Seasonal tourism is the lifeblood of the small town of Jersey Shore where I live. Manasquan and its neighbors depend on the herds of regional visitors that start arriving every year around this time.
Often times, they rent houses for the summer or return to unlock the doors of their second homes – many of which, incidentally, have become primary residences for former city dwellers during the pandemic.
Our borough historian, Mary Birckhead Ware, has prepared a book of historical photos, “Images of America: Manasquan”, and one of them particularly comes to mind: a beach lined with horses and buggies full of people celebrating Big Sea Day in the early 1800s (we still have this event today).
Travel and tourism date back to antiquity. Inns and taverns populated Greek and Roman cities and the roads between destinations, and Thomas Weiss writes in “Tourism in America before World War II”, published in the Journal of Economic History, that the history of non-urban seaside resorts attracting North American city dwellers predates the establishment of the United States as a country.
Transportation problems hampered tourism development in the early 1800s, but things picked up after the Civil War, when trains provided easier and cheaper access to nearby beaches.
The modes of transport would again influence the vitality of tourism in the following century. Tourism really turned into gangbusters and opened up to the middle class with the rise of automobile tourism in the 20th century, alongside rising incomes, according to Weiss. The quintessential American motel came into play before the Great Depression and gained popularity in the following years, especially after World War II when the number of cars skyrocketed.
Now, with the proliferation of home rentals in the area, motels are no longer the attraction they once were, but we still have quite a few. And their popularity has been shown to resurface with Covid, thanks to their open-air crossings and locations adjacent to interstate highways, making them practical choices for a new wave of road-trippers. With their unique signs and architecture, they’re a fun reminder of simpler times.
The Amethyst Beach Motel in Point Pleasant Beach, NJ Photo credit: Jamie Biesiada
But they won’t last forever. Two that are a few minutes south of me are on the chopping block: the Wenke’s Motel in Point Pleasant and the Amethyst Beach Motel in Point Pleasant Beach. The first, which has not been operational for several years, should be demolished. The town is trying to seize the latter with an eminent domain to install a new parking lot.
It’s a shame to see them go. Wenke’s, in particular, has real character, especially with its 18 cottages which could be rented out for a “home away from home” feeling, as the motel advertised in an undated brochure. I’m sure the right investor could upgrade the facility despite his age (he’s over 50, according to real estate documents).
Efforts have been made to preserve some strongholds of America’s rich history by the roadside. The National Park Service’s Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program is one, but Wenke can be found in several states east of where this legendary route began heading west. Another is the Commercial Archaeological Society.
I suspect it would take more than a little effort and money to rehabilitate a half-century old property. Especially today, when the value of the land probably outweighs the value of the structures. And if the demolition makes way for a new venture to attract tourists to the area (or, I guess, a parking lot to house their vehicles), I can’t dispute that.
But it’s always a bummer when they pave what was once someone’s paradise and literally put up a parking lot.