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Post-War Changes in Ocean County

By THOMAS P. FARNER | May 29, 2019

The spring of 1919 witnessed a war-weary country trying to return to normal. But as they say, war changes everything, and Ocean County was no exception. Over 1,000 men and women served during the conflict, with a large number in the 78th Division. On May 30 at Camp Dix, where they had trained less than two years before, their commander, Brig. Gen. J.H. McRae, said goodbye.

“In addressing you at this time of parting, I recall to mind the incidents of the past eighteen months during which it has been my fortune to command you.

“Your willing response and application under the trying demands made on you during the period of organization and training, revealed even then that spirit, which with your advent into conflict in the LIMEY SECTOR and the ST. MIHIRL OPERATIONS, manifested a courage and an indomitable will to win and later, during the grueling MEUSE-ARGONNE OFFENSIVE, an endurance which was inexhaustible. … It is recognized that your noble response to the Service of your Country made necessary by the crisis through which we have just passed, has of necessity seriously interrupted your former civil pursuits, but it (is) hoped that the experience gained by you while serving this great cause has not been a permanent loss to you but that it has resulted in better fitting you to cope with the new problems of life which will confront you.

“I wish you a hearty God speed with the sincere hope that the best of success may crown your future efforts.”

One of the biggest changes in the area was the erection of Camp Dix. In 1917 it was a series of farms located in Burlington and Ocean counties. They had been taken by the government as a wartime measure, and some now hoped they could return. A March 30 Trenton Times article told a different story.

“That the government is considering retaining the land adjacent to Camp Dix even if it is not used as a proving ground. … A recent act of Congress authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to provide hospital and sanatorium facilities for the care of men and women, who are taken ill after their discharge or who are so disabled that they remain under government care or indefinite periods. … Besides its health possibilities the nearness of the Lakehurst camp to the hospital at Lakewood and Dix and its convenience in regard to reaching shore points or the bigger cities could not be bettered. The buildings are all painted and the sanitary conditions are of the best. From the present outlook, however, the Ordnance Department is very desirous of retaining the camp as a proving ground but whether they do or not the prospect is very good of this section becoming one of the greatest military reservations in the country.”

The fate of the camp was revealed when a July 20, 1919, article in The New York Times stated, “Commissioners appointed this week by the United States Court at Trenton to set valuations on land needed by the Government for its permanent military post at Camp Dix anticipate no opposition from farmers who are asked to give up their homesteads. … In addition to the land occupied by the camp the Government required a big section extending into Ocean County for a rifle and artillery range. It is planned to return the old artillery range in the rear of the base hospital to its owners, and to use the more distant site in the pines, both for artillery and rifle practice.”

Located nearby in Lakehurst was another Army base, Camp Kendrick. Before the war it had been a proving ground at Eddystone arsenal. It was later taken over by the Russian government to test artillery shells, and with the U.S. entry into the war it became the major U.S. site for the testing of poison gas.

On May 8 the Trenton Times reported, “Acting Secretary of War Crowell yesterday announced the sale of eight National Guard camps and four miscellaneous camps, following the opening of bids, April 15. The War Department will receive $548,194.83 for all 11 of the camps. The 12th at Kendrick, N.J., is being retained for the navy.

“Camp Kendrick at Lakehurst, was withdrawn from the sale and it is announced was turned over to the navy for its use. The other 12 camps, eight national guard camps and four miscellaneous brought $548,000. The camps stood on leased ground, and what was sold was of course the buildings and other equipment, which was bought for wrecking, in most instances. In some places nearby cities and towns bought the light, water and sewer plants for municipal use, as has suggested might have been done at Lakehurst with one of the camps there.”

In August the Lakewood paper discovered why the Navy wanted a poison gas test facility.

“‘Full speed ahead’ is the Navy Department order for work on the new naval flying station to be erected at Camp Kendrick for Uncle Sam’s first big dirigible balloon.

“With the policy for development of the navy’s air service in this direction announced only a few days ago, there is to-day every evidence that Government heads are determined to make up for lost time and that the erection of the initial hangar will break even war time construction records.

“The ground for the giant hangar, which will be 1000 feet long, 562 feet wide and 175 feet high, has been surveyed and cleared, and the work of laying the concrete foundations for the massive iron structure which is to protect the balloons from storm and wind will be commenced within a few days.”

As Ocean County was about to get a new landmark, it was in danger of losing an old one. The Asbury Park Press of April 9, 1919, reported, “Storms have cut into the sand at Barnegat inlet so severely that the foundations of the famous Barnegat lighthouse, on the south side of the inlet, are threatened. In two years, the tides have cut away 250 yards of the sand and the big lighthouse now stands only 75 feet away. The ocean is now up to the retaining wall, built several years ago as a buttress against the waves, and Keeper Clarence Cramer (said) another series of storms will undermine the wall and threaten the lighthouse. The last storm cut in 50 feet.”

The Camden Post of May 19 did some investigation.

“Since last November, according to the reports of the bureau, the federal department has had knowledge that the seas are rapidly encroaching on the point of land – a narrow sand spit – on which the historic light house stands. … Barnegat residents assert that the bureau did not so much as send one of its engineers to investigate the reports of erosion until it had been bombarded by letters from Toms River and Barnegat and by pressure from Senator Frelinghuysen. (Neither) Representative Scully, whose district includes this part of the coast … nor did this personal investigation, it is declared, bring about any attempt to save the light house.”

To make matters worse, the problem was caused by the U.S. Army.

According to the Post, “Some of the men who fish out of Barnegat Inlet place the blame for the cutting away of the beach point, which thus threatens the historic lighthouse, upon the wreck of the United States Army transport Sumner, which went ashore on Barnegat shoals in December, 1916. Their explanation is that the Sumner entered the inlet channel and stranded on its outer bar, and that the hulk lay in the channel in such a way as to deflect its current, causing the erosion of half to three-quarters of a mile of sandy beach in two years.”

What was the government’s reaction to the possibility of losing a landmark?

“It was proposed to station a lightship off Barnegat Shoals. Critics of the bureau feel certain that this will mean allowing the seas, from whose maw the lighthouse has in the last sixty years saved so many ships, at last to swallow up and destroy the famous beacon.”

The Camden paper then threw down the gauntlet.

“It is because Barnegat Light is more than a seamen’s beacon, more than a baymen’s landmark, but is part of woven into the weft and woof of the life of the dweller on the Jersey shore, that there is such a stir of indignation, now that it seems it is to be allowed to be swept away into the sea, as its predecessor was.”

They say that change is inevitable – but is it always for the better?

Next Week: The Battle of Barnegat Light.


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