History Worth Preserving in Sea Bright

March 8, 2018
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The Octagon Hotel was one of two hotels originally constructed in Sea Bright on the site where the municipal parking lot currently sits. Photo courtesy Marc Leckstein

By Chris Rotolo |

SEA BRIGHT – To move forward toward a better future, you must first understand your past.

That is the concept Borough Council President Marc Leckstein hoped to explore on Feb. 26 when he hosted a meeting at borough hall to gauge the enthusiasm of local residents toward the founding of a historical society.

Leckstein was joined by a group seven eager locals who, by meeting’s end, had set a tentative date for its second meeting – Monday, March 26 – and discussed a plan to register as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, in turn laying the foundation for what should result in Sea Bright’s first historical society.

Flooding has always been an unfortunate part of Sea Bright’s history, especially in 1901 when this photo was taken. Photo courtesyvMarc Leckstein

“For a town with such a rich history, one that really was the dominant shore town in our area back in the day, it was surprising to me, from what I’ve gathered, that we’ve never had a historical society,” said Leckstein, who was named Sea Bright’s Borough Council president in January.

“But I’m excited to see how much interest there is in founding one,” Leckstein added. “This was a big preliminary step to what I hope will become a group that can embrace and celebrate our town’s great past and share it with others.”

Uncovering and sharing Sea Bright’s rich history is the goal of this group, a sentiment shared by resident Greg Kelly, who grew up in Monmouth Beach and was a prominent figure in that municipality’s historical society.

“I recently moved to Sea Bright and ran into Marc at the fireman’s fair, and he’s a history nerd like I am, so we hit it off. And that’s led to this meeting,” Kelly said. “We’re here tonight to think about a plan to preserve something, to share history with people. Whether that’s a published book, or a display at the new beach house, we have to create something that will engage people so they’ll carry on the tradition of the town.”

The “beach house” referenced by Kelly is the forthcoming beach pavilion and library, a three-story construction due to open by Memorial Day that will house borough beach patrol vehicle storage, public bathrooms, space for borough meetings and an oceanfront library that Leckstein hopes will have a section dedicated to the future Sea Bright Historical Society.

“Downstairs is going to be library and upstairs is going to be the new council chambers,” Leckstein said. “And hopefully there will be display spaces for the historical society to show its findings. But regardless, it’s finally going to provide us a space to do something. Finding space has always been the biggest obstacle to doing something new in this town. But we’ve cleared that hurdle.”

The Steamer Thomas Patten, seen hearing departing Sea Bright, was docked on the Shrewsbury River. Photo courtesy Steve Eccles

Leckstein admits the timing of this meeting and its end goal – to produce a group focused on celebrating Sea Bright’s storied past – is an interesting juxtaposition of thoughts, as the borough’s post-Super Storm Sandy focus has remained fixed on revitalization and continuing to build toward an even brighter vision of the future.

“So much of our focus since Sandy has been on rebuilding. But I think because everything is moving in such a positive direction, now is the time to take a step back and embrace our past,” Leckstein said.

According to Leckstein, the borough’s current aim to entice tourists and New Jersey’s own beachcombers back to their sandy shores was in alignment with the mission of the town’s founding father Mifflin Paul, a local railroad contractor who in 1869 purchased a plot of land along the sand between the Shrewsbury River and Atlantic Ocean.

Paul’s plan was that of a prospector who hoped to create a thriving community that profited from the summer tourism industry and promptly saw to the construction of a toll bridge that provided easy access to Sea Bright from Rumson Road, before putting up a pair of hotels that Leckstein said were located on what is now the site of the borough parking lot.

The old Sea Bright Public School stood tall and proud in this vintage photo. Photo provided by Raggy Walling

“We have this idea of what the future of Sea Bright looks like,” Leckstein added. “But I think understanding our past will certainly help us get there. You should never lose hold of your past.”

For Leckstein, a former history major, this passion project to uncover Sea Bright’s past is one he began sharing with interested residents in February 2017, when he created a Facebook page called Sea Bright Historical Photos.

Currently the page has 380 members and includes a multitude of posts featuring old post cards, newspaper clippings, film photographs and more items offering a glimpse of the borough’s humble beginnings.

“It’s a general interest in our history that has inspired this research and hopefully what’s been uncovered so far inspires others to join me in creating our own historical society,” Leckstein said.

This article was first published in the March 1-8, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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