Arts & Entertainment

"Rabid Canal People" and Other Hurdles Face Port Morris History Hounds

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Scott Beale shows an original church program from the Port Morris church. Dated Oct. 23, 1898, it contains a list of names of early town residents. Credits: Connor Mount
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Scott Beale and Lois Bredesen made "Port Morris, NJ Proud" bumper stickers for their cars and have distributed them to friends in town. Credits: Connor Mount
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Lois Bredesen speaks to the Roxbury town council June 14 before presenting it with a book of historic postcards and photos of Port Morris. Credits: Connor Mount
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Scott Beale and Lois Bredesen hold up a framed map of Port Morris Village, dated 1884. Their house is just beyond what's depicted on the map. Credits: Connor Mount
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This bible is from 1874, before the Port Morris church was built. Scott Beale believes it's from the town's early Sunday school. Credits: Connor Mount
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ROXBURY, NJ - Eleven years ago, Scott Beale and Lois Bredesen might have considered themselves collectors, but they certainly didn’t think they could be described as local history buffs. That changed when they moved out of Toms River and Parsippany, respectively, and into the rustic corner of Roxbury called Port Morris.

“When we got here, we realized how much history was in this little tiny town, and we started collecting,” Beale said. “Once we started hearing about the history of Port Morris, it was really something that was pretty neat to pursue.”

Since then, Beale and his long-time fiancée Bredesen have scoured the Internet and postcard shows searching for any memorabilia connected to Port Morris and its rich timeline. They often end up competing with collectors focusing specifically on the Morris Canal, the Port Morris Roundhouse or the railroad constructed by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, which laid tracks in the hamlet and started sending trains through in 1911.

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It’s not always an easy field to win auctions against, either. “The canal people are rabid,” Bredesen said.

“We’re antique collectors,” said Beale. “We collect all kinds of stuff. But [Port Morris] is by far one of the more difficult categories to collect because there’s just no material left. We found out how difficult it is and how competitive it is, especially with postcards.”

It wasn’t long after moving into the village that the two would meet their biggest competitor: lifelong Port Morris resident Carl D’Auria. Beale and Bredesen had been submitting bids on eBay by that point, but they were still in the early stages of their hobby.

“He was the reason, probably, we escalated,” Beale said. “We were collecting prior to that, we were bidding on stuff when it would show up on eBay. And before we knew of him, he wondered who was taking all of the Port Morris stuff. Then after that, we became good friends and sort of had an understanding. If things came up on eBay, he would say, ‘Ok, you bid this time, then I bid,’ and we’d kind of go back and forth.”

The system has worked out for the history hunters.

“We have an usual amount of postcards,” Beale said. “And the D’Aurias probably have even more. But between the two of us, those are probably 90 percent of the postcards known from this town.”

Beale and D’Auria eventually would team up in 2009 to host a Port Morris history night in the basement of the community’s church. Though the event was advertised only locally, 50 to 60 people showed up - and some even brought late-19th-Century-themed snacks - to learn and share tales of the hamlet’s past. Some loved the history nights so much they made the trek from their retirement homes in South Jersey to tell their stories about growing up in the area.

“It was jammed,” Beale said. “It was really neat.”

Those in attendance likely learned about how the Morris Canal was constructed in 1830 to deliver Pennsylvania coal from Phillipsburg to Newark and New York City in as little as five days. The canal was the first in America capable of climbing hills, according to landingnewjersey.com. Only two places of residency existed before houses started springing up in the 1870s.

Railroads eventually rose to prominence, and the Lackawanna Cut-off was built in 1910 on a level plane to the Delaware River with the help of massive amounts of landfill and the two bridges that still stand across Center Street.

Carl D’Auria died a few years ago, but Beale and Bredesen maintain a close relationship with his family, one that still includes splitting opportunities to obtain memorabilia. Frances D’Auria owns the house and the butcher block of Lawrence, the man who used to serve meat from the back of his horse-drawn wagon in the early 20th century. She gave Beale and Bredesen the Christening gowns of Lawrence’s children.

Beale and Bredesen possess countless photos and postcards of Port Morris and its early landmarks, such as the canal and the church (before and after it was put on top of logs and relocated across a frozen canal pond that used to reside behind their house). They own an original program from the church, dated 1898 and holding names of early residents, as well as a well-worn Bible from the Sunday school that predated that church, believed to be from 1874.

They have store receipts from early shops and town property layout maps, as well the owner’s key tag from the old Port Morris Hotel, originating in the 1900s.

The one thing they can’t seem to find is any evidence of the house they live in on Center Street. The home was built in 1875 and the map they have is from 1884. Though many of the old properties and even streets shown long ago disappeared, their house remains.

Nevertheless, the house can’t be seen on the old maps, lamented Bredesen. With a finger, she pointed ever so slightly off the edge of what’s depicted. “We’re here,” she said.

“They never seem to have a picture of our house and I think it’s because we sat so far off the road,” Beale added. Beale and Bredesen have old photos of neighbors’ homes, photos where their backyard is visible in the background, but nothing that prominently features their own property.

“So that would be the one thing that we would want to find,” Bredesen said. “The holy grail would be a picture of our house from the early 1900s.”

Until they find that Holy Grail, Beale and Bredesen will continue sharing, with all who care, the history of Port Morris. On June 14, paid a visit to the Roxbury Mayor and Council meeting where she donated to the township a book she made that contains postcards and photos of the village.

She was prompted in part by the back wall of the council chambers, which holds framed historic photos of Roxbury, but none of its Port Morris section. “There’s a lot of history on Port Morris and it just pains me not to see a picture right in the back there,” Bredesen said while presenting the book to the council.

It wasn’t that Bredesen hadn’t already taken steps to eradicate the neglect of Port Morris on the wall, something acknowledged by Roxbury Mayor Jim Rilee. “You actually sent us some pictures, and we’re getting those framed to put in the council chamber,” he said.

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