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Reflections 2011
Series 5
February 24
West Hudson Rail & Sail: ROVA Farm - Highlands/Sandy Hook


ROVA FARM BY CAR FROM SPRING LAKE I knew just what I wanted to accomplish during my two full free days in Spring Lake with a car. The first day I wanted to visit ROVA Farm (colloquially known in the plural as ROVA Farms; the origin of the acronym ROVA is complicated, but the R is “Russian” and the A is “America”). I described in 2011/1 that this was a Russian-American resort established in 1934 in a central location (Cassville NJ in Jackson Township) between the Russian-American communities in Philadelphia and New York. The purpose of mentioning it at the time was to emphasize the distance involved in traveling between areas east and west of the Hudson.


[AN ASIDE ON FAMILY ETHNIC HISTORY: I should add that those of us with dual ethnic heritages soon find that one of those heritages is effectively hidden from public view due to surnames. My paternal ethnic heritage is recognized as Italian due to the name DiNapoli; my maternal ethnic heritage goes unrecognized as Russian since nothing external points to it. When we had ethnic food at home it was either Italian or Russian, probably Russian more frequently. At parties and weddings we had Russian folk music and did Russian folk dances (Kokyetka, anyone?). We also made this differentiation: if we were going to visit my father’s mother (his father had died early on) we were going to “Grandma’s”, but if we were going to visit my mother’s family we would be going to “Baba’s” to see Baba and Dzyedka (with a pronunciation usually anglicized to JET.ka). My given names are Vincent Anthony, since my Italian grandfather was Vincenzo, but Dzyedka was Anton. The nickname for Anton is Tosha (like Misha or Sasha), and I occasionally make use of the name Tosha for myself. To this day, this entire half-heritage remains behind a veil to outsiders, including many friends and acquaintances.


They emigrated from Minsk, in Belarus. Belarusian is a Slavic language usually considered distinct from neighboring Russian and Ukranian, although some scholars put the three together as varieties of the same language because of their close mutual intelligibility, an opinion fostered by the Russian Empire for the sake of unity. But in Soviet times the three areas became separate Soviet republics, and are separate independent republics today. It’s hard to come to a decision about family ethnicity, since in Belarus today, about ¾ of the people use Russian at home, instead of Belarusian. However, I can use the above family words, plus one other, to ponder some facts. The two above words are similar to, but not the same as, the Russian words for grandma and grandpa: бабушка / babushka (like the headscarf) and дедушка / dyedushka. But the first one is based on баба / baba in either language, referring to an older woman, so I’m satisfied with our calling her Baba, and draw no conclusions from that. However, present research says that the Belarusian word for grandpa is дзед / dzyed, with the diminutive дзедка / dzyedka. The only conclusion I can draw is that we have always referred to Dzyedka using a Belarusian, and not Russian, name.


I have an even stronger indication. G in Russian is pronounced as a G, but G in both Belarusian and Ukranian is pronounced KH. The same thing occurs in Dutch where the former currency, the gulden, is pronounced KHUL.den. And yes, gouda cheese is KHOW.da and Van Gogh is fan.KHOKH. Sorry to break illusions. Anyway, one iconic dish of our family is cabbage rolls, an international favorite, very much including Eastern Europe. The name in the three languages means “little pigeons”: Russian: голубцы / golubtsy; Belarusian галубцы / galubtsy; Ukranian: голyбці / golubtsi. The similarity and interchangeability of the three languages is immediately apparent. As for spelling, Ukranian uses its typical “i”, and while all unstressed O’s are pronounced A, only Belarusian actually writes an A. But there is an immediate shibboleth when it comes to pronunciation. The Russian word is pronounced ga.lub.TSY, the Belarusian is kha.lub.TSY; the Ukranian is kha.lub.TSI (the KH is sometimes transliterated as H.) We do not profess to be Ukranian, and the family ALWAYS talks about eating halubtsy. Thus I have two markers indicating a predilection towards being Belarusian, but that is nowhere nearly enough to make any decisions on ethnicity. Just look at the map of the Slavic languages. Aside from noting how the South Slavs are separate from the main body (can you now imagine why Imperial Russia always considered itself “protector” of the distant South Slavs?), also note how in Eastern Ukraine there is such a strong admixture of ethnic Russians, a cause for frequent unrest in Ukraine in the past decade, but finally note the blend in Belarus of Russians and Belarusians. Keeping both venerable Dzyedka and iconically delicious halubtsy in mind, it nevertheless behooves the family to leave the question of Russian/Belarusian ethnicity on permanent hold, and to accept a duality. Now back to topic.]


From the 1950’s on, the family would pile into a car, follow the route described earlier, and drive for hours to central NJ. The routine was always the same. Driving south on Cassville Road, a rural, back country road, we’d first stop at the cemetery, then drive 3-4 minutes to the resort proper for dinner at the Russian restaurant. We were always rushed, since we had to get back on the road for the hours in the car back home. Then, over the years, the resort went into decline; the lakeside pavilion and picnic area closed; the hotel/motel closed; in the main building the special-events ballroom and restaurant seemed to be used less and less. A Tuesday outdoor flea market was instituted to bring some business in. Only Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Church to the side of the resort seemed to have any activity, but that was also declining. Finally, I recently phoned about visiting, and eventually found the resort had closed.


It certainly seemed like a Sic Transit moment. But then some time later I tried once again, and found encouragement. A new group of volunteers was determined not to lose everything. They started making repairs, pointed out that the flea markets are ongoing, are repairing the motel buildings to raise funds by renting to locals, and they are hoping to bring ROVA back, not as a resort (even Atlantic City lost local vacationers) but as a nationally recognized Russian Cultural Center.


With that history and background in mind, on a fine April day last spring, I drove due west out of Spring Lake, towards Cassville, on a route Google Maps suggested took 37 minutes by car (imagine the drive from Brooklyn in the 1950’s!). Most of it nowadays is on Interstate 195 (!!!), but then came the familiar turnoff south on Cassville Road back into history. For the first time in my life, I was unrushed and had as much time as I wanted to see the area, so I purposely drove past the cemetery, then also the resort, to go 2-3 minutes further into the village of Cassville, which we had never taken time to go and see over all those years. It was a simple, countryside crossroad, with a tavern, post office, country restaurant or two, but I just marveled that I’d never seen it before, ever, in the past half century.


I then backtracked and visited the deserted resort area. It wasn’t flea market day, and the main building was still closed, but I could see the potential in reviving the motel buildings for local rentals. One can still hope for the future. Saint Vladimir Memorial Church (1938; click on the History) still towers over the resort area and serves the local Russian-American community, with the Pushkin Statue adjacent.


Finally, I backtracked 3-4 minutes to Saint Vladimir’s Cemetery, the location of Saint Mary’s Orthodox Church, which I then learned had recently been restored. I had wondered if the cemetery would have suffered the same fate as the resort, and I would find it overgrown with weeds, but ironically, while the area of the living had succumbed, the area of the dead was thriving! The cemetery office was humming with records being checked on computers, and they got me someone to drive me out on a golf cart to see the graves of Baba and Dzyedka and of my aunt and uncle. He told me the cemetery’s busy enough so that they’re having to expand into the lot behind it.


For the first time ever, I had more than enough time on this lovely spring day to not only visit family graves, I took about an hour and a half to review the Cyrillic alphabet and/or Latin alphabet inscriptions far and wide. One area is put aside for the post-Revolution nobility, and I found a couple that indicated so, thereby learning a new word. The German word for “Count” is Graf, as in the airship known as the Graf Zeppelin (“Count Zeppelin”), and I saw that that word is used in Russian with the same meaning, spelled Граф.


I have friends in Minnesota and Pennsylvania who work on their families’ genealogy, and I was able to do a bit of research this day. Our family knew that Dzyedka had come from Minsk (Belarus) to New York in 1905 (I once saw his papers, now gone, naming his ship out of Hamburg) and a few years later, sent for his wife and daughter, one of my mother’s older sisters. But odd as it may seem, my mother’s family always had a two-name dilemma. The name was officially Kastonowitz, but it “really” was Костеневич / Kostenyevich (ko.sten.YE.vich). This dichotomy was always blithely accepted, with little explanation other than a vague “they did it at Ellis Island”.


The thing I certified at the cemetery office was the correct spelling of Kostenyevich (there had been variant pronunciations and spellings). It had been certified by my uncle, also buried here, who read and wrote Russian and had filled out all the cemetery documentation, given that Baba and Dzyedka were literate neither in English nor Russian. But the story still bothered me in its vagueness. I suppose it’s true that agents working at the Ellis Island Immigration Station might have altered names they had trouble pronouncing, but, although my family seems to accept that, I have a gut feeling, from travel-and-language experience, that that’s not the case here. First of all, the ending in many Slavic languages -VICH is usually rendered in germanized names as -WITZ (pronounced -VITS in German, -WITS when anglicized), such as in the towns of Drewitz and Streichwitz near Berlin. I learned from Bill Miller, the maritime historian I’ve traveled with several times, that German shipping companies sent out scouts to Eastern Europe to garner interest in emigration via steerage in German ships to America. It’s my unprovable gut feeling--not necessarily agreed to by my family--that Kostenyevich was not anglicized at the late point of Dzyedka’s arrival in New York, it was instead germanized in Europe, and that that probably did not logically happen even on Dzyedka’s arrival at the ship in Hamburg, because he would have already have had to have had documentation in his pocket. The change, to my mind, was most likely made by a Russian-speaking German representative of a shipping company gathering up illiterate farmhands back in Minsk in the first place, as he had to fill out documents for the emigrants to leave. In any case, however and whenever the change took place, the gravestone at Saint Vladimir’s Cemetery does read Kastonowitz, the version that was always used in the US, leaving the authentic version Kostenyevich lost in the mists of time.


HIGHLANDS/SANDY HOOK BY CAR FROM SPRING LAKE The projecting corner of New Jersey up around Sandy Hook is perhaps my favorite location in the state. It’s very attractive geographically, and most people today don’t realize the popularity it has enjoyed in the past (also keeping in mind Atlantic City and Spring Lake). An indication can be seen by looking once again at this older rail map of NJ. Keep in mind that the remnant North Jersey Coast Line of today comes down from Perth Amboy via Red Bank and Long Branch to Bay Head (Spring Lake is three stops beyond Asbury Park). Then realize again that all the other red lines (and some of the black) are gone, including the complexity of lines near Sandy Hook. Atlantic Highlands (and Highlands just east of it) today has no rail line, and even the line running out onto Sandy Hook (!!!) is gone. I wanted to spend my second driving day, not inland, but revisiting this coastal area. Follow on the Sandy Hook map the coastal route from Spring Lake via Ocean Grove, Asbury Park, and Long Branch.


Driving north along the coast, I stopped in Ocean Grove, full of Victorian architecture and with a strong rail history. It was a leader in the religious camp movement in the US, founded in 1869 by Methodists, and known in its day as the Queen of Religious Resorts. Summer camp meetings were held with participants staying in everything from tents to distinguished hotels. In 1877 alone, 710,000 rail tickets were sold in the local station. The 1894 Great Auditorium, still surrounded by greatly-in-demand summer tents, has seen performances by Enrico Caruso, John Philip Sousa, and contemporary luminaries.


Asbury Park has been a famous resort, but has suffered severely with the decline of many boardwalk communities, including Coney Island in Brooklyn. It is also associated with Bruce Springsteen.


Long Branch in its day was a great entertainment center as a beach resort, until the rise of Hollywood drew entertainers to California. Long Branch is particularly proud of the fact that seven presidents (Arthur, Garfield, Grant, Harrison, Hayes, McKinley, Wilson) spent time in its resorts, and has named Seven Presidents Park to commemorate their visits. Grant declared Long Branch the nation’s “summer capital” in 1869. Garfield was brought there in 1881 after being shot; it was hoped the fresh sea air and quiet might help his recovery, but he died after a few months. Long Branch was considered Wilson’s “summer White House” in 1916.


Look to see on this same copy of the map that Highlands lies adjacent to the larger town of Atlantic Highlands at the foot of Sandy Hook. Sandy Hook doesn’t quite make it as a barrier island, so is referred to as a barrier spit. It runs 9.7 km (6.0 mi) to its end, its width varying between a mere 160 meters/yards and 1.6 km (1 mi). The section of Raritan Bay to its west is referred to as Sandy Hook Bay, and the land on two sides of the bay resembles a shoulder and flexed arm. Sandy Hook is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.


I first drove out once again to the end of Sandy Hook to see Sandy Hook Lighthouse (1764), the oldest working lighthouse in the US. It’s a petite 31 m (103 ft) tall, and was featured on a 25-cent 1990 commemorative US postage stamp, a metal copy of which I have as the fob on my key chain. On the way back, I tried stopping at Gunnison Beach, the largest clothing-optional beach on the East Coast. It’s named after the Gunnison Battery, a former military fortification, whose soldiers used to skinny-dip at this beach, which offers dramatic views of passing ships, Brooklyn, and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. We’d spent many a pleasant afternoon here in the past (it attracts about 5,000 naturist beachgoers on a nice day), and I tried on this visit at least taking off my sandals on the deserted beach (others were more sensible than I) and plowing my way onto the wide beach, but the April wind was so strong that I had to lean into it, so I gave up before even getting halfway to the water.


As the names imply, there are “high lands” abutting Sandy Hook, and on one of the heights above the town of Highlands is located Twin Lights (see map above). It’s a pair of lighthouses, no longer operational, located at two ends of a landmarked building, now a museum. Because of the hill, the two beacons are 75 m (246 ft) above the water. There had been a lighthouse here since 1828, (this building dates from 1862) and, given the location and the easterly direction they point in, their purpose should be obvious: to warn transatlantic ships they were entering the New York Bight and they shouldn’t crash into New Jersey, but instead make a right turn into New York Harbor. As I’d remembered, the view is spectacular, but I also knew that during the 20C, the light function had been replaced by a ship, called the Ambrose Lightship, anchored below near the Ambrose Channel entering the harbor. Most recently in 1967, even that ship had been replaced by a “Texas tower” in the water that served the same purpose. As I stood on the heights, I tried to find that tower still indicated by signs around me, but I couldn’t. Inquiring inside, I found out that the Coast Guard, just months before, had removed it entirely, so there was nothing to see. Why? This being the 21C, ships instead used their own GPS navigational devices!


Again as shown on the above map, just a short distance away, but instead oriented to the north, is the Mount Mitchill [sic] Scenic Overlook. Mount Mitchill, at 81 m (266 ft) is the highest natural point close to the Eastern Seabord of North America between Cadillac Mountain in Maine and the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. However, since Mount Mitchill is more directly on the coast than either of those two limits, it’s the highest point beyond both, including down to coastal cliffs in Brazil. Mount Mitchell has a splendid view northward of Brooklyn, with the towers of Lower Manhattan seemingly sprouting from central Brooklyn because of the viewing angle, and Staten Island, with Jersey City’s Goldman-Sachs Tower beyond. It also has the best view of Sandy Hook, seen here with Highlands below in the foreground. To the right of the tower is the Eastpointe highrise, with the same spectacular view, in which we purchased a condominium as a potential pied-à-terre some years ago, but we never actually got to live there, and sold it.


James Fenimore Cooper of “Last of the Mohicans” fame, wrote a romantic sea tale about a ship called the Water Witch, a story that takes place all around New York Harbor. Since a part of the action takes place in a rural mansion on a steep hill overlooking Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook, there is a Waterwitch Avenue in Highlands. Coming down from Mount Mitchill via Waterwitch, a right turn along Shore Road brings one below the heights to Connor’s Ferry Landing, and just beyond, to the upscale restaurant we’d visited a number of times called Doris & Ed’s, and I began formulating future plans. I had been delighted years ago to find that ferry service to New York had recently been resumed, and I was eager to try it out in the near future.


While Highlands is more blue collar, Atlantic Highlands is more of a commuter town, with a large marina. Steamer service first came to Atlantic Highlands as major construction was occurring from the 1880’s through 1900. A pier was built extending well into the bay to accommodate steamboats from New York City, and steamer service was the most important transport during the early years, continuing through the 1940’s. In the 1890’s, rail service came to Atlantic Highlands. The 1920’s saw 26 passenger trains daily passing through. The Central Railroad of New Jersey built a major pier at the end of First Avenue, and several trains at a time could continue to the end of the pier to service steamboat passengers. In 1962, the pier was destroyed by fire, but rail service had already ceased in the 1950’s.


I’m glad to say I have some interesting rail ‘n’ sail news about this area. Logic shows that the area is well-suited for connections to NYC, which is shown by the fact that high-speed ferry service to Wall Street resumed in 1986, but I was aware of this from my earlier visits, and have been eager to try it.


But now I find out that all might not be lost about the rail connection. When rail routes become disused, in any country, I suppose it’s wisest to get some residual use of the land easement, and usually that involves making it a hiking, biking, and even horseback riding trail, referred to as a rail trail, such as described in Cape Cod (2009/27). But rail routes need not be surrendered. Another possibility is rail banking, where the right to resume rail traffic is retained. That was fortunately the situation with the rail route to Atlantic Highlands, which was railbanked by NJ Transit. It has leased the line for trail usage until 2020 to the Monmouth County Park System, which administers it as the Henry Hudson Trail, the second of the two parks in town, along with Mount Mitchill Scenic Overlook. If future economic conditions warrant resuming operation, NJT reserves the right to restore rail service at any time, since the railroad line was never officially abandoned, unlike most rail trails. While it is difficult to resume service on a railbanked route, it’s much easier than trying to do so on a route totally abandoned to a rail trail.


I followed the route of the rail trail (notice the abandoned rails on either side) on Google Maps. Right after the station on the North Jersey Coast Line now known as Aberdeen-Matawan, a spur takes off to the north and is then called the Henry Hudson Trail, up to the town line of Atlantic Highlands. Beyond that, property lines show both a route up to the pier, as well as signs of a connection to Highlands. It is 3 m (10 ft) wide. This part of the trail runs 14 km (9 mi). However, it is now referred to as the northern section, since another, disconnected rail trail runs south to Freehold as the southern section. This section is also railbanked.


Will rail service ever resume? NJT is busy restoring other routes, so we’ll wait and see, but not before the park lease runs out in 2020. But with ferry service already restored, consider the desirability of a day trip between Manhattan and Atlantic Highlands using rail one way and sail the other.


HIGHLANDS BY CATAMARAN FROM NEW YORK I finally did do a round-trip sailing on that route, going for dinner one evening to Doris & Ed’s Restaurant in Highlands. I remember it well from our visits a number of years ago as a quality venue. I also remember it as being the place where I first learned what wasabi sauce was (Japanese, green, and hot!), since it was served as a coulis (ku.LI: a squiggle of thick sauce on the side, almost as a plate decoration) on a meat dish. I mention this both as a fond memory and to indicate that this is a quality venue. Its large menu specializes in seafood, and has a prix fixe option. After I figured out on my own how to get there by ferry, I noticed that option is also actually mentioned on their website, so I’m not the only one interested in an arrival by water. Zagat gives them (our of 30) an admirable 25 for Food, an understandable 19 for Décor (it’s a converted house), and a respectable 22 for Service. Zagat also includes the caveat that “a post-Survey chef change and room renovations may outdate the Food and Decor scores”, hopefully not negatively for Food and positively for Décor.


Rail was not an option. If I’d wanted to drive from Lower Manhattan and sample the charms of the evening rush hour, Google Maps suggested either the Holland Tunnel to NJ plus the exquisiteness of Interstate 95, or otherwise the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to the loveliness of Interstate 278 in Brooklyn and Staten Island, including crossing the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, then the Outerbridge Crossing to NJ (actually, the two bridges DO have nice views--across lanes of traffic). Either driving route included substantial tolls, covered about 82 km (51 mi), and was suggested to take a horrendously optimistic hour and ten minutes (certainly not during rush hour!!!).


In April I’d picked up brochures from the SeaStreak ferry service about connections to Manhattan, as well as a very interesting connection on smaller vessels from NJ via Manhattan to Martha’s Vineyard (!!!), which I’m now planning for the coming summer. For my return to Highlands, I waited a couple of months until early July. Once again, it all comes down to working around schedules. Weekends this commuter ferry runs infrequently, so a trip is possible but awkward. Weekdays there are numerous sailings, but an earlier dinner than I’d usually want is necessary, since the last return ferry to Manhattan is at 8:30.


Given that the chilly April winds had almost blown me off Sandy Hook, it was ironic that the return I planned ended up in the midst of a heat wave. On July 7 last year, the New York area reached a temperature of 101°F (38.3°C), a slight improvement from the day before of 103°F (39.4°C). Still, I took the Downtown Alliance free shuttle (above) around to Pier 11 at Wall Street and caught a late afternoon SeaStreak catamaran. As soon as we got moving, the diesel-powered catamaran rose on its two ski-like hulls and started moving apace. The SeaStreak vessels are 141 ft (43 m) long and carry 400 passengers. They travel at a lively 38 knots (71 km/h; 44 mph) and make the trip to Highlands in a breathtaking 45 minutes on the average. One almost has the sensation of flying in a very low-level aircraft.


Look again at the map of the harbor. I’m used to the ferry crossing from Manhattan to Staten Island (A to C) right down the middle of the Upper Bay. Ocean liners going down the Hudson through the Narrows do the same. But SeaStreak fooled me. From the East River (5) we hugged the Brooklyn shore and slipped down Buttermilk Channel between Brooklyn and Governor’s Island, something I didn’t expect and had only partially experienced when a Cunard ship docked in Brooklyn. We then “flew” down through the Narrows and under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. At this point I thought I spotted the Alice Austen House on the Narrows in Staten Island, which I planned to revisit at a later time. My experience actually sailing under this bridge had been exclusively on ocean liners, where everyone looks up wondering if the stacks would clear the bridge (it’s an optical illusion--of course they do), but with the catamaran, that wasn’t an issue at all. We then arrived in the Lower Bay (# 2 on the map).


On an ocean liner, passing the bridge and entering the Lower Bay is always a signal to finish your champagne, go downstairs and unpack for the crossing and then dress for dinner. The Lower Bay is so large, the shores so distant, that it looks like you’ve not only passed New York Bight (# 9), but are already out in the Atlantic. But on the small catamaran that wasn’t the case, so one had the feeling of being out to sea, while really being quite close in. But then before long, Sandy Hook and its Light hove into view, and you were entering the eastern edge of Raritan Bay (# 6) known as Sandy Hook Bay, where the catamaran stopped first at Highlands. I know the trip was scheduled to take 40-45 minutes, but I’m sure we were in in just under a half hour. (!!!) What a marvelous, breathtaking--and rapid--voyage.


I walked westward from Conner’s Landing down Shore Road for about seven minutes in the overpowering heat, and have the pleasant recollection of seeing a woman tending some beautiful flowers in her garden on the side of the road. Doris & Ed’s was just opening for the evening at an early 5:00, and I settled in among the other early diners for a superb dinner.


The time worked out well, and I didn’t have to wait until the very last return ferry. We stopped first at Atlantic Highlands before going north, and then zipped back under an early evening summer sun along the Lower Bay, through the Narrows, and back up Buttermilk Channel. Pier 11 / Wall Street was right ahead at the entrance to the East River--and we passed it right by. It was a little startling until I found out that the circle trip goes in order, and we’d go to the Midtown ferry terminal first before returning to Wall Street. This was a plus, and in the slowly waning light, we went up the East River under the Brooklyn Bridge (seen here with the Manhattan Bridge, facing Brooklyn), the Manhattan Bridge (seen here facing Manhattan, with the Empire State Building), and the Williamsburg Bridge (showing the full width of the river from Manhattan’s East River Park at Corlear’s Hook over to Williamsburg). It had been many years since I’d take my most recent Circle Line cruise around Manhattan, so it was almost like a new experience. As we passed 34th Street, we could look down much of its crosstown canyonlike length with the Empire State Building over at Fifth Avenue, and then docked one block further at the 35th Street Ferry Terminal. This is where I planned right then to take the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard the following summer of 2011. The catamaran then reversed and we passed under the three bridges again to Wall Street, where I caught the shuttle back to my Hudson side of Downtown.

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