Closed Sea

From the Manasquan to the Mullica
A History of Barnegat Bay

By Kent Mountford

It is a masterful guide, before its time in
many ways.”

— Kirk Moore, Asbury Park Press

6" x 9"
207 pp., 26 illustrations
ISBN 0-945582-84-6
Closed Sea Has Many Regional Tales to Tell

Reprinted from The Beachcomber, 6/02, in its entirety.
Copyright ©2002 Jersey Shore Newsmagazines. Reprinted with permission.


Kent Mountford, estuarine ecologist and environmental historian, has had a fascination with Barnegat Bay since his college days; an affair of the heart, which blossomed into a book belonging in the library of anyone who has ever dipped a foot into this salt water. Closed Sea, From the Manasquan to the Mullica, A History of Barnegat Bay (Down The Shore Publishing, $24.95), is a kind of historical, social, ecological and certainly in-depth Baedeker of the vast bay stretching up from the north end of Long Beach Island and the shores it touches.

The book has many tales to tell and, suitably enough, begins at the very beginning with something of a shocker regarding the earliest explorations here, with more surprises to come. Closed Sea is a species of historical travelogue, a voluminous compendium of what’s known of this vast land-edge sea running along the central coast of the Garden State, and the shoreline it washes. A careful reader of Dr. Mountford’s book could very nearly get a bachelor’s degree in Barnegat Bay Studies if such a thing were possible.

Closed Sea is structured chronologically, with both twice-told tales and original research fleshing out 207 pages. Mountford admits straightaway to his lifelong fascination with Barnegat Bay and all its wonders, beginning back in the ’50s when he spent lazy hours aboard his uncle’s catboat, Osprey, out of Manasquan. This attraction deepened for the author as the years passed, and he wrote a research paper titled “The Closed Sea” for the freshman English requirement at Rutgers College.

“The professor, intolerant of its indifferent spelling and dangling clauses, rated my work poorly,” Mountford recalls. “It had nevertheless been such a labor of love that independent of my college curriculum, I began writing what has become this book.”

Closed Sea, incidentally, comes from a Latin tag, mare clausam, which describes an estuary as “a partially enclosed body of water having riverine inputs and tidal exchange with the adjacent ocean.”
Interestingly, Closed Sea was completed, or nearly so, in l960. A companion volume was to follow, one focusing on the marine and seashore life here, but the world of study and work became too much with the author to press forward with it.

His first chapter (of 12 to follow) strongly suggests that the first Europeans to set eyes on these saltwater environs were not wayfaring English or Dutchmen, but dauntless Norsemen, adventurers who sailed down from the Hudson in the year 1101 all the way to Chesapeake Bay, giving Barnegat Bay the once-over on the voyage. So it is written in a primary source saga from The Hauk Book and everyone knows the Vikings never told tales!

Who followed on the heels of these Scandinavians? Believe it or not, the Romans and Portuguese are mentioned as early visitors, while, surprisingly enough, Verrazano’s claim as an early discoverer gets a skeptical reaction from Dr. Mountford.

Mountford is particularly thorough in his treatment of the Lenape Nation, describing how they lived, what herbal medicines these Native Americans used, their good sense in summering at the shore as the first vacationers, and, sadly enough, their eventual decline and fall, courtesy of the white man. He’s also good on the robust characters, some rogues and some good souls, who eked out a living and made interesting lives on these shores during the early years.

Another surprise: Mountford actually gives a bit of grudging respect to “Bloody John Bacon,” long considered one of the principal scoundrels of these parts during the Revolutionary War and author of the infamous Long Beach Island Massacre in l783.

On the other hand, look at the way Mountford describes the grisly end of another Loyalist, a lowlife named Jacob Fagan. Killed while raiding a Patriot’s house, Fagan’s body was “hung in a tree about a mile from Colt’s Neck, wrapped in chains and tarcloth and left to rot before the winds. Buzzing with insects, it fell bone by bone to the earth. Finally someone spiked the skull to the tree with a pipe in its mouth, a silent reminder to those who would follow in his footsteps.” Anecdotes such, varying from the humorous to the scholarly, make for lively and engaging reading throughout Closed Sea.

Mountford ties in the problematical question of the Barnegat Pirates with the coast-wise alarms and excursions of the Revolution. He’s frankly ambiguous as to the “did they/didn’t they” matter of whether “pirates” ran lights along the barrier island beaches to lure ships onto the bar. Actually, this old canard was effectively exploded not long ago by some extensive academic research.

It would have been interesting to get scholar Mountford’s reading of the old legend that a near relative of Archbishop Cranmer, the Anglican churchman burned at the stake as a heretic by “Bloody Mary,” fled her repressive regime for the New World, settling quite early on in these environs. If true, present Ocean County Cranmers and Cramers may well be descendants of the martyr.

His chapter headings indicate the eclectic mix of fact, fancy, and foolishness celebrated in Closed Sea: “They Led the Way,” “Of Burning Hole,” “Cranberry and the Captains,” “Land of the Lenape,” “A Thorn for the Crown,” “The Iron Masters,” “From the Land,” “From the Sea,” “Rails and Resorts,” “Ships and Sailing,” and “Wrecks, Lights, and Pirates.”

Like all substantial works, Closed Sea has a full bibliography and an excellent index. There are graphics here, both photographs and pen and ink drawings, and a map as a frontispiece. An attentive reader might note from this that Mountford’s notion of Barnegat Bay is an expansive one, extending from “Squan all the way down through Manahawkin Bay to Tucker’s Island.” He has no apology. “What I have chosen to call ‘Barnegat Bay’ is at best an arbitrary thing. I have allowed her influence to extend generously behind the sea islands, with a convenient bit of overlap at each end, describing something more than the boundaries of Ocean County.”

As well, Mountford’s pen roams westerly to the Pine Barrens, giving accounts of Tories and Patriots skirmishing there during the War for Independence, the early Jersey Shore railroad days, digging marl inland, and producing bog iron and war materiel at the Batsto Ironworks for General Washington.

Edward Brown is a longtime Beachcomber writer and has reviewed books for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Smithsonian Magazine, Central Record Publications and Soldier of Fortune, among others.

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