Reminiscing

LUCY THE ELEPHANT

Chapter 1 – Elephant to Starboard

The outer islands of the Southern Jersey coast are romantically entwined with legends of pirate chieftains fighting battles to the death on sandy beaches, of buried treasure beneath every dune, of whalers rushing for boats when the cry of "Thar' She Blows" echoed from lookout stations. Mysterious cargoes landed in the dead of night and were quickly gathered by horsemen who disappeared in the deep shadows of the pines, according to legend. Pages of the past are so cluttered with this type of adventure that even dedicated historians are hard put to separate fact from fiction. However, no legend of the colorful Southern Jersey seashore history matches the sight of a 65-foot high wooden Elephant astride the beach looking out into the mists of the sea, a spectacle that according to historians made many coastwise seamen of the tramp ships from the West Indies swear off their rum rations for days.

There is the story of one young seaman on his first voyage who had the early evening watch as his ship made it up the coast on its way to New York harbor.

After first reporting "All's well" he suddenly yelled "Elephant!!”

The captain thinking the seaman had gone berserk rushed to the deck. Lifting his long glass to the shoreline he also exclaimed: "Elephant!", wiped off his glass and after a second look confirmed the fact that there was a giant beast standing among the dunes and eel grass of lower Absecon Island. The captain's report at anchoring in New York harbor brought a score of news people and the curious southward into New Jersey to investigate. After a long, dusty ride from the upper part of Absecon Island to what was then called South Atlantic City, the investigators found that the Elephant was no mirage. Here it stood in full majesty, king of all it surveyed.

Metropolitan newspapers the next day were telling the story of a wooden Elephant, which later would become known as "Lucy", much to the delight of land speculator James V. Lafferty, Jr., who was responsible for the designing and building of the strange pachyderm. James Vincent de Paul Lafferty, Jr., was born in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1856 of prosperous Irish immigrant parents from Dublin, Ireland. Lafferty, and his wife, Mary Cecelia Tobin, had five children, two of whom died in their childhood. Surviving were Mazie, James III, and the youngest son, Robert.

Lafferty, who grew up to be an engineer and inventor, came into possession of a number of sandy lots in the South Atlantic City area. They were cut off from the frame houses and mule-drawn street cars of Atlantic City, by a deep tidal creek. Only at low tide could anyone make his way down to the sands of his properties. Most of South Atlantic City at that time was a combination of scrub pine, dune grass, bayberry bushes and a few wooden fishing shacks.

Once Lafferty hit upon the Elephant idea he enlisted the aid of a Philadelphia architect named William Free to design this unusual structure he felt would attract visitors and property buyers to his holdings. The Elephant was constructed in 1881 by a Philadelphia contractor at a reported cost of $25,000, which at the time was a considerable amount of money. Lafferty always claimed that before the work was finished the cost Skyrocketed to $38,000.

To protect his original idea, Lafferty applied for and received a patent from the U.S. Government. He made his original application June 3, 1882, and received the patent, No. 268, 503, on Dec. 5, 1882. In his application Lafferty stated: "My invention consists of a building in the form of an animal, the body of which is floored and divided into rooms ... the legs contain the stairs which lead to the body ...". Lafferty also included a paragraph which stated the building "may be in the form of any other animal than an elephant, as that of a fish, fowl, etc."  What his intentions were in adding that paragraph have never been clear. He never attempted a building in any of the forms mentioned.

Originally named "Elephant Bazaar," the building is 65 feet high, 60 feet long, and 18 feet wide.  It weighs about 90 tons, and is made of nearly one million pieces of wood.  there are 22 windows, and its construction required 200 kegs of nails, four tons of bolts and iron bars, and 12,000 square feet of tin to cover the outside.

It is believed that most of the materials were brought to the site by boat, although there was rail service of a sort in the upper part of Absecon Island where the infant resort of Atlantic City was just getting underway. By 1881 Lafferty was placing advertisements in area and Philadelphia newspapers offering building lots in "fast booming South Atlantic City."  Lafferty eventually extended himself too far in his land deals both at the Jersey Shore and in New York and by 1887 sought to unload his South Atlantic City holdings. He offered the Elephant and other property for sale and found a willing buyer in Anton Gertzen of Philadelphia.  (TO BE CONTINUED)

 

THE MORRO CASTLE DISASTER

On September 8th in 1934, the passenger liner S.S. Morro Castle ran aground just a few yards from Convention Hall in Asbury Park.  One hundred thirty-seven passengers and crewmembers died aboard or while trying to escape from the fire-engulfed ship.  Many mysteries still surround the wreck of the Morro Castle, which remains one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history.  The ship was ravaged by fire of suspicious origin.  The beacon of the Sea Girt Lighthouse enabled the crew to fix their position before they dropped anchor three miles offshore.  Then, as people went overboard, the blinking light guided them to shore and gave them hope as they fought for their lives.  

People in coastal towns began calling the Coast Guard, police, and fire departments to report a fire at sea.  Many area residents woke that morning with foreboding to the sounds of blaring whistles and sirens as police, fire, and first aid squads responded.  Despite storm conditions, fishing boat captains and volunteers took boats out from the docks in Belmar, Brielle, Point Pleasant, and other harbors.  

As fishing boats were pulling people from the stormy waters, Morro Castle lifeboats began landing.  The first lifeboat to reach land beached at the south end of Spring lake around 6:15 a.m. carring 30 people - 27 crewmen and only three passengers.  In all, four Morro Castle lifeboats beached in Spring Lake and two boats beached in Sea Girt.  Ambulance crews, police and fire departments—some from up north—arrived in Spring Lake and Sea Girt to join lifeguards and others there who were pulling people from the water.  

At Camp Sea Girt, the New Jersey National Guard set up a temporary morgue.  More than 100 bodies were brought there.  Shore residents and innkeepers took survivors in.  Restaurants provided food and merchants offered clothes.

As early as the day after the Morro Castle fire, investigations began.  Damning facts emerged and were detailed in official reports and in court.  The big question—what caused the fire—remained unanswered.  There was a strong suspicion of arson, but most of the evidence needed was incinerated in the fire.

There had been 549 people aboard the ship on its final cruise.  The day of the disaster 134 people died—more than 30 percent of the passengers, but under 18 percent of the crew.  While suspicion eventually centered on one particular crewman, he was never charged.  In fact, no one was ever charged with starting the fire.

Some good came of the Morro Castle disaster.  As a result of the tragedy and the investigations that followed, changes were made to shipboard procedures and ship design and materials that improved saftey in ship travel.

On the 60th anniversary of the disaster and rescue, a memorial program was held at the Sea Girt Lighthouse, where the Morro Castle story is kept alive.  Tour guides recall the events as visitors fiew Morro Castle photos, documents, and artifacts, including a lifeboat oar and two lifejackets.