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
contents | jacket copy | excerpt | review 1 | review 2 |

Reprinted from The SandPaper 6/12/02, in its entirety.
Copyright ©2002 Jersey Shore Newsmagazines. Reprinted with permission.


Kent Mountford grabs you with his first sentence: “It was, perhaps, a morning in August, the year AD 1011.”

What’s that? This is a book about Barnegat Bay. Sure, the Leni Lenape Indians were here before us, but who was here in 1011?

Thorfinn Karlsefni, that’s who.

You get a picture: “The shoals off Barnegat were calm at slack tide, brushed only by the catspaws of an indefinite morning breeze. Eastward, resting on the sea, was the long dragon-ship of Thorfinn Karlsefni. Her ornate sail panting slowly in the calm heat, she lay waiting for a south wind to bear her up the coast.”

Well, maybe. His long ship was, perhaps, 60 feet stem to stern. He had sailed it clear across the North Atlantic, found Hudson Bay, wintered there and “with the coming of April, worked southward” as far as Chesapeake Bay. You can see him, looking over the rail at the sedge islands, the racing currents, the saw-toothed pines.

Mountford says there is no record that Karlsefni actually chanced the tricky inlet and entered Barnegat Bay, but he adds, “It was against the Viking code to ignore any sizable break in a coastline.”

So those folks in Barnegat Light’s Viking Village have a claim to a history that goes back well before the 1920s when the rest of them arrived.

Or was a Roman the first European to set eyes — and, perhaps, feet — on these shores? Coins from the days of Emperor Trajan were found on the sands of what is now Long Beach Island.

“Was there a ship,” Mountford asks, “some forgotten galley with her purse of coin, driven from the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) across an unknown western ocean?”

And we’re off, careening through history both known and conjectured, with the author, who is a scientist, a historian, an ecologist and a storyteller.

The book is titled Closed Sea and subtitled From the Manasquan to the Mullica, a History of Barnegat Bay. It tells of Giovanni da Verrazano, whose account of finding New Jersey — he called it New France — might have been a hoax; of Est’evan Gomez, known as the “Portuguese Viking,” who had sailed with Magellan and left him halfway through the voyage and then came back on his own to explore; and of Hendrik (Henry) Hudson and his mate Robert Juet, who left us the first written observation on the bay:

“We came to a great Lake of water, as wee could judge it to bee ... the mouth of that Lake hath many shoalds and the sea breaketh on them as it is cast out of the mouth of it ... At five of the clocke we anchored, being little winds, and rode in eight fathoms of water, the night was faire ... This is a very good Land to fall in with and a pleasant Land to see.”

Mountford continues with Dutch Captain Cornelius Mey, who called the inlet “barendegat,” which meant “breaking inlet,” for its turbulence, and eventually had a whole chunk of the state named for him. Barendegat somehow came to be Burning Hole and “is said to be a very good place for fishing” by a couple of guys who came by in 1684.

All this in the first 22 pages. Closed Sea is a carefully put together account of the bay, its history, ecology, industries and people. The book started as a college term paper in the late 1950s. Mountford went on to study the dynamics of bay and estuary systems, becoming a recognized authority, particularly for his work on Chesapeake Bay.

But it was here he found his love and life’s work, and he returns to the place, and the piece, acknowledging “the bay I remember back a half a century ago is gone.” But, he adds, “the reawakening of public interest in community history and in restoration of the Barnegat Bay ecosystem now permits this book to see light today.”

It is in the history of the waters, as well as the people, that the work offers its strengths. He tells of inlets that come and go, such as the “New Inlet” that separated Long Beach Island from Tucker’s Island, which later slipped into the sea; or another “New Inlet” that cut through what is now Island Beach State Park and became Cranberry Inlet — and is also gone.

He tells the stories of the privateers who sailed out of the bay in the name of the colonies’ struggle against England, some to become pirates after the Revolution, whereupon “Island Beach became known as one of the most dreaded spots on the Atlantic Seaboard.”

The account of the original inhabitants, the Leni Lenape — the name actually means “original man” — reveals that they originally found their way here from Ohio, and many of them returned there after these shores started filling up.

The newcomers were Swedish and Dutch and English and German. They were an independent lot for the most part, and Mountford doesn’t seem surprised that many of them, as law and order became established, became bandits, rebels and freebooters.

Others engaged in making profits from the resources of the woods and marshes, using the impervious white cedar for boats, harvesting eelgrass and salt hay, mining the bogs for soft iron, making glass out of the everywhere sand, as well as clamming and fishing and hunting.

In short, a thriving community, more or less at one with nature and relatively unchanged over almost 200 years. A simple life, perhaps a good life, not a terribly difficult life, but, as Mountford observes, “amusement was hard to come by; there was little to do in south Jersey other than drink and ...”

And here he quotes from entries made in the records by a clerk at Martha’s Furnace, an iron works on the Wading River:

“Wm. Mick’s widow arrived here in pursuit of J. Mick who she says has knocked her up.

“James McGilligan made a violent attempt on the chastity of Miss Durky Trusty, ye African.

“James McEntire brought his daughter home from the Half Moon for fear her morals would be corrupted.”
And, “McEntire himself was sick after his election day frolic.”

According to the clerk, drink was a persistent problem in the pines, observing in one note “William Rose and his father both drunk and lying on the crossway. The old woman at home drunk.”

But there were amusements, though doubtlessly then, as now, most of them involved drink. One big celebration was known as Salt Water Day, or Big Sea Day, or Beach Day, or Farmer’s Wash Day, or Sheep Washing Day.
Farmers would come from miles around in mid-August, usually for more than a day, just to party. They’d bring wagons, like campers, with food and cots and, of course, drink — mostly home-brewed. In those days, too, livestock was grazed on the shore, so every area seemed to have its own designation for the day.

Mountford’s account of life at the shore includes the early days of whaling from the beach, where the famous cry, “Blows! She blows! Thar she blows!” was reduced to a no-nonsense “Whales off!”

There’s no whaling anymore, but other bounty from the waters continue, though you probably won’t hear modern clammers singing, “Dear boys, ain’t you glad you never fished/ Never dugged for them clams?”

And there was the sea’s other bounty, as reflected in this prayer: “God bless Mam, Pap, and all us poor miserable sinners, and send a ship ashore afore mornin’.”

The so-called mooncussers were said to lure ships onto the shoals for easy pickings, a reputation that was not only untrue but slandered the men who risked their lives to save those the storms would claim. The example of the wrecks and “those pitiable people” inspired local resident William Newell to devise lifesaving procedures which led to the lifesaving service, which led to the Coast Guard.

Eventually came what Mountford calls “Opening the Shore,” the time when the beauty and serenity of the place were discovered, when roads and rails pointed people this way and the bay began a process that brought it into such a perilous state that its recent inclusion in the National Estuary Program is probably the last chance to save it.

The author’s account ends with the successful story of Old Barney’s struggle to survive the times and tides, and the hapless lighthouse on Tucker’s Island to not. Perhaps it is too easy to find a metaphor in this pair of symbols, but as the shore begins to groan under the weight of those who love it, maybe we should make it one.

Closed Sea is the latest offering from Down The Shore Publishing, which is doing a remarkable job not only of finding and bringing to light tales and chronicles of the Jersey Shore, but also of encouraging and promoting new works, fictional, documentary and children’s. You won’t find John Grisham or Belva Plain on its book list. But for beach reading you can look up from and see the setting right there, it’s rapidly becoming the house of record.

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