Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Things fall apart... the center cannot hold

Last year I wrote about the gradual decay of the buildings at Sandy Hook's Fort Hancock. In particular, I lamented the condition of Officers' Row, the sturdy yellow brick homes that stand along the bay side of the fort and were once home to army captains and first lieutenants.

After not having visited for about six months, I dropped by at the end of September. While I honestly didn't expect any rehabilitation to have taken place, I was shocked to see the degree to which the Park Service was pointing out its own failure to maintain the structures. Now, in addition to the decaying porches and missing windowpanes, visitors are greeted with warning signs staked between the houses. It's one thing to post no trespassing stickers on the doors. It's quite another to admit that the condition of the place constitutes a public danger. That day, two park personnel were using a hydraulic platform to repair some fallen brickwork that looked truly dire -- the yellow brick facade had come off one of the front corners of a house, exposing the deteriorating brownish red brick beneath. Repointing one damaged area on one decomposing building was akin to sticking some used chewing gum in a crack at the Hoover Dam: nice try, but it won't stop the disaster from happening.

Buildings all over the Park Service system are meeting a similar fate, but things are supposed to be different at Fort Hancock. A developer named Sandy Hook Partners had plans to restore many of the buildings for various uses, including a cafeteria for visiting groups, as well as some offices and common use areas. While a percentage of the restored structures would be closed to the general public in favor of tenants, at least the buildings would be stabilized and occupied to prevent further decay. My question: what's going on, and why no visible progress?

This past weekend I made another visit, this time for the park's annual Fort Hancock Day. As luck would have it, I got there just in time for the first ranger tour of the day. The park's historian was bringing visitors to a couple of the remaining gun/mortar batteries, even allowing access to areas that are normally closed. Of course, we all know that I'm a big fan of closed areas, so I couldn't wait to see what's behind door #1. At the mortar battery, he brought us through a tunnel between the mortar pits, showing us the area that had been enclosed for an anticipated poison gas attack. We walked farther on to one of the two front pits of the battery, which is slowly being reclaimed by nature, a veritable sandy jungle of indigenous plants and trees. There are plans to clear it out, just as there are plans for everything else at the fort.

Next, we walked to Battery Granger, slowly crumbling behind a chain link fence and warning signs. After explaining the significance of the battery, the historian did exactly what I hoped he would: welcomed us past the gate and up a set of stairs to the gun platform. He didn't bring us to any of the interior areas, but still, this was a treat I hadn't expected.

The tour ended there, and while the others walked on to tour Battery Potter, I strolled back to base with the historian to chat about the restoration efforts that were supposed to be well underway by now. He told me that the developer had insufficient financial backing to move forward with its plans to restore and use the structures, so the Park Service recently nullified the arrangement. "If I won the lottery..." I started, and he replied, "me, too." In particular, he wants to restore the Officers' Club, one of the oldest structures on the Hook and absolutely beautiful inside, according to him. Check out the link above for a photo.

It's hard for me not to get on my soap box when I've got the ear of someone at the Park Service. In fact, purely by happenstance at the recent reopening of the Edison National Historic Park, I met a ranger who just recently got a promotion to oversee the maintenance on all of the NPS properties from Maine to Maryland. Like every NPS employee I've chatted with, he was very sympathetic to the plight of the non-restored park structures. Not yet familiar with the Sandy Hook situation, he noted that there's a tremendous backlog of repair work that needs to be done throughout the park system, just to keep things as they are today. Never mind restoration -- that would take billions the agency doesn't have.

The Edison site just may hold the answer. After a six year closure for restoration, it's simply a sight to behold. Two additional floors of the inventor's labs are now open for visitation, along with other side-buildings. There's now a comprehensive audio tour and informative signage, and visitors can wander relatively freely where they once had to take a guided tour. General Electric and Sony, whose technologies benefitted from Edison's insights, made major contributions to the total $12 million spent on the restoration.

The cost estimate for Fort Hancock is six to seven times what was spent at Edison NHP, but perhaps corporate funding can make a dent for just a few structures. The fort was an ammunition proving ground for quite some time, and also the site of a few firsts in artillery. Might there be a defense contractor who'd be willing to kick in some money to preserve the history of a critical part of New York's historic defense system?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Driving into a tableau

The older I get, the more it's proven to me: happiness comes in surprising ways, but only if you're open to it.

Sunny days seem to be the exception this year, and Indian summer wasn't looking very promising. Then the fates smiled on us last Wednesday and we were afforded a warm, blue-sky day, the perfect occasion for a road trip. Not sure of my destination, I gassed up the car and headed south. Sandy Hook, maybe? Asbury Park? I'd figure it out on my way down.

Several weeks ago I'd found my way down to the Pinelands and the mysterious non-town of Ong's Hat, and something drew me that way again. Maybe it was the daydreaming I was doing about starting a tour company of the state's lesser known historic spots. Anyway, I headed down the Parkway to Route 70 and points west.

Now that I know where Ong's Hat is, it was an easy jaunt to get there. I wanted to get a photo of the shut-down tavern that stands at the former site of the famous treed hat . That done, I drove aimlessly about the side roads, many of them not charted on my GPS. There were bunches of farms and fields of cornstalks gone brown, along with a few stands selling cranberries and surprising amounts of seafood. Even this rural, lightly developed area held relatively densely-populated enclaves of tract homes from place to place, apparently the residences of employees from the nearby military installations.

The cranberry stands got me thinking about the bogs I'd passed on my first recon of the area. No doubt they were flooded now, and deep into the harvest. That brought me down Route 72, and then one of the county roads, through Chatsworth and past the old General Store. Along the way, I stopped briefly to take photos of damp bogs through my car window.

Then I saw them. A trio of cab trucks with big bins on the back, parked on an earthen berm right next to the side of the road. As I got closer, I saw the conveyor belt and the glistening of wet cranberries floating within the confines of a big yellow floating boom. Workers in hip waders were shaking the submerged berry bushes with the tools of the trade, then pushing the crop with wooden boards to the end of the conveyor, where they were scooped up and ultimately dropped into big crates on top of the trucks, where another worker used another board to distribute the load evenly. Water streamed from the bottoms of the crates, having been transported up along with the berries.

This was all happening within feet of the edge of the road, as if it were some sort of demonstration arranged by the tourism bureau. It was like one of those Sesame Street segments on how food gets from the farm to the supermarket. Who could resist stopping to take pictures? In fact, someone else already had. I pulled to the side of the road and rolled down the window to grab a few shots.

I felt a little weird about stopping just to watch other people work, but the crew seemed okay with it and even waved over when they noticed I'd stopped on the opposite shoulder. Stepping out of the car, I crossed the two-lane road to get a better view. As one truck would be filled with berries, the worker atop would jump down and wave the next truck into position as the laden truck drove off and hook around to the county road to drop its load at the main barn. Meanwhile, the workers standing waist deep in the bog would keep the crop coming through the conveyor as long as a truck was beneath to catch it. It was a well oiled process, and it struck me that in essence, it probably hadn't changed in years. Maybe the conveyor was faster than an old one, or the booms were sturdier rubber, but there were no computers, no outsourcing to cheaper labor thousands of miles away.

Other people stopped and got out of their cars from time to time as I watched the crew, and to a person, they all had broad smiles on their faces. We exchanged greetings and brief statements about craving cranberry muffins or expecting to see the two farmers from the Ocean Spray commercial, but mostly, we were all taken in by the beauty of the tableau before us. The blue sky reflected in the flooded bogs, contrasted by the yellow boom and ripe red cranberries. The warmth of the sun, and the anticipation of Thanksgiving turkey and cranberry sauce. I just stood there with a dumb grin on my face. Yeah, I could have been mulling over how nice it is to see agriculture still operating successfully in New Jersey, not paved over or replaced by McMansions. Yes, it's great to see that the Ocean Spray cooperative run by member farmers, is doing a heck of a job in creating new products and broadening the appeal for cranberries so the bogs will keep operating profitably for years.

But none of that was going through my mind at the time. If I was thinking at all, it was about how much fun it was to watch, and how I couldn't wait to share it. This is New Jersey.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Mining and connecting

Wednesday was my birthday, and I decided to celebrate by taking one of my traditional wanders through another part of the state. Since I've been on an Edison kick lately, I chose to look for the site of one of his lesser-known enterprises, the iron ore mining venture in Ogdensburg, NJ.

A web search unearthed the location for me: Edison Road, just off Sussex County Road 620. With maps and GPS in hand, I got in the car and took the ride west via interstate 280, to Route 15. While 620 wasn't on the GPS, I was able to locate it without too much fuss, and then kept my eyes peeled for Edison Road, on Sparta Mountain. I arrived to find the stone and brass marker erected by Sussex County not too long ago, and a sign with topographic mapping of several trails that ramble through the woods. No other vehicles were there, not surprising for a Wednesday morning.

I parked and found my way in, quickly coming upon some narrow stone-walled drainage canals with rebar briefly protruding the tops. To the right was a sinkhole with a sign helpfully noting that sonar measurements found it was 86 feet deep at points. Wow. I walked in a bit farther to find a transmission tower right of way (ironically) and a few more crumbled walls. There wasn't as much to see as I'd hoped, but the reason for Edison's mining was clear. Many of the rocks and boulders showed the clear signs of oxidized iron.

I figured that there had to be more ruins in the woods, or at least some really good trails, but I didn't think it wise to explore them solo. The cellular coverage up there can be spotty, and if I got into a jam I'd be literally shouting into the wilderness. Resolving to return with my exploring buddy, I headed back to the car.

Just as I reached the trailhead, a Jeep Wagoneer pulled up, and a man, little girl and two rambunctious dogs came out. Naturally the dogs came running at full tilt to check me out, until the man called them back. Introducing himself as Rob, and shaking my hand, he asked if I'd been out to the ruins, and when I recounted my exploration, he told me there was a LOT more I'd missed, and if I wanted, he could show me where. He's explored a lot of the woods, some with an older man who actually wrote a book on Edison's mining operations.

Something about him and the little girl made me trust them. That, plus my new resolve to let people help me and do nice things for me more often, got me to agree to tag along with them for a little bit. As we hiked along, he explained that he was originally from South Carolina and had moved up here with his wife for her job. He really enjoys geting out to the woods in Sussex, had been surprised at how much there was to see, and how nice it is. Yeah, New Jersey tends to be that way.

In any case, he was right -- there is a LOT more to look at from Edison's operations, much of it reclaimed by nature since the mine closed (coincidentally, 109 years ago to the day of my visit). If you didn't know better -- and there wasn't so much rebar jutting out from the stone walls and the ground -- you'd think you'd stumbled on an ancient village. Along the way, too, I started remembering why it is that I've enjoyed hiking in the woods so much. It might have been that the little girl reminded me of myself when I was just a little older than she, when I'd play for hours in the woods across the street from my house. Back then, I'd have gone nuts over finding the ruins of a real building among the trees and scrub.

We parted company after about 45 minutes, and I ambled back to my car. Along the way, I got to thinking about another time when someone just happened to show up at the right time: my trip to Bandelier National Park in New Mexico. There, as in Sussex, I was traveling alone, looking for ruins with no-one seemingly in shouting range. At Bandelier, however, it was ancient Native American cliff dwellings, and you needed to use a series of ladders to get to them. As I'd approach a ladder, I'd question if it was prudent for me to climb it without a spotter. Every time, someone would appear, seemingly out of nowhere, offering a word of encouragement or a firm hand to hold the ladder secure as I climbed up. The uppermost cave was said to be used for sacred ceremonies, and reaching it was a transcendent experience in more ways than one. In fact, I still draw on my memories of being there whenever I need to center and calm myself.

That experience reminded me about a lot of things. Sometimes you just have to have faith that what you need will be there when you need it. You have to be willing to let other people help you, even when there doesn't seem to be any reason for them to help. Sometimes people don't NEED a reason to help. Sometimes things are just meant to happen at a certain time and certain place, and you just need to accept it. Perhaps Rob and young Willow came by the other day to remind me.