Cliffwood Beach: The NJ vacation spot swept away by a hurricane
These days, Cliffwood Beach serves as a quiet section of Aberdeen, NJ with beautiful views of the Raritan Bay.
Locals will tell you it is not – I repeat – not the same as neighboring Cliffwood. The two are divided by Route 35.
As nice of a location as Cliffwood Beach is, especially if you're a New York commuter, it doesn't jump out at you when you're considering "beach towns" to visit along the Jersey coast. It's hard to imagine a Jersey Shore-esque environment when you've got Tottenville, Staten Island staring back at you.
But not too long ago, Cliffwood Beach was a popular resort town. Up until the end of the summer in 1960, the area included a boardwalk with amusements, saltwater swimming pool, and sports recreation area including tennis and handball courts.
At night, visitors let loose at a popular restaurant, cocktail bar and lounge called The Cat 'n Fiddle.
The area drew comparisons to Coney Island in Brooklyn, NY.
For decades people flocked to the Raritan Bay Shore destination, but it all came to a screeching halt on Sept. 12, 1960. That was the day Hurricane Donna crossed into New Jersey.
The National Hurricane Center calls Donna one of the all-time great hurricanes.
As they describe it,
A northwestward turn on the (September) 9th brought the hurricane to the middle Florida Keys the next day at Category 4 intensity. Donna then curved northeastward, crossing the Florida Peninsula on September 11, followed by eastern North Carolina (Category 3) on the 12th, and the New England states (Category 3 on Long Island and Categories 1 to 2 elsewhere) on the 12th and 13th.
50 people were reported dead in the United States from Donna, and damages totaled in the millions. To this day Donna is the only hurricane to impact every state along the East Coast with hurricane-force winds.
Subsequently, the devastating impacts led to the name "Donna" being retired, and will never again be used for an Atlantic hurricane. The name was replaced by "Dora" in 1964.
When Donna made her way into Raritan Bay, she shifted the popular Cliffwood Beach waterfront from present tense to past tense.
From the Sept. 16, 1960 edition of the The Matawan Journal,
Bayfront areas of Matawan Township took a battering from Hurricane Donna, especially in sections bordering Matawan Creek and in portions of Cliffwood Beach. During the worst of the hurricane, water was nine to 10 feet deep in the streets of Cliffwood Beach, police reported. Damage in the beach area was estimated at more than $150,000. Ten families were evacuated from the waterfront area to the Cliffwood Fire House. Flooding in Cliffwood Beach reached all the way back to Greenwood Ave. The storm lashed bay waters completely covered the roofs of the 180 unit colony of seacots facing the bay at Cliffwood Beach and crashed through the rear of the Cat 'n Fiddle Restaurant, splitting the building in two. Police were stationed at the restaurant after looting was reported.
All that remains today is the saltwater swimming pool, but it is currently buried in a sand dune that helps support part of the sea wall.
The vacation retreat was never to be heard from again.
Efforts to revitalize the waterfront didn't follow through until the last five years.
You can now take a stroll down memory lane and imagine what the resort destination would look like today if it wasn't flattened, flooded, and erased from history. In 2018, the Aberdeen Sea Walk at Cliffwood Beach was unveiled.
The half-mile trail along the Donna-damaged seawall includes fishing posts, outlooks, benches, and a gazebo.
They also opened up Veterans Park on the beachfront, which has playgrounds for children, a picnic area, and multi-purpose fields.
It may not look the way it used to, but the Raritan Bay waterfront can still be a fun and scenic destination.
The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 producer, writer, and host Joe Votruba. Any opinions expressed are his own.