MARGATE — About 100 residents, mostly senior citizens, turned out Wednesday evening at Historic City Hall to hear local resident John Scott Abbott share his love of history and the topography of Margate and Absecon Island. The presentation was part of a series of talks sponsored by the Public Library and Historical Society Alliance.
Abbott, the city solicitor, has made the geographic history of Absecon Island his passion since he was a child. His hobby of collecting history books and maps has reaped benefits in his law practice representing land owners with their riparian claims.
His presentation included a series of maps more than 150 years old that demonstrated how Absecon Island has changed over the years.
He challenged participants to count the rings in a cross section of an Atlantic white cedar tree he salvaged from a neighboring property. It was just one of many cedars that made up a small forest that crossed the island, he said.
“Atlantic white cedar was prized by the European settlers because it grew straight and about 75 feet tall. They used them to make ship masts,” he said. “The trees were fed by the fresh water that collected between the dunes.”
Two of them still stand on Union Avenue across from the Municipal Building.
“They are our oldest citizens and were here before any of us were,” he said.
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Resident Tom Geigerich, who lives on Vendome Avenue, said his house is an original Margate home built in 1912 and is made of Atlantic white cedar harvested from the island.
“When we remodeled our house in 2004, Scott represented me getting the variances we needed and came to visit me. He stayed three hours admiring the house, and we couldn’t get him to leave. He’s so enthusiastic and is an expert in riparian title work. Plus he’s a native son,” Geigerich said.
Abbott said 19th century salvagers came to the island from the mainland to find ships that had washed up in storms. Cattle and pigs would roam the salt marsh to graze, and salt plants to preserve food dotted the island.
His collection includes copies of some of his favorite paintings of local beach scenes. One of his favorites is “Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City” by artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, who summered in Atlantic City during the 1870s and ‘80s. It is reported that the artist mixed sand from the Atlantic City beach into his paint to make what is considered an American masterpiece. It is the first painting by an African-American to ever hang in the White House.
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Resident Ted Finkenauer said he remembers playing king of the hill and sledding on the dunes called Sandy Hills.
“I was born and raised here and hunted in the meadows,” he said. “This brought back a lot of memories.”
Abbott showed a series of enlarged “Fairchild” aerial photographs of the island taken in the 1920s that the state never knew existed. Apparently, the company would fly top secret missions to capture images for the U.S. military. When they were discovered by Stockton professor Stuart Farrell, the photographs were digitized and sent to the state for historical reference.
Of particular interest to those who live along the back bay area was an aerial photograph showing Shelter Island, which was dredged in the 1920s to fill in portions of Atlantic City, Ventnor and Margate.
“Why they didn’t go two feet higher to eliminate the flooding we get today, I’ll never know,” Abbott said.
In his role as solicitor, Abbott is assisting the city in obtaining the permits needed to dredge the backbay, possibly using the Shelter Island site as a location to place the dredge material. Filling the hole created to build up the island would restore wetlands and create a new habitat for sea life, he said.
Talking about the dune-building project sweeping through Absecon Island, Abbott said the natural dunes that formed on the island were removed to eliminate mosquito infestations and prevent diseases when Margate started to develop and attract summer homeowners. Creeks and channels were filled in with sand dredged from the bay to make way for streets and housing.
Abbott said he remembers playing inside Lucy the Elephant when it was a dilapidated and decrepit building. She was built by a real estate developer to attract people to buy a parcel of land to build a summer home.
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“I guess it worked. People would go up to the howdah to pick out their lot. Now that elephant is our trademark,” he said.
Abbott spoke briefly about how the changing of the seas has affected the typography of the island over the past 9,000 years and how boundary lines between cities move as the typography changes and inlets wane or move south. The beachfront was once more than 60 miles out to sea, and the barrier island has been retreating westward, he said.
“If this island did not have people living here, Northfield would be the new barrier island. The little forest is gone, but we became one of the nicest communities with the layout of the streets and the parkway area. It’s a town worth fighting for,” he said.