. Could I be that lost? Am I hallucinating?
At the third sign, I take the exit and, sure enough, pull up on the shore of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, located in the town of Jersey Shore. I ask a passing kid why this town is called Jersey Shore. He shrugs. I ask a woman and she says, “That’s just what it’s called.” People in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, simply accept the name of their town and find nothing peculiar about it.
Returning home, I do some research. Turns out some New Jerseyans relocated there late in the 18th century and entered a rivalry with neighbors across the river, who would disparagingly refer to them as “those Jersey Shore people”—the shore being the Jerseyans’ side of the Susquehanna. By 1826, the pejorative nickname became the official name for a growing town and has been ever since (population 4,200).
I’m particularly interested these days in anything having to do with Jersey shores because I’m writing a book titled The Other Jersey Shore. I’ve got nothing against beaches, but this book is about the beauty, life and culture of the Delaware River. The American Rivers Society named it River of the Year a short while ago, partly because it is wild and free-flowing for 331 miles, considerably longer than any other river east of the Mississippi, including the Hudson, and has on its New Jersey banks some of our prettiest towns: Lambertville, Stockton and Frenchtown.
Is there any beauty on the Atlantic side of New Jersey that equals the Delaware Water Gap, which may soon be named a national park? And is there any history on New Jersey’s sandy side that equals George Washington’s crossing the Delaware (four times, by the way, not once) as we began believing we might actually gain our independence from Britain? Or Joseph Bonaparte, recently escaped from Spain, where he had served as his brother Napoleon’s appointed king, building himself a house rivaling the White House in size on a bluff overlooking the river in Bordentown? (It burned down, so he built another, living there the better part of 20 years.)
But many New Jerseyans just go to the beach and ignore that other Jersey shore. An otherwise world-traveled friend of mine, learning about my book, asked, “Is the Delaware that river I cross to get to Pennsylvania?” An acquaintance had never laid eyes on the Delaware and wasn’t sure where it flowed. Yet another acquaintance thought that, what with the words Jersey shore in the title of this magazine story, it would be a parody of a certain infamous, at least to our mutual taste, television show. Sorry, Snooki!
I hope readers unfamiliar with the Delaware will interest themselves in discovering and enjoying another Jersey shore. Just don’t begin with the one in Pennsylvania.
Michael Aaron Rockland is Professor Emeritus of American Studies at Rutgers University, a longtime writer for this magazine, and the author of numerous books on New Jersey.Click here to leave a comment