Modern history

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Part One - An Erratic Era

The Hotel

On an island off the southern coast of New Jersey, at the edge of the vast and desolate pinelands, stood an old, proud wooden hotel. The graceful spire could be seen far over land and sea and stole the flat horizon from the famous bygone lighthouse that was crumbling into the tides. Carved around the crown of the spire was a bas-relief of ocean waves rolling in endless and regal procession. The overall effect was of a Greek temple left to preside over a land of mosquitoes and greenhead flies. The Engleside Hotel was the grandest lodge on the deserted stretch north of Atlantic City, a world apart from the glamour of Asbury Park, where President Woodrow Wilson stayed that summer of 1916, running for reelection on the promise “He kept us out of the war.” In Asbury Park, notable and fashionable people set the modish style, but the Engleside moved to the cadence of elegant and simpler days. With its somber turrets and long, low porches, the hotel had a noble and slightly melancholy air, like the last member of an old line.

The Engleside tower struck toward the heavens with peculiar immodesty for a structure built by Quakers. It rose in a series of four deep balconies, where guests in wicker rocking chairs watched white-sailed wooden craft play with the wind. On the beach were potato-in-spoon races, skits with parasols, violins, and leaping dogs—entertainments that diverted their guests from rumors that the kaiser's U-boats were trolling offshore. The hotel was a temperance house, but guests enjoyed the pleasures of reading, dining, dancing in the starlit evening, rowing on the moonlit bay, writing long, intimate letters, and waiting for the return mail. There was little else to do. On the porches by the sea there was Edith Wharton's popular Ethan Frome to read, and W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. The children were in a tizzy over Kenneth Grahame's storybook The Wind in the Willows. The distant views were of twisted sea pine among the dunes, lonely golden eagles floating over the back country, and the water, thick with bluefish and striped bass, oyster and hard clam, which New Englanders called by the Indian name quahog and Philadelphians called Venus. Most of the guests of the Engleside, born to the Philadelphia aristocracy, read Latin and Greek. On clear days, the ocean appeared infinite before them. Long, gentle waves curled languorously onto miles of virgin beach and returned endlessly back to sea, but if the surf held the song of a Siren, it had long been resisted. For many years the Engleside's Victorian guests were too modest to disrobe to bathe. Philadelphians, changeless as their old and distinguished city, were reluctant or afraid to enter the water, for ocean bathing had not been done, and so for many years was not.

But late on the last night of June of that year, the deskman at the Engleside heard gentle splashing and frolicking in the water in front of the hotel. The young were challenging their Victorian parents with rebellious behaviors, and the latest fad was moonlight swimming. Perhaps the older generation was growing sentimental, aware of the looming shadows of the European mess. But many a deaf ear was turned that summer to the midnight air; the young were allowed to get away with it. The clerk that night heard nothing. The first cool air of the day blew through the hotel's open windows as the faint strains of hits such as “Don't Take My Darling Boy Away” spilled out over the water from the popular new portable camp and seashore Victrolas. The hotel's first five hundred electric lights glimmered and swam in the darkened sea. Deeper into the night, after the hotel was quiet and dark, the splashing and laughter in front of the Engleside lulled, and finally ceased.

Only yesterday, in the ancient life of the ocean fishes, had Leni-Lenape Indian kings led their warriors to the virgin beach to feast upon mountains of clams in preparation for autumn's wars; colonial sportsmen rumbled seaward on the carriage roads; Pennsylvania farmers rattled eastward by wagon, leaving crops behind for the annual “sea day.” Never in the three human centuries at the shore, the eye blink that was the forty years of the Engleside, had so many people enjoyed the pastime of ocean bathing.

The tide surged in, free of human presence once again. The skates and rays and other fishes swarmed in their timeless feeding ways of the night sea, making subtle and unknowable adjustments.

At dawn on Saturday, July 1, the hotel and the ocean were united by the bright gold band of beach. Breakfast was served in the Engleside dining room by young Irish immigrant women from Boston, while the men read the Philadelphia Public Ledger and smoked Turkish cigarettes on the porches, and discussed the German march to Paris and the fall of the Philadelphia A's to last place. That was the summer the great Connie Mack affixed to the American language the axiom “You can't win 'em all.” That weekend Mrs. Hetty Green, the world's richest and stingiest woman, would die, leaving $80 million and the notorious legacy of having refused to pay for an operation for her son, costing him his leg. By late morning, the sands were crowded with young men and women in the startling new swimming costumes, the women revealing inches of leg never before seen in public. In playful teams, men and women built sand castles, a new art in America and Europe that year. The shouting and flirting rose and fell like a nervous and reluctant tide, for this was all new, this lush and languid meeting of mankind and the sea, this joyful display of flesh.

In his office under the great spire, hotelier Robert Fry Engle reviewed the booking columns for the Independence Day weekend with great satisfaction. Engle, an artist and a gentleman given to tapered suits, Arrow collars, and the polished grooming of the new century (which included the new style of a clean-shaven face), shared his father's level-eyed Quaker pursuit of profit. For the second consecutive year, all one hundred and fifty rooms, rooms for three hundred people, were sold out from July Fourth straight through Labor Day. Engle, like his late father, born of old New Jersey stock, disapproved of the immoral and noisome behavior of some of his more modern guests, particularly those who tippled the stronger waters. But there was no denying the wonderful impact of the new horseless carriage and the railroads ferrying middle-class tourists en masse to the seashore, whatever their nouveau morality. The Engleside had never experienced such a boom. The great new century heralded a bright dawn for the hotel.

Other than their father-son business—an American tradition that was disappearing as the first generation of men dedicated their work lives to corporations—Robert Fry Engle seemed to have little in common with his father. Robert Barclay Engle, the Engleside's founder, was an immense, great-bellied Civil War veteran with a Whitmanesque Grand Army of the Republic beard. He was also a highly personable and witty innkeeper, a prosperous farmer, a shrewd and combative New Jersey state senator, and a dead-eye gunner. He was legendary for helping the leading men of his time, such as Jay Cooke, the great Philadelphia financier who bailed the nation out of the panic of 1873, shoot hundreds of wildfowl in a single day.

It was Robert Barclay Engle who possessed the pride, unseemly for a Quaker, to build a spire that thrust skyward; he who cleverly named the hotel by mixing the family surname with the ancient Gaelic word “aiengle,” which his wealthy and literate guests knew meant “fireside” in the novels of Sir Walter Scott. It was Engle who had the guile to open his massive, remote hostelry in June 1876, less than a month before the centennial of the United States in Philadelphia, his primary market, as if daring the world to ignore him. (It didn't; wealthy sportsmen hired boats and knowledgeable guides to ply through the bays and marshes to his isolated lodge.) Engle, one of many Union veterans who made good after the war, sold Jack London fantasies to wealthy Philadelphia and New York businessmen in the Railroad Age already pining for the lost wilderness and rough fireside camaraderie of the war. But he had been born too soon. It was his son, born in the age of Rockefeller, who was poised to indulge in the big dreams and abundant capital of the twentieth century.

Yet, as a young man with artistic sensibilities, Robert Fry Engle was an unlikely candidate for the family business, and thus something of a disappointment to his father. Educated at elite Quaker private schools, he showed a rare feeling for the beauty of the ocean and dunes. Although he enjoyed hunting, he preferred aiming a camera instead of a Winchester at the wilderness. In the 1890s, graduating from the Kodak Brownie and its slogan “You push the button, we do the rest,” Engle became one of America's first art photographers, imitating the evocative landscapes of the French Impressionist school of painters. In 1896, at the age of twenty-eight, Engle's photograph of a sunset over the bays of Long Beach Island west of the Engleside was included in the first art photography salon in Washington, D.C., which was praised by Alfred Stieglitz as the first American exhibit “worthy of international attention.” Engle's photograph titled “The Summer Was Sinking Low” was subsequently chosen among the first fifty art photographs for the permanent photography collection at the Smithsonian Institution. The collection—sheep grazing in sun-hazed midwest pastures, idyllic mid-Atlantic hills and valleys, the innocence of Victorian mothers and children in portraiture with nature—captured an American nostalgia for the wild places lost to the Industrial Revolution.

The celebrated young pictorialist traveled across America and into Mexico and Europe. He became a protégé of photographer Burton Holmes, the most famous travel photographer and lecturer of his day, and seemed likely to achieve Holmes's fame. But the ocean at Beach Haven, his father, the family business, kept calling him back. At the height of his artistic promise, he returned to the Engleside and never left, content to shoot portraits of his guests, the skits on the beach, the great spire looming over the sea. If there were two men in him, the artist and the bourgeois merchant, it was clear which one society valued most. The object of his career became business. It was the tenor of the times. Gusto, vitality, the bigness of big business, were the values of the young industrial republic already beginning to dominate the world. Sprawling, monstrous American capitalism was “The Octopus,” said the rough-hewn California novelist Frank Norris. Theodore Roosevelt set the new American credo, but Norris expressed it best: “Vitality is the thing after all. The United States in this year of grace 1902 does not want and need Scholars, but Men.”

There was big money to be made by the right kind of men. Inspired by giants like Henry Flagler, Rockefeller's partner at Standard Oil who opened the Florida wilderness with hotels and railroads, Engle was one of a group of Philadelphians who had invested millions of dollars to develop Long Beach Island into a similar paradise, a Florida of the mid-Atlantic. At the southern tip of the eighteen-mile-long, nearly one-mile-wide island was tiny Beach Haven, which would become known as “the greatest ocean city in the world.” A sea metropolis lined with skyscrapers and humming with trolleys and tens of thousands of wealthy residents, it would outshine Atlantic City, its neighbor to the south, which, being closer to shore, had inferior ocean breezes, Engle claimed. Nothing less would do than a capitalistic conquest of the Jersey shore; men like Morgan, Carnegie, and Harriman set standards that were colossal.

After the tourist season of 1915, the most successful ever in Beach Haven, Engle could envision his great ocean city taking form, a paradise of comfort and ease for his guests, freed from the annoyances of nature. He could hear it in the roar of the new acetylene plant firing up the sixty-five goosenecked streetlamps that cast shadows on the four dirt roads and two dusty avenues of town; in the stir of the hundreds of newly planted saplings waving under the starlight to shade future tourists; in the rumble of Overland Tourers and tin lizzies plying the first automobile bridge to the mainland, which he had lobbied state politicians to build.

Progress was in the groan of cranes filling marshes to create land and digging miles of drainage ditches to defeat the mosquito, a notable pest of progress. A born salesman, Engle had what folks said was a “line” for the persistent “Jersey skeeter” problem. “There never was an Eden that the Devil did not try to get into,” Engle said, “and the more perfect the Eden the more he tried to get into it.”

Mosquitoes and flies buzzed and banged on the doors of the cottages facing the ocean, and flew straight in the open hotel windows, for there were no screens in those days. Another blemish on Engle's paradise that Saturday was the weather. The morning air clung like a limpid cheesecloth, a phenomenon the best scientific minds on the East Coast couldn't explain; the heat just wouldn't quit. White-clad figures on the tennis courts by the sea, where a youngster named Billy Tilden would play, moved at half speed. By late afternoon, many of Engle's guests retreated to the rustic comforts of their small, narrow, vintage seventies rooms, to the renewing balm of hot and cold seawater showers, the latest modern convenience. As dusk approached, a line of roadsters nudged quietly against the sand-blown ark of the Engleside, and Beach Haven was left to its timeless sounds of wind and surf that came, again, with the lingering twilight. The last of the sails tipped and skittered on the horizon as a handful of guests watched from the wicker rockers high in the tower. In his office far below, Engle set plans for Sunday's “ladies' softball game,” where men played in skirts to even the odds. The laughter of the sea and of the swimmers subsided as the tide flowed out and young bathers changed in the Victorian bathhouses, leaving few swimmers in the water. There was a steady boardwalk parade back to the hotel of women who ducked demurely under sun umbrellas and cooled their porcelain faces with Chinese fans. In the lobby, men returned from fishing trips, grumbling there was nothing to be had; local guides were complaining of a mysterious disappearance of gamefish. From the formal dining room, lined with Corinthian columns and tropical murals like a European court, came the clink of china and silver and crystal, muting the distant call of gulls.

Other sounds, presently, drifted over wind and waves and echoed along the ramparts of the great hotel. In the beginning, the sounds were quieter than the dissolving hiss of sand castles, soft beyond the range of human detection, in fact. They were easily lost amid the languid noises of the summer colony winding down an ordinary afternoon in the wistful last days of the Edwardian period.

Yet the sounds would grow in intensity and travel swiftly, as sound does through water, and in time the reverberations would reach every corner of the grand hotel, around the globe, and across the new century, awakening something ancient and long forgotten in the human memory of the sea.

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