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A journey around America's historic coastline, where we encounter places and people that continue to shape our country. America has nearly five thousand miles of coastline. What would it be like to travel from the islands of Maine to the stepping-stones of the Florida Keys; from the cliffs of the Pacific Northwest to the beaches of southern California; and around the Gulf Coast, where our major rivers reach the sea? Here we travel with Walter Cronkite, our trusted guide. At Maine's eastern tip, we find a British warship captured during the Revolution by the citizens of Machias, wielding pitchforks because they had no muskets. We visit islands along Texas's coastline, exploring a sanctuary for migratory birds. And we visit Fort Ross, on California's Redwood Coast, a replica of the 1812 Russian settlement begun as a fur trading post, with dreams of expanding the Russian empire. In this compelling travelogue we can almost hear Cronkite talking, his smooth cadences spinning stories about the coastline he loves.
Author Biography: Walter Cronkite, former CBS News anchor, has narrated TV specials and written an autobiography. He has sailed most of the coastline he writes about here. He lives in New York and Martha's Vineyard.
Read an Excerpt
All sails are set, and they are pulling nicely the big genoa, the staysail, the main, and the little mizzen balancing it all.
It has been like this all night long, a spanking southwesterly of fifteen knots off the port quarter, enough to give us a good turn of speed but not enough to give the Atlantic waves any real punch in their eight-mile fetch from the New Jersey coast. They impart just a little corkscrew effect to keep the helmsman awake in this dogwatch hour right before dawn.
This has been one of the rare perfect passages along the Jersey coast, where any wind from the Eastern Hemisphere can make the Atlantic mighty unpleasant and render the few inlets dangerous of entry.
On this night I'm sure that fresh in my crew's memory is one of my command decisions a few months before on our fall southbound passage. I decided then to seek shelter from an approaching hurricane by running the inlet at Atlantic City.
It was an arguable decision, as my crew's lively discussion proved. But I believed the alternative worse, and it was Ioh, the loneliness of commandwho had to issue the ultimate order, the order we all had the right at that moment to consider one possibly of life or death.
It usually would be safer to ride out a hurricane at sea, but lured by a highly erroneous weather forecast, for which the weather bureau actually broadcast an apology the next day (a first in my memory), we already were so close to shore when the storm struck that I thought clawing our way back out to deep water was likely to bethe less successful or, to put it more succinctly, the more dangerous option.
Not exactly comforting was the knowledge that the shoals we were fast approaching had been littered over the centuries with the carcasses of ships whose masters had failed their final crises here. In the eighteenth century wreckers bent on pillage lured captains onto the beach with lanterns. Believing that the lights were other ships in deeper water, unwary captains followed them to their destruction. It was said that the wreckers' children even prayed at night:
"God bless mom and pop and all us poor miserable sinners and send a ship ashore before mornin."'
So there we were, running down on the inlet, the sandy shoals ready to trap us if we missed the narrow channel between the granite breakwaters. The driving rain blinded us as we strained to find those fingers of rock in the wind-driven scud that at times was as thick as fog.
With forty-five to fifty knots of wind blowing directly down that opening and twenty- to thirty-foot waves threatening to send us uncontrollably tumbling down their forward walls, our only course was to tack down toward the channel. But with each tack we lost ground, sideways, toward those breakwaters.
Our situation was about as precarious as it could get when our reefed staysail let go, and a moment later the mizzen sheet parted. That left our engine to do the job.
For ten frightening, seemingly endless minutes, Wyntje fought to clear the breakwaters. Now it was just a hundred yards to the comparative safety on the other side of those jagged rocks, but each succeeding wave threatened to crash us down upon them.
And then suddenly, it was done. We skimmed the rocks with only feet to spare and gained the safety of the calmer waters inside the inlet.
Atlantic City is one of the few major inlets along the one-hundred-mile New Jersey coast, and the others, such as Great Egg Harbor, Barnegat, and Manasquan, can be as treacherous when the following sea is running strong.
When you are seemingly alone out there being tossed about by the wild Atlantic, it is not well to dwell on the fact that only an hour's sail away, right through those inlets and protected by New Jersey's long barrier beach, stretches a huge body of water called Barnegat Bay, and on its marvelously calm waters hundreds of sailboats out of such delightful colonial localities as Waretown, Cedar Run, Forked River, and Toms River are even at that moment cavorting with unworried abandon.
It may be easier for those in the seaside resorts such as Spring Lake and Asbury Park and Bay Head to appreciate something of the ocean sailor's experience, for although they bask on most summer days under their umbrellas on one of the East Coast's great beaches, they too on those stormy days know the Atlantic's uglier moods.
One day more than a quarter of a century ago when we were summering at Allenhurst, I called in an expert for advice on our crumbling seawall. He was a fine old Norwegian who had helped build and maintain many beachfront installations, including, if I remember right, Atlantic City's Steel Pier. He recommended rebuilding the wall, but he said he couldn't guarantee that the new wall would last a week or a hundred years.
"Mr. Cronkite," he said, his pale blue eyes staring out to sea, "I've been at war with that old lady out there for fifty-three years, and I haven't won a battle yet."
Of those New Jersey resorts, the southernmost, down where the shore doubles back up Delaware Bay, is perhaps the most interesting. Cape May is a determinedly antique town that carries off its presumption with uncommon success.
Gasoline buggies with their noxious fumes can choke the most vivid imagination, but despite its summer crowds Cape May almost succeeds in taking one back to the nineteenth century. In its older area most of the homesthe tourist folks say about six hundredhave been either well preserved or restored to Victorian splendor with canopied porches, cupolas, widow's walks, and delicately laced woodwork. At night Tiffany lamps shine through leaded windows.
Congress Hall is still there, still laying claim to having been the first summer White House. President Benjamin Harrison kept an office there when he was a guest at the summer home of John Wanamaker, who was Harrison's postmaster general and the founder of the famous Philadelphia department store.
That was in 1890 and 1891, and Cape May long before had been calling itself the Playground of Presidents. Franklin Pierce, Chester Arthur, and Ulysses S. Grant all vacationed there, and Abraham Lincoln spent a few days there while still a congressman.
The hotel dominates a large beachfront park where John Philip Sousa once led the band concerts and, in fact, premiered a rousing march he entitled "Congress Hall."
Our feathered friends have their own Congress Hall in Cape May, a sort of ornithological Holiday Inn. The cape is directly under the North American flyway, the birds' I-95 to southern climes, and Roger Tory Peterson, the renowned ornithologist, calls it "one of the country's outstanding bird-watching areas." Peregrine falcons, bald eagles, Cooper's hawks, and ospreys drop in for a short stay at its 181-acre migratory bird refuge, and piping plovers, least and common terns, and yellow warblers breed there.
A couple of hundred years ago whales played off Cape May's beaches, and their taking and rendering was a major occupation until the slaughter drove them off. Now tuna and blues are the game, and Cape May's dredged harbor is headquarters of a large fishing fleet, both commercial and sport.
Here at Cape May is where our voyage north-northeast begins, a voyage of more than a thousand miles over open ocean, bays, sounds, estuaries, rivers, and even a fjord, past the wide beaches of New Jersey, the skyscraper canyons of New York, the forested hills of Connecticut, the storied coasts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, the serrated magnificence of Maine.
For our first leg north, it is too bad we can't take the back road up New Jersey's inland waterway, but its waters are too low for our keel and its bridges too low for our mast, and instead of a leisurely trip through almost unspoiled country of cedar and pine and green marsh grass, we must commit to the fickle Atlantic.
I like to east off at Cape May in early afternoon, which puts us off Atlantic City about dusk. Just as its gambling towers begin to fade from sight in the gathering darkness astern, we are treated (as we were several times on previous voyages) to a fireworks display celebrating, I suppose, some sinful accomplishment in those dens of iniquity.
Unless the winds turn foul and the seas go wild, this schedule should put us before dawn close enough, perhaps thirty miles away, to see the glow of New York City. The light of a million street lamps in the city that never sleeps tints the sky above and, on nights when the clouds lie low over the tops of the skyscrapers, sets the overcast itself alight with a phosphorescent loom.
Soonif we have timed it right, just as we turn the corner of Sandy Hook and head up Ambrose Channel toward New York Harbor the sun will rise back behind us and extinguish for another day those puny artificial lights that a moment before seemed so bright.
And there ahead of us, suspended on a cushion of morning haze, will be one of the most glorious sights among mankind's works on earth. Whatever one's impression of New York City from street level when seen from this vantage point a dozen miles away across the water, with the sun's morning rays sparkling like jewels off its windows and glass buildings, it is magnificent.
We've put behind us a couple of geological features that played important roles in early maritime history. Mount Mitchill, whose 263-foot height dominates the Atlantic Highlands, once was the first landfall of most of the sailing vessels approaching the North American continent, and most of them anchored in the bight behind Sandy Hook to replenish their water casks from a bubbling well on the Highlands' slope. The watering hole was marked on charts in Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and English, and it was known around the world simply as the "Spout."
The sailor who rounds Sandy Hook for the first time without losing a heartbeat or two has no romance in his soul. Sandy Hook is the hinge to America's front door, gateway to the dreams of Emma Lazarus's huddled masses.
The Statue of Liberty might well have gone here instead of fourteen miles up harbor. For more than a century before Liberty's torch was lighted, the lighthouse at Sandy Hook blinked out a welcome to the arriving millions. Although the shifting sands have left it far back from the beach, the ancient building still stands, the nation's oldest operating lighthouse. It was built by the British, and when they left New York in defeat, they were so certain of an early return that they left its light burning.
Not in operation but almost as old is the hook's Fort Hancock. When the sea was our frontier and the skies did not hold our greatest danger, Fort Hancock was part of our first line of defense.
It was the first of a string of forts built originally to protect New York from the British in the War of 1812. Fort Wadsworth on the Staten Island side and Fort Hamilton on the Brooklyn side of the narrows were built after that war was over, but on their sites since the days of the Revolution had been artillery batteries behind earthen barricades.
The most important of these batteries were built at the narrows, that bottleneck where Brooklyn and Staten Island close within a mile of each other before opening out to form New York Harbor. It is crossed now by the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which until the British built the Humber Bridge in 1981 was the longest suspension span in the world, beating out the best San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge can do by twenty feet.
There at the very base of the great bridge's southern tower, grass and ivy growing through the cracks in its granite face, are the impressive remains of Fort Wadsworth. On the opposite shore, under the north tower but almost lost in the mass of Brooklyn buildings, is still-active Fort Hamilton, now a military headquarters compound.
From their locations artillery batteries, as historian Russell Gilmore puts it, "officially opened and unofficially closed the Revolutionary War."
On the very day the Declaration of Independence was signed, the brash young American artillerymen at what is now Fort Hamilton took a couple of potshots at the British warship Asia His Majesty's ship brought her guns to bear and delivered a broadside that practically wiped out the little battery.
Seven years later, the last cannon shot of the war was fired by a departing British ship in soreheaded pique at a group of jeering American patriots standing on the Staten Island shore.
Those were the last shots ever fired in anger at the narrows. The British didn't dare try to run the gauntlet of narrows' batteries in the War of 1812, and by the beginning of World War II the batteries were so heavily armed that they could have delivered one hundred rounds a minute on an enemy ship.
It was across the narrows that General Howe led his British Redcoats and German mercenaries to attack the upstart Americans in 1776. General Washington's forces were soundly defeated in the Battle of Long Island, but here the general first displayed his military brilliance and conducted the first of what was to be a string of magnificent retreats. The new nation might have ended its days right there if Washington hadn't managed to get most of his army back across the East River to the Manhattan side.
Those forts also played a part in the Civil War, the North using them as prisoner stockades. One of the prisoners was William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, son of the Confederate leader General Robert E. Lee. Ironically the elder Lee, as a captain almost a quarter of a century before, had supervised the strengthening of the very battlements behind which his son was locked.
Ours is a peaceful passage through the narrows, our only hazard the big ships that travel this way. While careful navigation is necessary, this isn't the problem it was only a decade or two ago. The harbor of New York that once was one of the world's busiest is a shadow of its former self. Higher labor costs, cargo containerization, shifting population centers, highways, and airplanes all have contributed to the harbor's demise, and today it seems to the casual sailor that there are scarcely more ships using the port than there were back in 1702, when Lord Cornbury reigned as British governor.
Lord Cornbury set a tone that, as far as we know, no New York governor has lived up to since. He was a transvestite who paraded around New York in his wife's dresses.
The sight of miles of abandoned and crumbling docks that so recently hustled with cargo loading or unloading to or from every port of the world is depressing, but it cannot long divert our attention from the grandeur that remains New York Harbor's.
On her tiny island (which itself was once a fort) the Statue of Liberty continues to reign with new beauty bestowed for her hundredth birthday: her face repainted, her dress redone, her tiara freshly burnished, and her torch restored. And next door on Ellis Island, finally after decades of neglect, the government buildings through which twelve million immigrants passed seeking freedom and fortune in the New World have been spruced up and dedicated as a monument to those newcomers' aspirations, Like the Statue of Liberty, it is now a popular tourist destination.
And right across the broad mouth of the Hudson River is the Battery and Manhattan's southern tip. There is no sight like this anywhere in the world, and it must he seen from the deck of a boat. The great steel and concrete and glass spires tower above you, fighting for space as they reach for the heavens.
Floating out on the harbor's dark waters on a crisp fall night, bundled comfortably against the early chill the sailor gets another privileged view of fairyland. Dusk comes so early that all the offices are still occupied, and their thousands of lights are on. You are close enough that this great backdrop of light fills your view like a borderless painting. The scene inspires reverential silence.
A little bit of what Manhattan used to be is preserved at the South Street Seaport Museum, on the East River almost under the Brooklyn Bridge. Some dedicated maritime preservationists have saved from the wrecker's ball a few blocks of buildings from the early Federal era, and a redevelopment of the neighboring and equally historic Fulton Street Fish Market has enhanced the area.
The Seaport's several museum buildings are augmented by two nineteenth-century sailing vessels, the Wavertree and the Peking. Their tall spars overhead and their bowsprits hanging over the cobbled street below are a small sample of the hundreds of ships that used to crowd raft to rail for most of a mile from the Battery northward.
Wavertree and Peking were not among the largest merchantmen that once visited New York, but their size impressed us when we brought Wyntje alongside for the first time.
It was a summer day, and a goodly crowd of Seaport visitors watched our approach with, I assumed, fascination at seeing a real live sailing vessel coming in from the sea. I had reckoned with the strong East River current but not with the even stronger eddies along the wharf front itself, and suddenly, as a collective gasp rose from the spectators above, we were being swept down on Wavertree.
I gave Wyntje the best help her four-cylinder diesel could offer, and we just managed to swing free of the Wavertree's looming hull, but now we were so close that our sixty-four-foot-high mast threatened to crash into the lower of Wavertree's spreading yardarms. With the threatening current and the dock behind me, I had nowhere to go but straight ahead. The flag hoist at the top of our mast just tipped the Wavertree's yardarm with no damage done.
I swung Wyntje to the side of the pier, ordered the lines cast ashore, and gave a wave to the crowd, intended as nonchalant affirmation that this was the way we always docked. I hope it was only the sailors among them who could see my heart in my throat.
Traveling up the East River is a whole nautical adventure in itself. For one thing, it is a panorama of modern transportation. We sail under the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, Queensboro, Triborough, Hell Gate, Bronx-Whitestone, and Throgs Neck bridges, the whine of the automobile traffic on the steel grating above providing a deafening ethereal symphonic background for our passage. Subway trains, camouflaged in their graffiti battle paint, rumble overhead, crawling out of respect for the age of the bridges and the rails. Helicopters roar away with their commuter traffic from the riverside pad at Thirty-fourth Street. The swaying cars of an overhead tram carry passengers to the big housing development on Roosevelt (né Blackwell's, né Welfare) Island. Trains carry their intercity passengers and freight across Hell Gate Bridge. Up toward the Long Island end of the river, the big airliners flying to or from La Guardia Airport seem to reach for our mast top as they scream overhead. And most of the way we are accompanied by the cacophony of never-ending traffic on the East River Drive to port.
Back behind that drive stretch the streets of Manhattan. Our water level also is pavement level, and with this peculiar perspective we look down Manhattan's east-west streets. There just beyond the Seaport is New York's first skyscraper, the graceful Gothic Woolworth Building, and behind it the city's currently tallest buildings, the graceless twin slabs of the Ho-story (1,350-foot-high) World Trade Center. We pass the vast complex of New York University-Bellevue Medical Center, and down Thirty-fourth Street rises the stately tower of the Empire State Building, long the ruler of this incomparable skyline until the World Trade Center eclipsed it by one hundred feet.
Down fabled Forty-second Street neither tap dancers nor Times Square are visible from the river, but we can see perhaps the prettiest of the skyscrapers, the stainless steel-clad Art Deco spires of the Chrysler Building.
Now comes into view that repository of mankind's still-unrealized hope of a peaceful world order, the United Nations; its broad skyscraper administration building and the sweeping parabola housing the General Assembly almost hang above the riverbank.
Next, just beyond the UN, are some of the city's most luxurious apartments, those of Beckman and Sutton places. We have played long-distance Peeping Toms and searched their windows with our binoculars, but we've never seen any of their famous residents gazing out. On occasional summer days, however, ladies sunbathing on their terraces have inspired presumably irresistible whistles from our younger crew members.
Sutton Place even features some very fancy town houses whose gardens used to run to the river's bank before master developer Robert Moses laid his East River highway there.
On upstream, past the blocks and blocks of Rockefeller University and adjoining New York Hospital, Hospital for Special Surgery, and the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, is another series of expensive apartments surrounding Gracie Square and the lovely Gracie Mansion, built in 1799 and now the home of New York's mayors.
Over behind us to starboard we have left the industrial waterfront of Brooklyn and Queens with its own point of interestthe Brooklyn Military Ocean Terminal from which almost five million of America's finest shipped out to save democracy in two world wars. Many heroes had their last view of America there.
And the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It laid down the keel of its first ship of the line, the seventy-four-gun USS Ohio, in 1817, and 125 years later, during World War II, it was still building, repairing, and servicing much of the Atlantic fleet. Now the historic old yard, like so much of the Brooklyn waterfront, is virtually deserted.
We have made our way up the East River with the current. It is the only way to go. The water runs at up to four knots through here, and it can be a slow passage against it, slow and dangerous. Although the Coast Guard does a valiant job with its large floating "vacuum cleaners" to keep the river clean, occasionally a huge timber breaks off from the decaying docks and, waterlogged, floats just below the surface like a lurking submarine. If a small vessel meets one at any speed, disaster can result, but fatal consequences are far more likely if the boat meets it head-on as it comes sweeping down with the tide.
Just opposite Grade Mansion, where the Harlem and East rivers join, those fierce currents make up into the treacherous opening called, for good reason, Hell Gate. They tumble and swirl and once in a while form such whirlpools that they can overwhelm a helmsman and capsize a good-sized vessel.
Sailing vessels and the bones of their hapless crews litter the bottom of the river there, but even powerful modern ships have lost to their fury. Only a few years ago, a tugboat was swept below and her crew joined the other Hell Gate victims.
Unless the captain times his passage to make it at slack, sailing through the gate always is a thrill. The current drags at the rudder, the wheel in your hands tugs one way and then another, the bow swings out of path, and, as in driving a race car around a curve, you get the feeling that you are sailing on the very edge of disaster.
Once through Hell Gate and under the Triborough and railway bridges, one has a wider and calmer path for the short run to Long Island Sound. We pass the huge Consolidated Edison power plant (for obscure reasons affectionately known by New Yorkers as Big Alice) and we are at Rikers Island, on which is crowded the New York City prison.
Across from it, on our port, is North Brother Island, with its abandoned isolation hospital to which those with communicable diseases were banished before the miracles of modern medicine. The hospital ruins are an unintended memorial to the East River's worst disaster, for it was here on June 15, 1904, that a burning excursion steamer, the General Slocum, afire from stem to stern, was run aground as 1,031 lives were lost, most of them women and children on a church picnic.
We sail on past La Guardia Field, and we are at Throgs Neck and the twin forts that once guarded the passage between the sound and the East River route to Manhattan.
Fort Schuyler on our port is now the home of the State University of New York Maritime College, and it is particularly worthy today of at least one note: In a prizewinning conversion (which one would like to think was symbolic), architect William A. Hall turned the casemates where the great guns once were lodged into a library.
Opposite Schuyler is abandoned Fort Totten, which at the turn of this century served as antisubmarine headquarters and as late as World War II was antiaircraft headquarters for the Eastern Defense Command.
Excerpted from Around America by Walter Cronkite. Copyright © 2001 by Walter Cronkite. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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