This article first appeared in "Coast" magazine.
JAMES A. BRADLEY AND ASBURY PARK
by Peter Lucia
James A. Bradley
ON AN AFTERNOON IN MAY 1870, New York brush manufacturer James A. Bradley was walking down Broadway, when he ran into David H. Brown, treasurer of the Ocean Grove Association. "How is Ocean Grove getting along?" Bradley asked his friend. "Very fairly," said Brown. "Why don't you buy a lot? Those who have their names put down now have first choice." Bradley liked the idea. Hard work as partner in the profitable Smith and Bradley Brush Company had taken its toll on his health; a little sea air, he thought, would be just what he needed. First choice of lots? "Well put me down for two."
The founding of Ocean Grove had taken place the year before, and layout of the village was still in its early stages. On his first visit, Bradley was taken with the sylvan tranquillity of the locale; and since he was a strict Methodist (having been converted to this faith by his wife), he admired the moral principles on which the Grove was established. He bought the first lot sold, at a cost of $85.
A month later, along with his man John Baker, Bradley returned to Ocean Grove and spent the night in the woods there. Soon he would again possess (as he himself put it) "the greatest boon God has ever given to man - good health."
He and Baker slept beneath a makeshift tent erected on the beams of what eventually would become the Association office. They roughed it - dined on crackers, used carriage cushions for pillows. Bradley reports that the next morning Baker sighed and said, "Mr. B., this is a wilderness place." Bradley tried to cheer him: "Oh! Don't be so cast down."
The future founder of Asbury Park was relishing his adventure. He writes of one evening when he and Baker were taking a dip in the ocean: "His dusky skin was somewhat in contrast with the white sand, and the whole scene forcibly reminded me of Robinson Crusoe and his man Friday." This says a lot about how Bradley thought of himself and, especially in retrospect, of his involvement in the enterprise that lay just around the corner (or just across Wesley Lake).
The first Ocean Grove camp meeting was held in August. Occasionally Bradley would overhear someone ask, "Who owns the land on the other side of the lake?" His curiosity inspired, Bradley crossed over in the company of Rev. William B. Osborne (an Association member); "and at the risk of having our clothes torn off," he writes, "worked our way through the briers until we reached Sunset Lake. And like the red man of whom we read in tradition, we could say, 'Alabama here we rest'; for we stood on the bank of as beautiful a sheet of water as can be found anywhere."
Some citizens of Ocean Grove feared that the land might fall into the hands of people who were not in sympathy with the Association's principles. The price for the 500 acre tract was $90,000, an extravagant sum inflated from its assessed 1869 value of $15,000. It was the owner's mark-up: he had been to California and seen what real estate was going for out there. Bradley and Treasurer Brown got the Association to vote on whether or not to buy the property. When the majority decided against it, Bradley "rescued" the land by purchasing it himself, unassisted; he assured Ocean Grove that he would resell the property only to "such parties as would appreciate the situation of the place." He was to call the area "Asbury Park," after Francis Asbury, the first Methodist Episcopal bishop ordained in the U.S.
In the spring of 1871 the work of clearing the wild tract began. Teams of workmen scythed briers and sage brush, leveled sand dunes, filled depressions, restrained lakes. Bradley oversaw everything - and paid for it, placing his entire fortune at stake. He laid out lots and parks; he insisted that the streets be made exceptionally wide and that the avenues be even wider at the beach end. This was to provide a greater view of the ocean and to allow sea air to flow more easily through the idyllic town that he envisioned.
The first boardwalk could be folded up and stored.
Bradley had one requirement that seemed greater than all others: that each deed offered to the public contain a clause prohibiting the sale of liquor. For most of his life he hated the "demon rum" and those who dealt in it. It was his idea to create a health and temperance resort that, while not founded strictly on religion, as was Ocean Grove, would nonetheless attract "the right kind of people"; families would be able to enjoy themselves without being hustled by hawkers or forced to witness the rowdyism common at many other resorts. Some of Bradley's acquaintances warned him about the prohibition of liquor: "With your restriction you can never make a seaside resort a success so near New York." They spoke of "financial suicide." But others encouraged him to try.
In the years that followed, the spectacular growth of Asbury Park astonished everyone. Thanks to Bradley's considerable advertising and public relations skills, people were hearing of Asbury Park and lots were selling fast. The recent extension of rail service from Long Branch made visiting "Bradley's Town" more convenient.
The foot of Asbury Avenue
By 1873 several large hotels were standing; 1874 saw a borough government created and a post office inaugurated; by 1878 nearly 1000 dwellings and public buildings graced "the magic place" (as a New Jersey atlas called it at that time).