Five years ago, as part of the N.J. Meadowlands Commission’s Oral History Project, we interviewed lots of folks about the region in the old days. We are reprinting the best of them here, every Tuesday, for 11 weeks. This week: Korean War veteran Earl Jensen of Lyndhurst recalls growing up near Horseshoe Creek.
The area of the swamp where all my activities occurred was east of Lyndhurst and North Arlington. In 1946 the western spur of the turnpike had not been laid down yet.
The Erie and the Lackawanna Railroads and the Jersey City water line were the only reminders of any modern-day progress passing through the swamp.
To me, the grand swamp was a picture of the past with all its natural wonderment.
Click “Continue reading …” for the rest of Earl’s account, as well as Earl’s old photos.
I am reminded about my times in the swamp when I drive the western spur of the NJ Turnpike. Because as I approach exit 16W, I can see the old swimming hole at Horseshoe Creek. I glance at it for a few seconds and flashes of boyhood memories enter my thoughts. Sometimes a faint smile is on my lips.
I must admit that sometimes my eyes would glaze over from my tear ducts, knowing those times are gone and only memories now.
South of the Lackawanna Railroad tracks, the swamp stretched all the way to Route 7, near Kearny. At that time there were dikes along the Hackensack River that controlled the tides and flooding the swamp. Only the large streams and small creeks filled with water. We could walk all over that area through the cattails and not fear of getting wet.
Kingsland Creek, one of the large waterways, was loaded with fish. There were bass, catfish, perch and huge arp. I’ve seen carp as large as three feet long. I would spy them when they would come to the surface and roll.
You could imagine the look on my face when I saw one; a boy in his early teens. I’ve caught some carp but never a big daddy like that. The largest I ever caught was about two feet. I brought it home and my grandfather ate it. He would love it when I brought home a fish or some Blue Crabs. At that time, I did not like crab meat. I tried them a couple of times but they were not for me.
My friends and I did most of our crabbing off a small wooden pier on the bank of the Hackensack River where the Jersey City Water Line went in and under the river. It was a dilapidated pier, about 12 feet long and 3 feet wide. It really was aged and starting to fall apart, yet it held our weight and was still usable. The boards and timbers it was made of were so weathered and dry it would creak and groan when we moved on it. That disappeared, like everything else about the swamp.
When we went for crabs the only equipment we needed was a piece of wire about a foot long and we made a small bend at each end of the wire so that the ends could be hooked together, making a small circle of wire.
The wire would be baited with Killies, a small minnow we caught at the first creek. We would tie a length of string to the wire and toss it out as far we could away from the pier. The other equipment was a long handled scoop net and a bushel basket to carry our catch.
The Jersey City Water Line was one of our boulevards, so to speak, out to the meadows. When it was installed, there were creeks that flowed across its path and culverts were laid under it to allow the tidal water to pass by. There were three culverts.
We called them 1st Creek, 2nd and 3rd. They were about 3 to 5 feet wide and shallow. The Killiefish, a small minnow, swam in them, and 1st Creek seemed to have more than others. That’s where we stopped on the way to the pier to catch our bait.
Now, 1st Creek was right before the first grove of trees and we would dig in below the grass for worms. We would tie the worms with a thin piece of string around its middle, toss it into the creek and let it float with the current. The minnows were ravenous and when spying the worm, they would attach and swallow.
When we felt that the minnow had the worm deep inside him we’d pull the string and out came the small fish onto the bank; we’d very gently pull out the worm still tied to the string and toss is back to the water for another minnow. We could sometimes catch 5 to 6 minnows with one worm. No hooks were needed. When we felt we had enough of the minnows for baiting the crabs, we marched to the pier.
Catching the Blue Crab was easy. The minnows were strong on a wire loop, maybe 3 or 4 of them. The crabs loved them. We’d toss the baited loop tied to a string far away from the pier and wait a few minutes. Then we would slowly, pull on the string and if the crab was biting, he would follow the bait. When the crab was near the surface and we could see him, we scooped him up with the net.
I might add that the crabs had to be of a certain size, for if they were too small,we had to throw them back in the water. If I remember right, they had to be four inches from point to point.
When we felt we had enough crabs, depending on how many of us were there, we would go home and divide them up on my front porch, just out of the meadows and past the rail yards.