Mihm Family: River Rulers
The Shrewsbury River has played a major role in the social and commercial development of Monmouth Beach. In the early years, it was a location for commercial fishing and boating. Today, the boating and fishing continue, but mostly for pleasure.
The northern section of the river, for years a wetland wilderness, began major business development in the mid-1940s. Today, the impressive Channel Club Marina waterfront boasts a premium restaurant, tiki bar, busy marinas, boat and fishing businesses, and a banquet facility. The owners of the enterprise today is the Chrysanthopoulos family.
Maritime commerce really got started in August 1946 when G. Henry Mihm (then the borough’s mayor) received zoning board approval to develop a boat basin on property at the foot of West Street.
Some 40 years later, his son Walter sold off the last of the business for $8 million (to Frank DiMisa, Joan Finaldi and Ron Cambria), according to an Asbury Park Press account. Still a busy water recreation area and popular dining spot, the section also once included a bakery and a private yacht-dinner club.
The enterprise began as a spot to rent rowboats and for fishing and crabbing. Henry Mihm, a skilled mechanic, also ran a boat repair business on nearby Borden Street. A man admired for his determination and principles, Henry served for 12 years on the board of commissioners (including as mayor from 1945 to 1949 and lost a 1941 race by 2 votes) and for 20 years on the MB School board of education (doing 19 years as its District Clerk).
Born in 1899 the Dutch descendant of a New Bedford, Mass. whaler, Henry and his wife Bertha had three sons (Walter, Henry, Jr., and George). Henry also played a key role in bringing a state-financed $90,000 channel dredging project to completion in the Monmouth Beach river cove. He also served as a US Army corporal during World War I.
His son, Walter W. Mihm, took over the family business when his father died in November 1979 and made it the headquarters for the top marine-oriented business in the state of New Jersey. Many people still remember the vast Mihm Boat Works that he built. Among the businesses he would go on to assemble included yacht sales, docking, boat repair and storage, dredging, propellers, and restaurants.
Walter’s grandfather, Garrett White (also a MB mayor from 1909-10), was an amazing fellow. A former New England whaler, White was a decorated hero of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, a founding MB School board member and a member of the first MB borough council.
Born in Newark and a 1939 graduate of the MB School, Walter was the product of a working class family. “There wasn’t a lot of money back then, and everyone worked — but we still had fun,” he said. “To make a buck, I would dig for clams and crabs and then go out and sell them. I also delivered Western Union telegrams from the Monmouth Beach train station.”
The Ground Floor
In 1966, with a dream of building a “first class” marina, yacht club, and restaurant, Walter approach the First National Bank in Long Branch for a construction loan. Initially told the idea “wouldn’t work,” the bankers, knowing Walter’s determination, quickly warmed to the plan. The project end up costing $1.5 million; it opened in June 1967.
“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”
“It was a success right from the beginning,” explained Walter, who was also a self-taught chef. “We were in the right place at the right time.” The Channel Club opened with a $25 membership fee and at its height did nearly $6 million in annual revenues and reached a peak of 8,800 members in the mid-1980s.
Realizing that the marine construction business was on the assent in the 1960s, Walter also purchased a failing tug boat company. Starting with three tugs he grew the business to 30 tugs and 150 barges. The company worked on large-scale bridge, tunnel, and beach replenishment projects along the East Coast.
In the 1972, together with partner American Standard, Walter purchased a 17-acre parcel of land off West Street and built the Channel Club Tower. The total construction cost was $14 million. Prior to being the town’s first high-rise condominium (at 17 stories high with 222 units and apartments starting at $41,400), the land once held a massive 25-room summer home owned by officers of the Salvation Army. Walter also built the adjoining private street, Channel Drive.
In a September 1973 profile for the Asbury Park Press, Walter estimated the value of the family marine empire at $20 million with 175 to 200 employees.
In 1977, using the liquor license from the defunct Monmouth Beach Inn for which he paid $50,000, Mihm opened the Haul Out Restaurant (the original building was the one-time wash room for the Salvation Army home bought for $50). In 1986, he restarted the NYC-Bayshore ferry service in the area. The Direct Line service began with one boat (the Little M) and grew to 16 ships.
He proved to have a real entrepreneurial touch in the food business, running several other area restaurants: Wally’s (Eatontown), Old Orchard Inn (Eatontown), Waterfront Café (Sea Bright), Pirate’s Cove (Belford) and Walter Mihm’s Steakhouse (Atlantic Highlands).
“I ran a straight business and always kept my word,” said Walter about his success. “I didn’t play politics — I had to get things done. My goal always was to be able to say we ran the best marine business going, and I think we did.”
On the civic side, Walter was a strong borough advocate. He was chief of the MB Fire Company in 1961 and was very generous to the company in donations in his time. For over 25 years he also cooked, served and paid for the fire company’s annual dinner in December. Walter died in March 2013.