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Where's Garfinkle Park?

The public boating launch site is hidden now, but that wasn't always the case.

One of the few places you’ll find mention today of Garfinkle Park is on a list of public boat launching sites in the Barnegat Bay watershed published by the New Jersey Marine Sciences Consortium.

A word of caution: if you plan to launch a boat there it better be a small one. Highway bridges encircle the ramp and getting under them when an east wind has pushed a lot of water into the bay is next to impossible. At other times small boat owners can go “up crik,’’ and follow the main stem and Wrangle Brook branches of the river, or down the river and eventually into Barnegat Bay.

Boating was never the big draw at Garfinkle Park in Toms River. For about a decade and a half it was the favorite swimming place for those who lived in and around the village of Toms River.

And on Thanksgiving eve it was where the big bonfire burned to stir up the Toms River High School faithful for the next day’s football game against arch rival Lakewood.

The park was named for Benjamin F. Garfinkle of Passaic, who owned it – sort of. The 3.5-acre tract on the river was in an irrevocable trust for his sons in 1949, when Dover Township officials tried to buy it for $7,000. Garfinkle, who had development plans in Toms River, said he would give the land to the town, but for the trust.

So Percy Camp, Dover’s lawyer, negotiated a 21-year lease for the waterfront property for $1 a year.

There would be proper bathing beach, a big parking lot, and a boat ramp, Mayor G. Rix Yard promised when the deal was done.

The money the three-man Township Committee had earmarked to buy the property was used instead to create the beach and build the parking lot.

In July of 1950 one of the town’s two weekly newspapers, the New Jersey Courier, reported that kids were already using the beach, although it was not completed or officially opened.

Kids had been swimming there for years, according to L. Manuel Hirshblond, the retired Dover Township Clerk Administrator. He recalled swimming in that area as a boy, when boys became men if they had the guts to jump off the “big bridge’’ between the Route 166 and South Main Street bridges, into the river.

Barbara Iasallo, who succeeded Hirshblond before she retired, told me she recalled swimming at Garfinkle Park too.

When the kids were swimming there in the summer of 1950, the playground equipment had arrived, but still needed to be installed. Three hundred truck loads of gravel had been spread on the parking lot, and 200 loads of sand on the beach. Officials predicted it would be late August before the park would be ready for use.

Its first full season of use was in the summer of 1951, when 52 people signed up for swimming lessons given by the lifeguard at the beach. Thirty others registered for the junior baseball league that would use the new field that was part of the park. Tennis courts were being built, with the idea that they could be flooded and frozen during the winter for ice skating. The handball court was taking shape too. Park Director John Dalton, who would later become mayor, said attendance at the beach ranged from 150 to 200 people a day. A beach badge cost $1 for half the season.

While enthusiasm had led to the creation of the park, its location was far from ideal. For one thing, the sewage treatment plant was just upstream. You knew that when the wind blew from the west. On July 6, 1951 the beach was closed by the state because of bacteria pollution, fecal coliform, the kind found in the waste of warm- blooded animals. Farther upstream was the Toms River Chemical Company plant was being built, a dyeworks that would become the most notorious source of chemical pollution in the county’s history.

Township officials eventually bought the park, for $70,000 in 1961, from a man who bought it from the Garfinkle heirs.

That was about the time when officials were talking about a downtown bus terminal. They complained that buses were stopping on the busiest corners in town, worsening traffic congestion. The terminal opened on July 1, 1963 after officials spent $18,000 to build it.

The late Franklin V. Fischer told me the use of the park ended about that time. Pollution fears were rampant because of fish kills in the river blamed on the chemical company.

“It became unhealthy to swim there. Grass grew up there all the time. We had to have Oakley Witt (then a local builder) come in every year and dig it out,’’ Fischer said.

The bus terminal eventually moved west, and for a time the Vocational-Technical School’s MATES program used the building. When Ocean County built the loop extending Irons Street across the old railroad bridge right of way, the boat ramp was shifted north to its present location.

Upstream development in Silver Ridge Park and Holiday City at Berkeley has contributed to the shoaling of the area where Toms River kids used to have swimming races, from a barge tied to the old railroad bridge down the river. They could have clocked record times, with the help of the current in the “crik.’’

That’s what the kids at Toms River High School called the river. After school lots of them went “up crik,’’ to do what kids without computers, cell phones, and video games did for recreation.

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