The Forgotten Savior of Island Beach
As people frolic in the waves at New Jersey beaches over the July 4th weekend, they will be blithely unaware of an important anniversary. This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the creation of Island Beach State Park.
The person largely responsible for saving Island Beach is reformer and philanthropist Geraldine L. Thompson. Thompson's role in saving Island Beach has been, like the beach, buried under the shifting sands of time; however, she played a central part in saving Island Beach from private development.
Island Beach, a narrow ten mile stretch of barrier island beach in Ocean County, still looks much as it did when Henry Hudson sailed by in 1609. It is a unique natural treasure and a wonder to all who value the unique birds, plants and insects. The island's white sandy dunes rise high along the narrow finger-like stretch and hold thickets perfect for birds to nest. The ancient vegetation likely dates back over 1000 years. It is nothing short of an outdoor museum whose primordial exhibits display a rare glimpse of nature. Countless species of birds are joined by swarms of migrating Monarch butterflies fluttering in orange clouds. But this pristine beach came precariously close to an armada of developers' bulldozers.
Steel magnate Henry Phipps, Jr purchased Island Beach in the 1920's with plans to build a seaside resort. Unforeseen events upended his vision including the 1929 Stock Market Crash, World War II and finally, his own death.
By the late 1940's, Phipps' heirs decided to sell it prompting naturalists to campaign for preservation. A dramatic struggle unfolded with those who favored economic development at odds with others who argued to protect the fragile beach. At times it appeared that Island Beach was fated to become a resort for the wealthy or the next Coney Island. Conservationists warned that if the unspoiled barrier beach was developed, it would mean the loss of the last piece of natural shoreline north of Cape Hatteras. Once it was gone, it was gone forever.
Thompson's efforts to facilitate the purchase by the State of New Jersey were in motion by the early 1950's. A lover of nature herself, she prioritized environmental preservation. A member of the Audubon Society, Thompson was a devoted advocate for birds. Her philanthropy included donating hundreds of acres of land to create parks in New York State as well as in Monmouth County, New Jersey.
An experienced and talented political activist, she explained to Governor Driscoll that "This would not only be right, but it would get good publicity ...and I think gain recognition from Washington and the Eisenhower Administration." To Thompson, the State purchase of the beach was a political winner. But time was running out. The Phipps family was considering an offer from a developer.
In a letter on May 28, 1953, she wrote to Driscoll "I am wondering if the ownership of the Phipps Island Beach, which certainly gives your Republican leadership and the Party a great appeal to nature lovers, Garden lovers, Children lovers and Health lovers, could be brought into the picture quickly..." She met with key players to lobby them to support the plan, including Driscoll and his staff. Thompson orchestrated meetings with the Phipps heirs to persuade them to take the state offer over the private developer.
State Senate and Assembly members voted to approve $2.75 million to purchase Island Beach. The appropriation passed and the beach was in the hands of the state, at last.
On July 1, 1953, Governor Alfred E. Driscoll accepted the deed to the 2,200-acre peninsula from John H. Phipps. With hundreds of conservationists and state officials in attendance, the ceremony was the conclusion of years of wrangling over the last stretch of undeveloped land on the Atlantic coastline.
On the day of the ceremony, Geraldine L. Thompson was seated next to Governor Driscoll and was praised for helping to make the state purchase a reality.
Thompson's accomplishments to help the people of New Jersey have been forgotten; however, when Island Beach vacationers enjoy the park over the July 4th weekend, her legacy is all around them.
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Jane Scimeca presented a paper, "The Price of Liberty is Maternal Vigilance: Understanding Women's Political Engagement Since the 2016 Election" at the national conference "Since Suffrage…" at Auburn University in 2020. Her publishing credits include the article with Professor Jess Le Vine, "Pink is the New Red, White and Blue" in the Asbury Park Press (March 2017) and as a contributing author to the Encyclopedia of New Jersey. Prof. Scimeca speaks frequently on campus as well as in the community on topics in Women's History and is available for public lectures. Contact her for further information.