JOURNEYS INTO NEW JERSEY
Nowadays it's not considered all too fashionable inside the Beltway to vacation in New Jersey.
But once it was.
Before there was Kennebunkport, Martha's Vineyard and Hawaii, there was Long Branch.
Having first become a beach resort town in the late 1700s, in the 1800s it was a considered a "Hollywood" of the east, where some of the greatest theatrical and other performers of the day gathered and performed. So it became a natural draw for presidents.
By one recent narrative, Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, is credited with raising the profile of Long Branch among Washington, D.C. types. Eager to escape the humidity (and the political heat) of the Nation's Capital, D.C., she stayed in the Mansion House during the summer of 1861. Her seal of approval added to the city's cachet."Long Branch was already becoming fashionable, but once she was in the paper here, it became a big deal," recently explained Beth Woolley, a local historian and trustee of the Long Branch Historical Association to New Jersey Monthly.
By another account, Long Branch was placed "on the map" in 1869 when President Grant made the city the nation's "Summer Capital", a tradition later followed by Presidents Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Harrison, McKinley and Wilson.
After an attempt was made on James Garfield's life, he was brought to Long Branch in hopes of a recovery aided by the sea air. Indeed, a railroad spur from the main line to his house was built to make him more comfortable in his travels. He never recovered -- dying in town two weeks after he was shot, exactly two months before his 50th birthday.
As for Grant, it was years later, in his Elberon home at 991 Ocean Avenue, that Grant bit into a peach and felt a pang of pain in his throat so fierce, he thought he'd been bitten by a wasp. It turned out he had throat cancer, a disease that would claim his life two years later.
The presidents put Long Branch in the national spotlight. Having one die in the town made it a national monument.
"It was known as the Summer Capital. Seven presidents left Washington and set up shop here," says local author Sharon Hazard. "Woodrow Wilson accepted the Democratic nomination here."
In the late 1800's, Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park was the site of "The Reservation" that Long Branch businessman Nate Salsbury built for his Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull were among the performers.
But the nation's chief executives were not the only ones to flock to the resort.
No matter the origins, it is beyond dispute that from the period of the 1860's through the First World War, it was also the most glamorous.
In fact, Long Branch's early years as a resort town was a virtual "Who's Who" of society, including such names as Astor, Fisk, & Drexel - and even more notorious names such as Diamond Jim Brady and Lily Langtree -- even before Mary Lincoln's visit.
Entertainers and high rollers of all sorts enjoyed the casinos and the nightlife. Steamships pulled into the Pleasure Bay section of town, bringing weekenders from Manhattan.
In 1870, a racetrack opened, and soon after, casinos. It was this reputation as much as the sea air that seems to have drawn the U.S. Presidents.
But the city's fortunes began to change in 1893 when anti-gambling laws in New Jersey were passed, shuttering the oceanfront casinos and the original Monmouth Park racetrack, which was located in what was then called the Greater Long Branch Area. It was a major blow for a town where gambling was the biggest industry. The high rollers began to pack their trunks for Saratoga Springs instead.
The 1920's witnessed the beginning of Long Branch's decline as a fashionable summer destination. Gambling laws stopped many of the rich and famous from visiting, and wicked storms eroded Long Branch's famed beachfront.
Around the turn of the century, there was a new influx -- wealthy German-Jewish families from New York such as the Guggenheims, the Loebs, and the Lehmans, all of whom had been shut out of the blue-blood society scene in Newport, Rhode Island. Quickly, Long Branch took on a new image as the Jewish Newport.
But on July 4, 1924, the Ku Klux Klan held a meeting in Long Branch, concluding with a four-hour march down Broadway.
"It was the biggest Ku Klux Klan march in the country," Woolley says. "Right after that, a lot of those wealthy Jewish people closed up shop and didn't come back." It was another devastating blow to the town's hotels and other businesses.
Today, Long Branch is now enjoying a rebirth. Long Branch's boardwalk has been rebuilt, the beaches cleaned up, and a massive redevelopment project has resulted in hundreds of new apartments and townhouses, plus rows of shops, restaurants, and bars, making this town into what is considered one of New Jersey's hottest Shore destinations.
Travel and Leisure named Long Branch one of the twenty best beaches in the country in 2007. New York magazine called it a great place for New Yorkers to make a day trip to the sea. NJ Monthly has featured the town in its annual shore issue too.
Then there is Seven Presidents Park, now a park near the beach.
It is the site of The Church of Presidents. The only remaining structure of Long Branch's former elegance is the St. James Episcopal Church. Built in 1879, it is where all seven presidents worshipped. The chapel itself, which had served 75 years as a seasonal church, was slated for demolition in 1953, when preservationists stepped in and ultimately succeeded in having the building rededicated as the Long Branch Historical Museum.
Today the building located at 1260 Ocean Avenue is undergoing extensive structural repairs and renovations. Though closed to the public, it remains a very visible and tangible link to that earlier era that Long Branch was the place to go.
Eric Model explores the "offbeat, off the beaten path overlooked and forgotten" on SIRIUS-XM Radio and at journeysinto.com.