“Wild West” Connection in Long Branch
By Michael Sheehan
Visitors to Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park in Long Branch may notice a house standing alone near the north end of the grounds. But few, if any, know the history behind it.
That “cottage,” as it was known when built, is more than 115 years old and is one of nine stately homes built in 1900 by Nate Salsbury, the principal owner and business manager for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (in one year alone the hit show staged 341 performances in 132 U.S. towns).
Each house was given the name of an Indian tribe or chief — names like Cherokee, Shoshone, Iroquois, and Uncapapa. The name of the house still standing is Navahoe. The group of homes was known as “The Reservation.” And with profits from the wild west show at $40,000 a year, Salsbury claimed he was going to spend “every cent in Long Branch,” according to Entertaining a Nation.
The ultimate folk hero of the American west, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917) was at the turn of century one of the most famous men in the world. He founded his own show, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” in 1883, “a circus-like extravaganza that toured widely for three decades in the United States and later in Europe.”
A shrewd businessman and a tireless promoter, Salsbury marketed the luxury homes as having “a commanding position” on the Long Branch oceanfront, as well as a “superb view” from their upper floors of the highlands of the Navesink and the Shrewsbury River, which he claimed were unmatched by any other section of the Jersey shore. The cottages were just a 5-minute walk from the East Long Branch railroad station, according to Salsbury’s prospectus, and only a “brisk” seven-minute walk from the North Long Branch station, where frequent trains carried passengers to New York City.
Each house came with gas and electric light fixtures, could be wired for telephone service if the resident asked for it, and was connected to city sewers — a big plus. In addition, each family had their own bath house and Salsbury emphasized the privacy of The Reservation’s 1,000-yard-long beach frontage, which was for the exclusive use of residents.
The houses were big even by today’s McMansion standards. In addition to a roomy living room, dining room, and a “reception room” or “sea room” on the first floor, each had five bedrooms for residents on the second floor, with another five rooms on the third floor for the servants. Every floor had a “water closet” — a bathroom, to us moderns. In the basement of each house were the kitchen and the servants’ dining room, as well as the laundry room. The basement kitchen was connected to a butler’s pantry on the first floor by means of a dumbwaiter, which the cook would use to deliver food to the first-floor dining room.
Originally, Salsbury leased the houses, promising renters that he would furnish the homes with “due regard for comfort and utility,” maintain the properties, and pay the water bills. Stables were available for an additional rent, since not all residents required them. Salsbury died in 1902 at age 56 and his daughter, Rachael, sold the houses in 1919.
Built at the pinnacle of Long Branch’s Golden Era, when it was a favored destination for the rich and famous, The Reservation attracted many distinguished summer residents. In the early years, George B. McClellan, Jr., mayor of New York City and son of the infamous Civil War general and 1864 U.S. presidential candidate, rented a house there. In later years, G.F. Hoffman, founder of Hoffman Beverages of Newark, owned a house there, as did Clayton B. Jones, chairman of the Board of Managers of the New York Cotton Exchange.
“If there’s a heaven for me, I’m sure it has a beach attached to it.”
Another well-known family that summered at The Reservation were the Forans. Known as “Colonel” from his service in World War I, Arthur Foran was the owner of the Foran Foundry and Manufacturing Company in Flemington, N.J., a firm that at one time made virtually every lamppost and manhole cover in New Jersey. He also served as mayor of Flemington and was elected to the N.J. State Senate, where he served as majority leader and president.
Foran’s oldest son, John Nicholas, known as Nick, went to Hollywood, where he changed his name to Dick Foran and gained fame as one of the original “Singing Cowboys.” At one time, Dick Foran was among the top 10 cowboy stars in the country, alongside names like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter. Another son, Walter, followed in his father’s footsteps, serving in the N.J. State Assembly and the State Senate from 1967 until his death in 1986.
Over the years, The Reservation’s large homes made it a family-oriented summer paradise. In the late 1920s, two brothers-in-law, both prominent physicians from Brooklyn, N.Y., bought houses at “The Res,” as it had become known. Both had large families — George Sheehan, M.D., summered in the house named Okaliska with his wife and 14 children, while his brother-in-law, William Ennis, M.D., occupied Uncapapa with his seven children.
In 1939, the Hoffman house burned to the ground, which proved to be a somewhat fortunate accident. The rest of “The Res” homeowners formed a consortium to buy the empty lot, which was turned into a ball field. Every summer Sunday, it was the scene of a softball game that pitted a team from The Reservation against a team from nearby Allenhurst Beach Club, with spectators enjoying “front-row” seats on the cottages’ spacious porches. Beach parties and cook-outs were also favorite summer activities.
By today’s benchmarks, the costs were absurd — Salsbury built the entire nine-house complex in 1900 for a total of $200,000, the lot that the Hoffman house stood on sold for $3,000 in 1939, and Dr. Sheehan’s widow sold her house in 1953 for $10,000.
In time, the houses fell victim to neglect and eventually the area was taken over by the city of Long Branch, which razed them all except one. The land lay idle for several years, as the city wrangled with Monmouth County over how it should be used.
Lacking funds to develop the property, in 1977 the city signed over the title to the county but then objected to county plans for a beachfront park that included acquiring an additional 22 acres of land across Ocean Avenue for parking and ancillary services.
Eventually, differences were ironed out and the present day 38-acre beach park was formally dedicated in May 1984. The county park is named for the seven American presidents who visited Long Branch — Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James J. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Woodrow Wilson.
Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park — MORE INFO
Michael Sheehan, a longtime writer and marketing executive, and his wife Ellen have lived in Monmouth Beach for nearly 50 years.