Road Blog: Finding President Garfield

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I have a minor obsession with the assassinated President James A. Garfield. What drew my attention to him was one doleful fact about his passing: He lingered for 80 days after he was shot in July 1881. He succumbed to infections caused by the insistent and non-sterile probing of his most serious wound by a succession of doctors searching for a bullet. Alexander Graham Bell attempted to use a primitive medical detector to find the slug. He failed, perhaps because Garfield was lying on a newfangled metal-coil mattress. A medical historian summed up the case a few years ago: “Garfield had such a nonlethal wound. In today’s world, he would have gone home in a matter or two or three days.”

Instead, Garfield languished. Two months after he was shot, he was taken to Long Branch, New Jersey, a seaside resort filled with the rich and famous of the Gilded Age. Sort of a 19th century version of Malibu or the Hamptons. Those caring for the president are said to have thought maybe the sea air would help effect a cure. Or maybe they knew better and just wanted the guy to be comfortable before the inevitable occurred.

Garfield was taken on a special train to Long Branch. His condition was so fragile that there was widespread discussion of how fast the train ought to travel on the trip from Washington to protect him from unnecessary jolts (the decision: slow. The 238-mile trip took about seven hours). Doctors thought it best that Garfield not be transferred to a horse-drawn coach from the train, so teamsters and citizen volunteers built a 3,200-foot temporary rail line from a nearby station to the 20-room Francklyn Cottage in the hamlet of Elberon, where the president was to convalesce. The line, built in less than a day, was tested by running a locomotive over the fresh tracks. Twice, the engine derailed because a curve in the line was too short, and that section of the rails had to be relaid. The third time, the tracks stayed in place, and they held up for a final test before the president’s train arrived.

Garfield arrived on September 6, 1881, and he was duly installed in his seaside abode. He died on September 19.

We’ve been visiting Kate’s family, which lives in the general vicinity of Long Branch, for the last couple of days. Late this afternoon, we decided to drive over and see if we could find any trace of the Garfield story. One remnant you come across if you do some quick web research is a “tea house” that’s said to be built from some of the ties from the temporary railroad. It’s supposed to be the only building with any connection to the Garfield story that’s still standing. I saw online that the tea house resides outside the Long Branch History Museum, so we went looking for that. We more or less stumbled upon it around sunset and saw that the museum consists of the former St. James Chapel, a.k.a. Church of the Presidents, and several tiny frame structures (including the Garfield tea house) on a lot surrounded by a flimsy chain-link fence.

We also noticed that a little semi-private-looking lane nearby was named Garfield Road. We decided to take a walk up that street to see if there was anything related to the president there. What I was imagining was a plaque saying “this is the place where. …” Around a corner of the lane, we encountered something just a little grander, a granite marker (pictured above) on a little patch of lawn outside someone’s shore house. It’s a wonderful scene in a way: to one side, someone’s got the garbage out for pickup. On the other, there’s a “children playing” sign. And in the middle, the simplest acknowledgment that one noted life came to an end here:

JAMES A. GARFIELD
Twentieth president of the United States
Born Nov. 19, 1831at Orange, Ohio
Died on this site, Sept. 19, 1881

Here’s a brief explanation for how the marker came to be, by way of a nice little 1981 historical essay in The New York Times:

“In 1961, as a result of a campaign begun in 1957 by 8-year-old Bruce Frankel of Asbury Park, a granite marker was erected on the site of the cottage. Mr. Frankel, a lawyer, now lives in Fort Myers, Fla. and is still an avid reader of Presidential history.”

After the Storm

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The view looking north from the Highway 36 bridge between Highland and Sea Bright, New Jersey. That’s the Shrewsbury River in the foreground, which opens into Raritan Bay and then New York Harbor. That’s Sandy Hook National Seashore in the middle distance, which is still closed because of damage from Hurricane Sandy. The Atlantic is rolling in from the right. Beyond that is a Hapag-Lloyd container ship, then the south shore of Brooklyn and the skyline of Manhattan in the distance. All quiet and benign.

I got the barest idea of how much the storm has affected life in this part of the world. Looking south from the bridge, I could see groups of big houses in Sea Bright that were almost all dark as dusk descended. There was a highway sign advising of a 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew in the town, much of which was washed off the map. Utility crews rolled past, still working on getting lights on three weeks after the storm. I met a couple on the bridge and asked if they’d been around when the storm arrived. Yes, but they lived high enough up that it hadn’t affected them. It was a different story for the other town nearby, Highland. Most of the business district was wrecked. I didn’t go take a look.

Road Blog: Home to Brooklyn

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We flew out to New York from the Bay Area on Sunday. It may be the last 6 a.m. flight I ever take, because I have so poorly mastered the logistics of an early morning departure that I wind up getting almost no sleep the night before I leave. In the current instance, I wasted much of the eve of the trip screwing around with entirely gratuitous family history stuff; task avoidance if I’ve ever seen it, and believe me I have. The net effect was I was up until after two in the morning doing all manner of stuff I had planned on doing earlier and which I was convinced had to be done. I got about an hour of real sleep (Kate got a bit less), then got up for our cab ride to the airport. We did manage to sleep some on the plane.

Then we landed at Newark. Eamon and Sakura drove bravely through the rain from Brooklyn to pick us up and take us back to their place in Brooklyn (Cobble Hill, just down Court Street from the Borough Hall). We walked out into the storm to eat at a place on Atlantic Avenue, splashed back to the apartment, where I napped for an hour. Then, since the rain was still pounding down, we all took the subway to my brother John’s new place next to the Brooklyn Bridge. He and his wife, Dawn, had lived in the same apartment in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood for 20 years but just this past year landed a spot in a big co-op-type apartment building. We all hung out for a couple hours and checked out the new digs. Outside it had finally stopped raining. the Cobble Hill contingent walked home.

Next morning: No rain. We met John and his kids (Sean and Leah) for coffee and a post-breakfast bagel, then walked to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and up to the new park at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Kate and I later cleared out and came down to visit her family in friends in what I describe as the northern Jersey shore area–Holmdel and Hazlet townships in Monmouth County. But let’s stay in New York for a minute: The strangest thing for me about our arrival wasn’t the sleepless haze that enveloped parts of the first day but the feeling that I’m visiting a place where my family, through John and Eamon, has put down roots. It feels like home territory, though my zip code still begins with a 9.

(Photo: east tower of the Brooklyn Bridge, shot from Evert Street outside the headquarters of the Watchtower Society (a.k.a. Jehovah’s Witnesses.) You think of the Witnesses as quaint fringe Bible thumpers? You probably won’t after reading about their immense and hugely valuable Brooklyn real-estate holdings and the part they’re playing in local property wheeling and dealing (involving that same new park I mentioned above.))

Introduction to the Half-Day Fluke

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Last summer, we visited Kate’s family in New Jersey, where one of her nieces was getting married. The family is scattered mostly along the Highway 36 corridor, which runs east along the shore of Raritan and Sandy Hook bays. As you drive out toward Sandy Hook, you’ll see signs that say “Fluke” or “Half-Day Fluke,” with maybe a telephone number and reference to one of the shore towns. We’ve been going out along Highway 36 since the late ’80s, and I don’t remember seeing the fluke signs before, and I had no idea what the reference was (As opposed to the signs for Bahr’s, a seafood-and-beer place right at the bridge over the Navesink River; we took note of those a few years ago and try to go out there every time we visit).

A fluke, it turns out, is something like a flounder (one nickname for it is “doormat,” for its flounder-esque habit of lying flat on the sea floor). And a half-day fluke is a half-day fishing trip to catch one. You can also sign on for a three-quarter day fluke. According to a sign at one of the harbors we visited, Atlantic Highlands, the limit is eight fluke, minimum 18 inches long. The catch isn’t the only thing that’s regulated in the fluke fleet. A sign on the gangway to one boat read, “You are permitted 4 cans of beer per person. Absolutely no drinking permitted prior to departure. Strictly enforced.”

Friday Ferry

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We took the boat from Highlands, New Jersey, to Manhattan (an East River dock at E. 35th Street). The trip is about an hour each way and costs $40 round trip (I gather most of the patrons are daily commuters who get a deal for buying a 40-ride ticket). We caught the 2:50 p.m. boat, which actually departed about half an hour late (no announcements were made to the two or three dozen people, mostly tourists like us, waiting to make the trip).  

It was a beautiful, calm day on the water, but even so this trip is much more like being on the sea than the short trips across the Bay from San Francisco and Oakland. The boat rolled slowly on the swell and made it tough to walk straight across the deck. At the New York end we sailed east of Governor’s Island, under the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, and got off the boat at the end of 35th Street. We walked to the New York Public Library, then doubled back to Grand Central Station and jumped on the No. 5 subway to downtown Brooklyn. We met our friends Jan and Chris there, then took a GPS-assisted drive to Fornino pizza on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. Two small-world experiences: first, my brother John lived in this now hipster-intensive neighborhood about 20 years ago, when it was a little less given over to sidewalk performers, book vendors, and nice restaurants, bars, and boutiques. Second, Fornino, where we ate, is run by a friend of his.

Dinner was great, then Chris and Jan drove us back to Manhattan for the ferry home. It was warm and clear all the way across. Fireworks over Coney Island. A couple of shooting stars fell as we crossed the bay back to New Jersey. Ashore, then back to Highland Park.

Garden State

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Frenchtown, New Jersey, east bank of the Delaware River, 7:55 p.m., August 11. I think this is the last new state we’ll wander into on this trip.