The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Seventy-Four

June 21-30, 1918

Kate Roosevelt’s chauffeur, George had a day off on June 21, 1918 and was taking his family on a day trip. In her diary, Kate Roosevelt divulged his destination. “I did not have car for the whole day as George was taking his family to Highlands.” It was a place Kate knew well. Located just a short distance from her family home, the “Anchorage” along the shore in Sea Bright, New Jersey, Highlands was where hordes of New Yorkers, like George and his family came for a day’s excursion. Many came to enjoy the amusements at Highland Beach which included a replica of the nation’s first roller coaster.

Great American Switchback Roller Coaster

The original was installed in Coney Island in 1884 and was called the Great Switchback Railroad. It propelled riders at the reckless speed of six miles per hour and tourists flocked there to experience the thrill of the ride. William Sandlass was the foresighted genius that saw the need for a place that the middle class and even groups living in the stifling tenements could come to escape the sweltering temperatures and the stagnant stench from thousands of horses and poor city sanitation. The excursion to Highland Park offered a day by the sea with fresh air, cool breezes, swimming, picnics, cabanas, cottages, an open-air pavilion and freshly-caught seafood dinners. To make it an easy trip, Sandlass built a steamboat dock on the west side of the property that extended into the deeper waters of the Shrewsbury River.

The Cottages in Sea Bright, New Jersey

Kate Roosevelt often took advantage of this mode of transportation. Her summer trips to the shore often began with a twenty-mile steamship ride to the tip of Sandy Hook where she continued on through the narrow six-mile-long peninsula by rail to Sea Bright. At the time there was a train depot located right across the street from the “Anchorage” along Ocean Avenue.

A Day in Summer

In one of her diary entries Kate described this special place. “In 1870 father built a new brick home, just south of the Stevens’ mansion in Hoboken and a `camp’ down the Jersey Coast. Mr. Stevens who endowed Stevens Institute and father were interested in a new railroad that ran down the Jersey Coast and they felt it was a good place for a summer colony, located close to Manhattan. We sailed down from Hoboken on the `Drift.’ The railroad men met us with a hand car and we went looking for the perfect place to build our new home. The place was finally chosen and Grannie Shippen and Mrs. Stevens decided it should be named Sea Bright. Most of our new wooden house was built in the work-shop in Hoboken and sent down in sailing boats with father’s men camping out in Sea Bright while construction was going on. It was a large house and we named it the `Anchorage’ where the hospitality was generous and the gaiety and fun was shared by friends and family alike.”

This rustic shingle-style sea-side cottage was where Kate Shippen and Hilborne Roosevelt, President Theodore Roosevelt’s cousin, were married in 1883.

Sea Bright Train Station

Many sunny days were spent at the house on the bluff. Kate’s sister, Ettie Shippen’s diary brought to life those endless summers in Sea Bright, “The house was always full of guests. Surf, swimming, the new game of lawn tennis and an endless series of theatricals made a good time for young and old.  All the Shippens became expert swimmers. My brother, Bill entered tennis tournaments under an assumed name, “Williams,” because father would have objected to his own name being printed in any publication. All the young people used to go down to the beach in the evening, but always in a group and we would talk and sing, a great deal of singing of all the popular songs and at ten o’clock Grandpa Shippen would ring a bell and we all had to “bounce” when it rang and come right in and go to bed.”

In a talk given by another sister, Sofie Shippen many years later, to the Rumson Garden Club she remembered growing up in nearby Sea Bright, New Jersey and called the early residents “cottagers.” Sofie referred to Sea Bright “As the beginning of the summer settlement, the little fishing village originally known as Nauvoo, but always spoken of as “the huts” for the first houses were little else as the men only lived there in the summer. They were built against a high bank covered with beach plum bushes which we were not allowed to pick, they belonged to the fishermen’s wives. We had to wait to go over to Sandy Hook, where they were free then for all. We had the first real garden at our home the “Anchorage.” Every grain of soil was brought by carts from inland and covered by sod. Our neighbors, General and Mrs. Louis Fitzgerald, did the same. We still have some rose bushes brought from our place in Hoboken and our yellow iris came from the Fitzgerald’s estate on the Hudson. We never really thought of the beach as producing flowers, those were cultivated inland.  Over the bridge then called “Jumping Point Drawbridge” into Rumson was a cow pasture where we often went for milk. The cow pasture reached to the woods opposite the tennis club on Rumson Road and in the shade of the trees we gathered forget-me-nots in spring and fringed gentian in the fall and all summer.”

In the late 1800s, wealthy New Yorkers moved entire households to cooler climates during the summer months to avoid the heat and cholera epidemic festering throughout the steaming streets of the city. Saratoga and Newport were among the choice destinations, but some ventured in another direction, south, to Long Branch, Rumson and Sea Bright, New Jersey all located just off Sandy Hook, near Highland Beach, along the Atlantic Coast.

The Roosevelts in Sea Bright, New Jersey

The Roosevelt’s were no exception: In 1863 the Roosevelt family spent several summers in what was then called Oceanic, New Jersey hoping the ocean breezes would help alleviate young Teedie’s (Theodore Roosevelt) asthma attacks. In 1874 his future, second wife, then the teenaged Edith Carow spent the first of several summers in nearby Long Branch. Her first visit was for her father’s health and her mother wrote to her, “I hope your father has recovered from his fatigue, he is not strong and must be careful.” For three years in a row, Edith Carow spent her summers on the beaches of Monmouth County, New Jersey. According to the book Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Portrait of a First Lady by Sylvia Jukes Morris, “There were not many country seats, Edith disappointedly observed, on the shores of New Jersey. Most settlements consisted of fishermen’s and farmhand’s shacks and the cottages of laborers from inland tomato canneries. The chief attraction of New Jersey for Edith was her uncle, General Tyler’s house, Babary Brae on the banks of the Shrewsbury River. Here the old general raised cows; grew pears, plums and asparagus and served delicious suppers of soft-shelled crabs and freshly caught trout. Wisteria and honeysuckle clambered over the large piazza. Maples, elms and willows shaded the spacious gardens and one large oak sheltered a little summer house reached by winding stairs. The gardens were a riot of color that included Persian lilacs, strawberries and clumps of white sweet-scented lily of the valley. Marble statues entitled Cross Husband and Good Natured Wife stood on either side of the white gravel walks edged with moss and clove pinks.”

A Roller Coaster Ride

According to Morris’ book, while visiting the Jersey Shore, “Edith spent long warm days gratifying her nature-loving eye and ear.” I was thinking that she and Theodore Roosevelt, the naturalist, if not romantically attached yet, were certainly soul-mates. Morris describes Edith’s fascination with the great outdoors, “The sight of fishnets strung out on sable sands, purple beach plums dangling from dark twigs and speckles of bright marsh flowers bordering the blue inland lagoons, the scent of ripening fruit, the tang of pine on the salty air, the sounds of mewing gulls, and the pounding of surf rushing toward the strand stirred her well-tuned senses.”

Edith loved to swim and to watch the adults playing in the surf. In those days gentlemen, wearing loosely-buttoned flannel trouser suits and ladies in skirted jackets and pantaloons, wide brimmed hats and rubber-soled shoes took dainty dips. Police officers patrolled the beach to make sure there was no scandalous showing of flesh. When her parents took an afternoon drive and her energetic friends headed for the grass tennis courts, quite possibly ones owned by local resident William Shippen and his neighbors who would eventually establish the nearby Sea Bright Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club, Edith went for long country walks, picking “armfuls of goldenrods and the vivid scarlet cardinal and white marsh flowers which she arranged in an immense blue pitcher in the dining room.” Her knowledge of wildflowers was cultivated in the fields of New Jersey. Sometimes she climbed up Rumson Neck, a hilly section of land separating the Shrewsbury and Navesink Rivers. From here she could look down on the holly forests and boats bobbing along Sandy Hook.

That same summer, Theodore Roosevelt came to nearby, Long Branch, but from his personal Notes on Natural History, he had eyes only for local wildlife, not the young Edith Carow. Theodore wrote of observing along the shore, “meadowlarks, bitterns, yellowthroats and most conspicuous the fish hawk, which whistled and boomed as it plunged down on its prey.”

If Highland Park had been built back then, I am sure the adventuress Roosevelt Family would have enjoyed experiencing tempting the force of gravity on the roller coaster known as the Great American Switchback Railroad.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

On WAT-CAST, listen to Sharon talk about the series.

Photo One:
Kate Shippen Roosevelt and Sisters on the beach at Sea Bright
Author’s Collection

Photo Two:
Great American Switchback Roller Coaster
wiki

Photo Three:
The Cottages in Sea Bright, New Jersey
Author collection

Photo Four:
A Day in Summer
Public domain

Photo Five:
Sea Bright Train Station
Author collection

Photo Six:
The Roosevelts in Sea Bright, New Jersey
Kate and Hilborne Roosevelt on far upper right
Author collection

Photo Seven:
A Roller Coaster Ride
wiki