After I learned to read, a favorite trip was to the library. I loved to read and would stay up late at night, long after I was supposed to be asleep, reading from the big stack of library books I’d chosen that week. Voracious reading has remained a lifelong habit. One of the first books I remember reading was “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” I’d chosen it initially because of the many detailed illustrations it contained, but I loved the story! After reading that book, which I convinced the older of my two brothers to also read, we decided to build a raft. We were totally enamored of the idea of floating down the river, free from care, camping where we wanted to, and getting far from daily chores. The two of us proceeded to nail together anything we could get our hands on. The monstrous “craft” we built in the backyard, mostly out of scrap lumber from old coal sheds that had once stood in the yard, must have weighed a ton when we finally decided the job was done. We knew we were done – we couldn’t find any more nails! It had never occurred to us that in order to use the raft on the river we’d first have to transport it the several long blocks to the water. For a short time, though, it served to fulfill a childhood dream. It was a boat, even if it was landlocked, and many a fanciful trip was made on it before an angry father took it apart and burned the wood. To our childish ears, his reason for doing so seemed unfair – he couldn’t get the station wagon into the back driveway.
That raft was probably an indicator of things to come, though. I would grow up and marry a young man who had salt water in his soul, and we would sail many thousands of blue-water miles together, raising our own children aboard various sailboats. The older of my two brothers, my “boat-building” companion, joined the U.S. Navy the day after he graduated from high school. His enlistment came during the week in which I got married. That brother spent several tours of duty in Vietnam aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, and then twenty-five years in the Delaware Air National Guard.
It had been an interesting start, attempting to replicate the watery adventures of Mark Twain’s characters, and probably laid down some never-to-be-forgotten goals in our minds. Real boat and ship building were still being practiced in the area when we were kids, and it wasn’t unusual to see a newly launched vessel going out for her initial watery trials on the Delaware River. The USS Kitty Hawk, in fact. had been laid down by the New York Shipbuilding Co. at Camden, New Jersey. She was launched at that shipyard in the early Spring of 1961. They had to flood the drydocks in which she had been “born.” It was deemed unwise to have a conventional launch whereby a ship slides stern-first or sideways down skids or “ways.” The Kitty Hawk was huge, and with a conventional slide launch, there was a risk of damaging impact with the Philadelphia shoreline on the far side of the river. When this massive war vessel went downriver on her maiden trip she had to go under the Delaware Memorial Bridge, which span wasn’t high enough. The ship had to be canted far over on one side by filling her port ballast tanks with river water. Then, lying almost on her side, she was slid successfully under the span. Members of my family were watching from the riverside as she made her way slowly downriver, on her way to active duty. After leaving the Delaware River the ship then went on to a Norfolk, Virginia, Naval shipyard to have the control tower and superstructure built on her topsides. The completed supercarrier, the last oil-fired aircraft carrier in service with the US Navy, went on to serve a long and busy life. She was decommissioned in 2009.
In the interim, Jim and I had met and married and raised a family, with many watery adventures along the way. My brother continued his love for vessels and life along watery ways by becoming a volunteer in the crew of the tallship Kalmar Nyckle, based out of Wilmington, Delaware. To this day, our separate “wet dreams” continue, some unfulfilled, but many achieved.
My grandfather built a weir at the sluice gate where water from the Delaware River came into an inlet at his farm. Occasionally he and one or two of the men at the farm would go down there and bring back a basket of eels. Some of those eels were as thick around as a man’s arm. I was morbidly fascinated by those slimy, wriggling, long-snouted creatures, but didn’t stay to watch as the men would pull out an eel and nail it to the front of one of the farm sheds. My brothers delighted, however, in describing in great detail the gory scene as the eel’s skin would be pulled off by the use of pliers. The eel would then be put into a large bowl with a heavy lid. The bowl would then be carried to either the well for storage, or later, into the kitchen to go in the new electric refrigerator. The eels were then fried for consumption by the men. None of the women would touch them! One particularly memorable time, the bowl of eels was put into the refrigerator, and Pop forgot to put a stone on the lid covering the bowl. Now, you have to understand, those skinned eels would continue to wiggle and squirm for quite a while after they had been declared dead, and it was necessary to securely contain them. Anyway, when Grammy opened the refrigerator door that day, she screamed and quickly slammed the door shut. The eels were wiggling all over inside the “Frigidaire.” Pop had to retrieve all of them and wash out their slime from the refrigerator. It was the only time I ever saw him do any type of “woman’s work,” and he wasn’t allowed to forget the incident for a very long time!
The trip north, in search of work, made by my grandparents was very eventful. Those good mountain people left the hills of northern Georgia, and headed for New Jersey where one of my grandfather’s brothers had previously moved. Several old Model-T trucks belonging to my grandparents and other family members were loaded to overflowing. Household goods and farm implements were tied on and they were off. A Model-T car that had already seen better days provided transportation for my grandmother and aunt and a couple of smaller children. The older boys held on for dear life wherever they could find a seat and hand-hold in the back of the trucks. The party was composed of my grandparents, one of “pop’s” brothers, three strapping pre-teen boys and my aunt who was only 6 years-old at the time. While stopped for lunch one day by the road-side in the mountains of North Carolina, they were accosted by a large group of men heavily armed with shot guns. That gun-toting group had mistaken the family for the John Dillinger gang from Chicago which was believed to be in the area. My father’s family was greatly relieved to find that the armed group were only G-men, Federal Agents. The family had stopped in an area of the country where it was not safe to be found in the vicinity of any man’s “white lightning” still. Many a “revenuer” lost his life in the Blue Ridge Mountains during those turbulent years while searching for illicit brewing sites. After being closely questioned, the family was finally allowed to continue on their way northward, toward jobs and rich, flat bottomland along the Delaware River. One of my grandfather’s older brothers had married earlier (to a sister of my grandmother) and settled on a productive farm near Woodstown, East of Salem, New Jersey. He had encouraged my grandfather to join him there. Since the two brothers had married sisters, it was deemed doubly attractive to make the move. So, packing up everything they could possibly carry, the family moved north – back toward where their ancestors had first arrived in America. Upon arriving in southern New Jersey, my grandparents found an apartment in Carneys Point, and my grandfather found work at the DuPont powder plant located there. Several years later they moved to the farm on the banks of the Delaware River where their children grew up, and their grandchildren spent their earliest years.
After my family moved to a house on Pittsfield Street in Pennsville, New Jersey it became difficult for my grandparents to maintain their farm along the banks of the Delaware River. All their children had married and moved from the farm, and good farm help was hard to find. One hired man proved to be a particularly bad choice. He started the old John Deere tractor one day after being instructed to plow a certain field. He never disclosed that he’d never before driven a tractor a day in his life. Well, that tractor started up all right, and went pop-popping every which way, and the hand didn’t know how to stop it. Screaming and hollering, holding on for dear life, he plowed up a good part of pasture, tore down a goodly portion of barbed-wire fence, heavily rutted about a half-mile of the farm lane, and ran down some small peach trees that Pop had recently planted. The ill-fated sortie finally came to an end when the tractor, which fortunately hadn’t been filled, ran out of fuel. So did the job of that so-called “farm-hand.”
After WWII was over, my family moved to a bigger house closer to a town. Rationing was finally a bad memory and my family was ready for a more “normal” life. With three children and one on the way, it was time for a more spacious home, one with electric lights. At that time most of the roads in the township were covered with cinders, the residue of coal that had been burned in the big power plant next to the DuPont plant in Deepwater. With war recovery efforts underway people were beginning to build new homes, Most of the lower portion of the state, though, along the Delaware River and Bay, would continue to be undeveloped for many years. There were small communities along the Maurice and Cohansey Rivers. The little fishing village of Fortescue stood along the Delaware Bay. The bigger town of Salem was humming with activity. Small communities stood along Alloway, Stow and Mantua Creeks. The place on Dunn’s Lane near Pennsville that my parents chose as our new home had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room and a covered front porch. There was a smelly outhouse behind the house, reached by walking under a long grape arbor. I never did like the new house on Dunn’s Lane as much as the little place by the river. I could still smell the river and hear some of its’ associated sounds but I couldn’t see the water anymore. The call of the river was strong in my innermost self. I loved it when my Dad would take me on his shoulders and go for a ramble along the river banks. There, amid the smells of tarry blobs and wet mud, and the sound of rustling reeds and winging gulls, we would search for unusual animal and bird tracks, watch ship traffic going up and down the river, and finally, on a sand-gritted log, sit and watch the sunset. I asked many times where the sun was going when it dipped down below the horizon. In the summertime it would oftentimes look like a big, hazy red ball being swallowed up, little by little, by the trees and spires on the other side of the river. We didn’t often watch the sunset outside in the winter. It was too cold to sit out there for long when the wind would blow across the river with ice in its breath. During one cold winter I was taken by Dad on a trek to check his muskrat traps. While attempting to toss me across a half-frozen drainage canal he lost his footing and I landed, gasping, in the frigid water. Our long trudge home was made in a silence that was only broken by the loud chattering of my teeth. I never went “muskratting” again, but my father continued trapping muskrats for their pelts for many years.
Although I dodn’t know “her” name at the time, one of the ships that was frequently seen on the Delaware River by my family, during WWII years and on through the 1960s, was a Coast Guard Cutter named “Lilac.” This vessel was often seen performing service work on the general aids to navigation on the Delaware River. The vessel was responsible for maintaining those aids from Edgewater and Gloucester City, down to the open roads at the mouth of the river where my family lived. This little cutter was based out of Edgemoor, just above Wilmington, Delaware, after entering service in 1933. When the Lighthouse Service merged with the Coast Guard in 1939, she became a Coast Guard Cutter, and her homeport remained Edgemoor. During her years of service “Lilac” was frequently called on to assist during search and rescue missions on the river. During the war “Lilac” was an armed vessel, but she never saw any combat. The river was a dangerous place during those war years. Many ships designed for the war effort were built in shipyards in Wilmington, Delaware and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. About 35% of all ships constructed in the US during WWII came from shipyards on the Delaware River. That ship construction and the heavy ship traffic on the river did not go unnoticed by the enemy. The mouth of the Delaware Bay became a prime hunting area for prowling U-boats.
The USS Reuben James, built in 1919 at a Bethlehem Steel yard on the Delaware River, was sunk by a German U-boat on October 31, 1941. She was the very first United States Navy ship lost to hostile action in WWII. The story of her sinking inspired Woody Guthrie to write a song about her. While escorting a convoy, the Reuben James was torpedoed by German submarine U-552 near Iceland. The Reuben James had positioned herself between an ammunition ship in the convoy and the known position of a “wolfpack.” Reuben James was hit forward by a torpedo and her entire bow was blown off when a magazine exploded. The bow sank immediately. The aft-section floated for five minutes before going down. Of the crew, 44 survived, and 115 died. It was a preview of things to come!
Have you heard of a ship called the good Reuben James
Manned by hard fighting men both of honor and fame?
She flew the Stars and Stripes of the land of the free
But tonight she’s in her grave at the bottom of the sea. Lyrics by Woody Guthrie
Fort Mott, built as one point of a three-fort defense of Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War, lies right on the riverfront just east of Finn’s Point. Fort DuPont and Fort Delaware, the other two forts comprising that defense, stand on the other side of the Delaware River. The river is very narrow at that point, and takes a very sharp bend before going inland.
Following the Civil War, work was begun on eleven gun emplacements at Fort Mott. Only two of those were completed when the fort was abandoned in 1876. In 1896, at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, Fort Mott was finally completed and outfitted with three 10-inch, and three 12-inch guns. The fort remained active until 1943. During its last two decades of operation, the guns were dismantled and shipped elsewhere. The State of New Jersey purchased Fort Mott in 1947 as an historic site and opened the Fort Mott State Park on June 24, 1951. Today one can traipse through the gun batteries, and the ammunition magazines, all of which are protected by a massive parapet of concrete which is 35-feet thick. An additional 60-feet of grass-covered dirt covers the front of the structure in steep slopes.
When I was a child we often drove to the fort to have picnics on the extensive tree-shaded grounds. It was wonderful fun to lie down, arms straight up and flat on the ground, at the top of the grassy hill in front of the gun-emplacement and then roll down, willy-nilly, across the bumpy surface, to land in a laughing heap at the bottom. When we were feeling especially brave we’d venture into the dark ammunition rooms inside the concrete structure. The boys were always trying to scare us girls by running ahead in that damp, dark, echoing, spider-infested place, hiding in a side tunnel and then jumping out and shouting loudly as we got near. On other days, my brothers and I would ride our bicycles down to the park and go fishing for catfish. We’d carefully make our way out on huge metal dredge pipes set out by the Army Corps of Engineers, find a likely spot and try to catch a fish. On most of those days we could feel the vibration of the riverbottom sludge going through those pipes and watch the busy dredges working to keep the river channel clear. The materials dredged up from the river bottom were piped into a spoil area located behind massive dirt dikes that covered a huge portion of Finn’s Point. I can still remember the smells of the area, and experience in my mind’s eye the sight of 10-foot tall reeds and the sound of them swishing and swaying in the wind. Ah, childhood, so far away, yet so near in dear memories.