Site of the New Jersey Shark Attacks of 1916

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m a big fan of thrillers and horror movies, and 1975’s Jaws was a pioneer of the genre. With its big-name director, iconic movie monster, and unforgettable score, this movie is definitely noteworthy in the history of film. However, what a lot of people forget is that it’s based on a 1974 novel by Peter Benchley, which was itself inspired by the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks. I knew that when I got an opportunity, I absolutely had to visit the location where it all started.

Shark attacks have become somewhat expected in open ocean water, although in reality the likelihood of a shark attack is much lower than the hype would have us believe. However, in the summer of 1916 there was an intense heat wave and a polio epidemic in New Jersey and nearby New York City, which sent those who could manage it out to the seaside to swim and take in the ocean breezes. Perhaps the upsurge of people in the water attracted the sharks — or at the very least gave plenty of targets to the sharks that already lived in the area. Over twelve days in July, four people were killed and one seriously injured off the Jersey shore. Newspapers of the time, sensing a sensation, ran stories about fishermen catching all kinds of “man-eating” sharks, even though many of the photos had been taken long before the attacks. The panic level was high.

The attack of Charles Vansant off of Beach Haven on July 1st and the attack of Charles Bruder off of Spring Lake on July 6th actually occurred in the while the men were swimming in the ocean, although they were very close to shore. However, what stands out the most to me is that the July 12th attacks on Lester Stillwell and Stanley Fisher happened in Matawan Creek, which is brackish or even fresh water depending on how far upstream you go. Joseph Dunn, who was was the only person to survive the attacks, was also swimming somewhat up the creek when he was bitten by the shark half an hour after the two fatal attacks there.

I can understand why the 1916 shark attacks gripped people of the time with such terror. After the first one, people were on guard; after the second proved that it wasn’t just a one-time event, most wise people along the ocean eschewed ocean swimming altogether. But no one could have predicted that there would be a shark in the fresh water of Matawan Creek. In the middle of a heat wave and long before the invention of air conditioning, all these poor people wanted to do was cool off.

There is a memorial to the two Matawan shark attack fatalities in the town’s Memorial Park. This park also includes tributes to lives lost in WWI, WWII, and to two poor souls who were unlucky enough to be victims of 9/11. The memorial reads as follows:

The Attack: On July 12, 1916 an eight foot shark enters Matawan Creek. Six boys are swimming at the Wyckoff dock. One of the youngest boys, Lester Stillwell, is attacked by the shark and perishes. Stanley Fisher, a young businessman, gallantly tries to recover the body of the boy and dies.

The Victims: Lester Stillwell, and eleven year old local boy, dies immediately. His body surfaces two days later. Stanley Fisher, a twenty-four year old tailor, dies from his shark wounds the same day as the attack. Both Lester and Stanley are buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Matawan.

The Legacy: Exceptional courage was shown by local residents during this tragedy. This incident was an inspiration for novels, books and movies.

On July 14th, a 300lb bull shark (which can survive in both fresh water and saltwater) was caught, and when it was dissected 15lbs of human remains were found in its stomach. While that might not have been the only shark to attack a human over this period, there were no further attacks after it was caught.

This is what Matawan Creek looks like today; in all honesty, it’s unremarkable in almost every way, except for its history. This is the section of the creek that is visible from the Main Street bridge over Gravelly Brook; the bridge in the background is Aberdeen Road. The attacks actually happened a bit further east from what you can see from the memorial site, just west of where the Garden State Parkway goes over the water.

Visually, the only thing that stands out about this area is Lake Matawan, which is the body of water you can see behind the trees in the photo of the memorial. It looks like a bright green lawn that’s visible between the branches, but no, that is actually water. It is a brilliant shade of opaque emerald that I have never seen anywhere else. A bit of research leads me to understand that the lake is quite polluted and has a high copper content, and it is also actually highly acidic, meaning that very little aquatic life survives there except for one particularly brilliantly green variety of filamentous algae. The water here really looks like it should be in a canister labelled “TGRI”.

Not far from Memorial Park is Rose Hill Cemetery where Stillwell and Fisher’s graves are located. The cemetery is easily accessed via Ravine Drive. There are “No Trespassing” signs at entrance, but there are no gates. This seemingly mixed message is because apparently there was vandalism occurring in this graveyard, especially back in the 1970’s. However, polite, respectful guests are welcome to visit (or jog, or walk their dogs) on the property. Keep in mind, though, that this is still an active cemetery — graves were actually being dug while I was there — so if you do make this visit, please steer clear of mourners and leave them in peace. (Luckily there were no mourners onsite for me to disturb during my visit.)

Popular interest in the shark attacks is evident by the mementos left at Lester Stillwell’s grave. Since the poor child died over a hundred years ago, it’s highly doubtful that family or friends who knew him are still visiting his gravestone. While I was the only person in the graveyard other than the gravediggers (do they still call them that?), there had obviously been many visitors recently, probably over the summer, since the items weren’t too faded.

Stanley Fisher was buried in a family plot just up the hill from Stillwell, so the family stone is the most prominent one.

Fisher’s personal marker is a bit behind the stone bearing the family name, and it too shows evidence of recent visits, although not as much so as Stillwell’s. There were also a number of pebbles placed atop the family stone, much like at the Evans/Ellis cemetery.

Now, as for rumours that this is “one of the most haunted cemeteries in the United States”? Don’t believe the hype. Even if I put stock in such things (which I don’t), this is a well-maintained, peaceful, not-at-all-scary cemetery. Tragic stories abound in this old graveyard, true; they don’t start and end with shark attack victims. Some of the graves date back to the 1700’s, and with a long enough history there are inevitably tales to be told. At the very least there are soldiers from the Revolutionary and Civil War buried there. But the reality is that all graveyards contain stories, because stories are how we remember the people who have passed. And sometimes those stories just so happen to be so gripping that they transcend the circle of people that we knew in life and become the basis for a tale that enthralls and terrifies audiences worldwide. I think that’s as close to a haunting as one can reasonably expect.

Bacon Goes With Everything

Last night I ransacked my freezer and pantry in order to continue the trend of preparing meals that don’t require long cooking times indoors, which would heat the house up unduly. I came up with a box of spaghettini noodles, a small container of last year’s basil pesto, a package of sole fillets, and almost a pound of reduced-salt bacon.

What that turned into was essentially a meal where there was bacon on everything. I boiled up the spaghettini, drained it, and coated it in pesto. Then I dredged the sole in flour mixed with a bit of garlic powder, salt, and pepper, and then I pan fried it. (Whenever I cook my fish like this, I can’t help but think of lightly fried fish fillets, though.) I cooked up all of the bacon in the microwave, chopped it into bits, and sprinkled it on darned near everything.

My family couldn’t have been happier.

Cool Dinner

Last night I figured that we needed a cool, refreshing dinner to help combat the heat. To this end, I boiled up what was frankly way too much sushi rice and made some onigiri like I had eaten so regularly in Japan. I wrote a bit about this dish when I tried making pork belly onigiri, and doing so really made me crave the simple version. It’s fresh and clean-tasting, and it’s served cold, so you can whip it up during the cooler part of the day (or the night before), refrigerate, and serve it when it gets warmer.

I used a onigiri press like this one (which I bought at T&T for less than ten dollars, so don’t let the online price tag fool you). Of course, you can totally form rice balls by hand, a press just makes it less messy and keeps each one looking more or less identical. A press also makes it so much easier to put a filling inside the rice ball. I used canned salmon with a dash of mayonnaise (Japanese Kewpie mayo would have been best, but I didn’t have any on hand and substituted regular old Hellmann’s). For a bit more of a pop of flavour, I also added a few drops of liquid hickory smoke. We always have some of that stuff in the pantry because it makes a canned salmon sandwich absolutely divine, so I figured it would do the same to the onigiri.

I served the onigiri with halved hard-boiled eggs (also cold and prepared in advance) and some local summer sausage from the farmers’ market. I know that’s not how it would traditionally be served, but I wasn’t trying for accuracy here, I just wanted a nice, cool dinner that we could eat comfortably with our hands while we sat out on the porch. This would also have made a great picnic.

Not Charcoal Briquettes

Last night for dinner I wanted something quick and easy, as well as something that could preferably be cooked on the barbecue. I just wanted to spend time on that lovely new deck! There are lots of options along those lines, but unfortunately not a lot of them could be made without having to make a run to the grocery store this time. Honestly, I have run out of rice, potatoes, and carrots, which are three of my main staples. I really must go do a large grocery run. But I still needed to cook a family dinner with what I had at hand.

So I went with what I’ve been resorting to all too often of late: eggs and toast. The toast was day-old Fluffy Dill Bread. (I’d run the bread machine in the garage since it was so hot and humid the day before, and I didn’t want to heat up the house.) Eggs are always quick and simple, so I made both over-easy and scrambled, to peoples’ preferences. But then there was the sausages to go with the dinner, which are not, as one might think, charcoal briquettes.

Something about the kind of wood pellet we’re using at the moment in the smoker grill turns everything cooked in there black on the outside. I think it’s just a high-ash mixture. You can see it to a certain degree on the burgers, but the buns hide the worst of it. But with the sausages, it just looks horrible. It’s funny, though, because the meat tastes absolutely fabulous. It’s juicy and tender and not at all overdone. And, of course, there’s a lovely smokey flavour and scent that comes through with anything on a wood pellet grill. We’re just going to have to invest in some nicer pellets next time we run out. The ones we’re using came with the grill when we got it last fall second-hand from my in-laws, and I have no idea what kind they are. After all, not every dish needs to look as if it’s been blackened.

In the Back Yard

This Sunday was Father’s Day, and our family had the chance to spend the day primarily out on the new back deck. You see, as of two weeks ago our back yard looked like this:

You see, we had a deck when we first moved in, but the previous owners had done everything wrong. They’d tied it into the house, they’d painted it with interior paint, they’d lined the ground underneath with plastic causing water to pool there… So much poor construction. There are all kinds of pictures of the original in my post about building a garden, when I took the old deck out to make room for my vegetable garden. But when that deck was gone, we didn’t have the funds to build a new one right away, so that section just became a mud pit for a few years (the ground here is mostly clay and is slick when wet). My husband used a few salvaged paving stones to keep the barbecues from sinking too badly, but that’s all we were able to do for a while.

Last week, though, my brother-in-law built us a deck. The actual work only took a couple of days, and with all of his experience in the trade he made it look so easy! (It would have taken me a month, and much frustration and swearing.) Not only did he build the deck, but he re-leveled the ground underneath so that now it drains away from the house instead of toward. He also put in gravel with a layer of landscape fabric underneath, creating better drainage and resisting weeds at the same time. (You would think that the lack of sun underneath would keep plants from growing at all, but I have been waging war against an ivy vine since I moved into this house.)

So no more mud pit, proper drainage, and a lovely deck upon which to spend the summer! We’re just waiting on the delivery of some new boards for the stairs so that they match, since I’d salvaged old stair brackets we wanted to use. But for now it’s totally functional, and still beautiful. I am so happy!

Having a brand new lovely deck encouraged me to get off my butt and plant my main vegetable garden, too. My tomatoes actually self-seeded this year — not in those nice straight lines, I picked the best ones and arranged them how I liked. Now we’ll have to see how well they fruit. I also planted white radishes, eggplants, onions, beets, and potatoes. The potatoes are where nothing has sprouted above-ground yet, but I find they can be slow starters.

The weather was so lovely this weekend that we ended up spending most of our time in the back yard. Sunday was especially warm, and I didn’t want to cook indoors, so my husband did the stereotypical thing of grilling up some hamburgers on Father’s Day. It was so nice to be able to just sit outside and enjoy the summer — although there was a fair amount of goofing around too, and my hubby playing soccer with the kids. All in all, it was a lovely, low-key Father’s Day.

Now to plan a nice barbecue for next week so that I can have my BIL over for a thank-you meal!

Russell Flea Saturday June 16th

So it looks like tomorrow will be the last Russell Flea of the season! Originally there was supposed to be one more on June 30th, but the school where it’s held couldn’t get a janitor to work that day (not surprising, as it’s the holiday weekend), so it had to be cancelled. I’m not terribly upset, since this means I’ll get to spend all of Canada Day weekend with my family. That being said, this means I have to cram all of the new-to-me summer items into my stall tomorrow! I’ve been doing some serious hunting for vintage housewares, so there’s all kinds of new things to see. Given the beautiful weather today and the completion of my new deck, I had to head out to my back yard to take some pictures.

I’ve found a lovely handmade pottery bowl set from 1978, which includes six salad bowls and a larger serving bowl. Perfect for hosting summer barbecues!

There are some fun metal 1970’s canisters that would protect your coffee, tea, and sugar from insects and rodents at the cottage or camp.

Lots of melamine picnicware up for grabs, including cups, mugs, plates, and bowls. They’re lightweight, hard-wearing, and great for camping or just lounging near the pool.

And of course I always have classic Tupperware! I grew up with this style of colourful bell tumbler and juice jug. At my house, they were mainstays of the kids’ table.

Of course there is a lot more that I haven’t taken photos of (yet)! You can see it all at Russell Flea tomorrow. Hope to see you there!

Just Breathe

This weekend was a great deal of fun, but hardly what I’d call relaxing. After sending the girls to school Friday morning, I drove up to the cottage my parents are renting for the summer to help bring up a season’s worth of gear. I was back in time to greet the kids after school, at which point I starting packing up everything I’d need for Russell Flea on Saturday.

Saturday I was up bright and early to vend at Russell Flea; after packing up my stall at close of business, I drove directly from there to a friend’s fantastic house party that doubles as a fundraiser for CHEO. At the same time, the kids participated in a community parade in the morning, then went out with their grandparents, then Thing 1 went to a birthday party. Meanwhile, after getting the kids to the grandparents, my husband went off to a Magic: The Gathering tournament with his brother.

Despite the late night at the house party, Sunday I had to be up early again to make an out-of-town pickup of items for my flea market stall. I brought Thing 2 along with me, since my husband was taking Thing 1 with him so that they could play as a team at the second day of the Magic tournament. I brought Thing 2 with me back to the house party, where we hung out and played video games, most notably Beat Saber. Then Thing 2 and I went out for dinner with a friend of mine, then I dropped her off, then I brought Thing 2 home to put her to bed…

And then I collapsed on the couch for a few hours.

All that to say that it has been a pleasant weekend, but I am exhausted. I rather wish that we had a labyrinth like the one in Carleton Place, which I happened upon a couple of weeks ago when in town for yet another pick up. When I saw the sign, I was kind of hoping for a hedge maze, but this was pretty darned cool. It’s meant to be a meditative, spiraling walk to the center of the stone pathway, and then back out again.

I’m not generally much of one for meditation, but after a weekend like this one I think that walking a labyrinth like this would help me clear my head. A good night’s sleep probably wouldn’t hurt, either.

And I have to remember to breathe.