“Now that we’ve got Cattus Island, what do we do with it?’’
That was the question asked by a Daily Observer editorial writer on Oct. 14, 1980, four days after the park opened on the peninsula jutting out into Barnegat Bay between Applegate’s Cove and Mosquito Cove.
The writer reviewed the history of the place since Ocean County bought it for $2.75 million in 1973. It wasn’t pretty. Vandals burned down the mansion, then the barn that was to house nature exhibits. Every improvement was attacked by vandals, who succeeded in scuttling plans for campsites in the uplands along the salt marshes.
The freeholders considered turning part of the park into active recreation fields, then scrapped those plans, recognizing that Dover Township had the Shelter Cove athletic complex and beach to the south, and the Toms River Pool and Tennis Club in Snug Harbor to the north.
Instead of a series of sports fields, Cattus Island would give visitors “a chance to heighten their sensibilities to all aspects of the natural world and man’s place in that world,’’ declared Freeholder Director Hazel Frank Gluck in late October, 1978, when she gave reporters a look at the place. Gluck was the first and only woman elected a county freeholder.
John Haas, the planner for the county’s Parks Department, was there to recount how the county and the state Green Acres program split the $2.75 million purchase price of the park and would split $645,000 being spent to develop it.
Workers hired through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, the federal jobs and training program of the day, cleared trails though the woods. A nature center would take shape, named for Toms River environmentalists A. Morton Cooper and his wife, Betty Cooper, who was a leader of FOCUS, the Federation of Environmentalists, United Societies, which battled plans for a pinelands jetport and helped convince state and federal officials to preserve that region of New Jersey.
FOCUS and Cooper also battled plans for the Driscoll Expressway, which would have linked the New Jersey Turnpike with the Garden State Parkway in Toms River. Cooper was a charter member of the county’s Cattus Island Advisory Council when it was created in 1981. Long before that he lobbied to keep the place largely as it was, so visitors could enjoy learning about the coastal wetlands that once ringed Barnegat Bay. More than 300 species of plants were counted there, and waterfowl were numerous in the bay and surrounding coves.
It was remarkable that there was a Cattus Island to preserve. Bayfront tracts at Shelter Cove and Snug Harbor had been dredged and filled to create lagoons and building lots. There were plans to develop Cattus Island too, but they were never carried out.
The nearly 500-acre tract was originally a grant to Gawen Drummond, a Scotsman, from the Board of Proprietors of East Jersey in 1690. The Page family owned it for a time, when it was called Page’s Island. Then came the Applegates. Lewis bought it in 1842 and built a sawmill on what is known as Applegate’s Cove. Charles Gilmore bought it in 1876, and planned a development that never began because of an economic downturn. Page’s Island became Gilmore’s Island. Then it became Cattus Island in 1895 when John V. C. Cattus, a wealthy New York importer of Canton china and Siberian dog hair, bought it, planning to use it as a sporting retreat.
Lewis Applegate built a large house on the site when he owned it. Cattus built a second house, of similar design, nearby, and joined the two with a large one-story building that contained a huge room with a fireplace for entertaining guests, who lived in the north house, while Cattus lived in the one to the south. Cattus was an avid sportsman and sailor. He never lost a sneakbox race in either of two boats built for him by William Irons, a master craftsman who died when he was only 26 years old.
During the 1930s the New Jersey National Guard brought orphan boys from Newark to spend the summer. In 1964, after Cattus died, his heirs sold the property, but plans to develop it never materialized before the 1970 Wetlands Act outlawed dredging and filling salt marshes. Other restrictions on coastal development gave the county the chance to buy the property in 1973.
The freeholders hired the firm of Mahony and Zvosec of Princeton to design a master plan for the park that focused on its natural features and included no sports fields.
The county owned the park, but the not the long sandy beach on Mosquito Cove, which was renamed Silver Bay to make it more attractive to people who wanted to buy lots or homes on its shore.
That property belonged to James E. Johnson, or one of his enterprises. I’m pretty sure Johnson told me he paid $175,000 for the bayfront house and 33 acres and the long beach. Johnson kept one of his front end loaders near the house so he could use it to chase away trespassers who pulled their boats up on his beach.
County officials wanted to add Johnson’s property, mainly the beach, to the park. They offered $2.2 million. Johnson balked, producing appraisals that put the value between $7.2 and $13.1 million. A condemnation contest followed, with Johnson getting $4.8 million for his house and land. When the county was late in paying, he got a judge to slap on another $60,000 in interest. Johnson’s house is now the headquarters of the county Parks Department.
The Cooper Environmental Center has numerous displays of critters from the park, and programs to explain its many wonders. An observation deck was added in 1995 honoring Dorothy Hale, a full time volunteer, who led the volunteer program and served as a park adviser.
More recently the county’s open space preservation fund has been tapped to buy and preserve most of the bayfront meadows and some of the remaining woods from Cattus Island to Snug Harbor.