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If you visit the Long Branch, N.J., waterfront, you could go on your summer holiday and never notice the bridge there, and probably never even know it existed. But you don’t have to go all the way down to Long Branch to be startled by its rich history. The bridge crossing the New York Barnegat Bay has always been known as the George Washington Bridge (after the young and potentially brilliant Revolutionary leader, who owned a home nearby) but even before it was a road, it was the twin of the original landmark Bridgeport Avenue Bridge in the posh Hackensack Harbor.
Now that Bridgeport Avenue is a privately-run tourist attraction with an attached shopping mall, shops, boardwalk, and cruises down the coast, its ancestors have been renovated to a magnificent decay. The pieces have been tucked behind sea walls in surrounding parks, laid out in public places, placed on pathways, or hauled away to distant foundations to be preserved, as was the case with the George Washington Bridge. A steel girder once bolted to the ground has taken flight again, and a century of old paint and other detritus of a highway corridor is now with a purpose.
The restored George Washington Bridge connecting Port Monmouth and Long Branch
Between the junctions and road gaps, existing sound walls make the flat Great Bay water zone look like the inside of a bomb crater. A temporary ramp to the left on Port Monmouth Road adds to the raw landscape, a road under construction.
I set off at first light to explore the beauty of Long Branch, with or without the George Washington Bridge there, in a tour arranged by Quest (http://www.questlongbranch.com), a tour company from San Francisco. I was told by a woman at Muddy’s Wax Museum that it was “possibly the worst wax museum in the country,” but that it had a big claim to fame: World’s Oldest Cake. According to one report dating from 1855, that cake was created in 1791, and you can currently eat it there, probably for less than $2.
Muddy’s Wax Museum has many other claims to fame, including World’s Oldest Cake in Long Branch
There are plenty of attractions, too, and they’re often cheaper than other sights in the area, like the boat excursions to Silver Gap State Park (milepost 86.3 on the Princeton-Long Branch Expressway). As well as the rusting relics of this world-class bridge – like a jetty landing platform and the steel mast – a rusting gallery of 44 granite statues near the dock lets you get up close to some of the 400-plus hurricane and flood-damaged ships that have cruised past in recent years, wondering what all the fuss is about.
By the end of my one-hour guide, I was rather envious of the cyclists and joggers who in summer at the iconic “shining lifeguard” building nearby, hundreds of which dot the coasts of New Jersey and nearby Westchester, New York. Our guide seemed to agree: there are literally thousands of these beautiful long, loose (without stairs) concrete buildings, and with all the money sloshing around around, you would think they could be protected against the everyday stuff that makes sea level rise and severe storms inevitable. But these are the cities where there was once genuine promise of a gilded age, and where the light-ed apartments overlooking the Bay were massive nouveau Victorians, almost like the interiors of a chintzy old mansion in France. The winds are blowing the streets into seawater now, but a few hundred years down the line, when the cottages along the harbour have been demolished, perhaps the memorials there will be to the race-winning swimming champion turned spy, Carl Sandburg, who laboured in that neglected and sad site for decades before dying in 1915, with a bronze plaque depicting his inaugural swim over the George Washington Bridge.