The following piece was submitted by Captain Jack Gilbert:

This story begins and ends right here in Matawan Creek.

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, my wife and I were on our 19-foot boat, making our way across Keyport Harbor toward the creek, to one of our favorite lunch spots. It was mid-August last year, 90 degrees, a one- or two-knot breeze was blowing and the sun filled the sky. You could not ask for better boating weather.

Just as we passed the Keyport Yacht Club mooring field and started our turn into the channel, the water broke about 50 yards off our bow. We watched in amazement as two sharks swam side by side just below the surface — straight up the channel and right toward our boat! They dove beneath our bow and vanished in our prop wash.

“Were those dolphins?!” we asked each other at the same time, knowing we were both sure we had just seen the same thing — two sharks at least 8 to 10 feet long coming out of Matawan Creek … the same creek that made headlines all over the world 100 years ago, in 1916.

First: Let's get something straight

There were sharks here before, or at least one shark that wreaked havoc on the Jersey coast and in Matawan Creek that summer — five bitten, four dead and some say that story was the inspiration for one of the biggest novels and films of our time.

Let’s get a few things straight. First of all, there are sharks in the water. A lot of them and they need to eat things to stay alive. The best we humans know, they really don’t want to eat us but they sometimes mistake us for seals or pools of bait fish. Our problem, not theirs. They are “curious about us" — isn’t that nice?

Sharks have been around for about 20 million years. Humans really just started going into the water “en masse” to cool off or have a swim about hundred years ago, so in all fairness, they have not had a lot of time to figure us out. They want a big juicy bite of seal blubber. They bite us and get a scrappy little boney morsel — more trouble than it was worth — then they swim away … and make headlines. Something they know nothing about.

Second … why do there seem to be so many shark attacks in the news lately? Well, there are more people in the water and more news agencies than you can shake a stick at, and shark attacks are popular news. Everyone is fascinated in some way or another with sharks, but why are we afraid of sharks? Mice have killed more people than any other creature on Earth and you have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than bitten by a shark.

You'll never go into the water again!

We can thank Peter Benchley’s best-selling 1974 novel and the blockbuster 1975 film "Jaws" for thrusting the shark into the world’s consciousness as a vicious machine bent on devouring human flesh. Sharks were popular that summer; swimming at the beach … ahh, not so much.

I was 14 when the movie came out. We were on a family vacation in Virginia Beach. It rained all day on Wednesday and everyone in town it seemed was lined up the local theater to see the summer’s blockbuster movie, "Jaws." The next day the beach was full. People in the water … ahh, like I said, not so much.

Jaws was set in Martha’s Vineyard and told the tale of a rogue man-eating shark, greedy politicians, a very concerned sheriff, angry business owners, and scared locals and tourists. Even the “mob” made it into the story with a bizarre sideline involving Sheriff Brody’s kids’ pet monkey (read the book if you want to know more about that).

The movie makes a veiled reference to the 1916 attacks when Sheriff Brody and the Mayor of Amityville are having a heated argument about closing the beaches and Brody states “It happened before, in 1916, in Jersey.” Even though there were more than a few similarities between at least the screenplay and the Jersey attacks, Benchley denies any “inspiration” from the 1916 incidents. And you know what? I believe him. As big a story as the 1916 attacks was, and with more than a few TV movies and documentaries about them having aired, I am constantly surprised that a lot of people have never heard the story before.

So what happened in 1916 already?

The Engleside, as it was in (Courtesy LBI Historical Association, via Jack Gilbert)
The Engleside, as it was in (Courtesy LBI Historical Association, via Jack Gilbert)

There was a shark attack. Actually, there were five in a 12-day stretch. At that time, sharks were thought to live far off shore and there had never been a reported attack on a human by a shark.

So what changed that summer of 1916? It was hot. It was one of the first recorded heat waves. What else changed? The train lines were bringing people to the beach in droves from New York City and Philadelphia. They had ropes tied to anchor points on the beach and bathers would grab hold of the ropes and go out into the breaking surf, hanging on to the lines as the waves crashed around them and then use the ropes to pull themselves back in against the rip current.

There were people in the water. Lots of them, splashing and laughing, making lots of noise, drawing attention to themselves — and what was it that took a notice, wanted a little taste, maybe a little bite? A shark.

According to news reports from that fateful summer, Dr. Eugene Van Zandt (a wealthy Philadelphia physician) and his family were on holiday for the Fourth of July weekend. He, his wife, their three daughters and son Charles had taken the train to Beach Haven on Long Beach Island. They were staying at the Engleside Hotel right on the beach.

Charles decided to go for a pre-dinner swim late in the afternoon of July 1. He entered the surf with a dog but the dog quickly turned back to the beach (none of the news articles I read identified the dog as being his; one article stated that it was a dog on the beach). Either way, a few minutes later Charles began shouting and thrashing about in the water.

That got the attention of lifeguard Alex Ott. Van Zandt was just past the surf, Ott swam out to him. With the help of bystanders, Ott pulled Van Zandt to the beach, his left leg stripped of flesh to the thigh. He bled to death an hour later on the bar of the Hotel Engleside.

A shark on the move?

This sign went up on Beach Haven beaches on July 3, 1916 (Courtesy LBI Historical Association, via Jack Gilbert)
This sign went up on Beach Haven beaches on July 3, 1916
(Courtesy LBI Historical Association, via Jack Gilbert)

The Beach Haven attack was buried in the middle of east coast newspapers and the shark headed north. Sea captains going in and out of Raritan Bay were reporting a lot of shark activity but the reports only went out to other sea captains. Was there more than one shark?

Charles Bruder, a bell captain at the Essex and Sussex Hotel on the beach in Spring Lake, was having a swim on the morning of July 6. A bather on the beach approached lifeguard Chris Anderson and told him that a red canoe had capsized in the surf. Anderson and fellow lifeguard George White rowed the 100 yards out to investigate. Instead of a red canoe, they found Bruder, lacerated at the chest, his legs gone below the knee.

He bled to death in the boat on the way to shore.

The next day it was national news. The day after that, it went worldwide. Sharks were eating people in the surf in New Jersey. Everybody weighed in — the Smithsonian, the Museum of Natural History — and they were all wrong. Sea turtles were blamed. German torpedoes were blamed.

Even though there were credible eyewitnesses that said they saw a shark, the experts insisted that it was not. Shark nets went up around bathing areas. Local business owners were complaining to local politicians that all this hype about sharks was costing them a lot of money, there were armed men in boats guarding the waters.

Spring Lake is 45 miles north of Beach Haven, a few days trip up the Atlantic coast for a shark just checking out the nice warm water off the Jersey coast, stopping now and then to feed.

One thing we know about sharks is that they like to feed in warm salt water … so what made this shark keep going north, round the Sandy Hook and down to the back of the Raritan Bay, and finally to a muddy, brackish creek just past Keyport Harbor? I can see that shark rounding the hook with the incoming tide, not knowing or caring that it had left the sea; blindly chasing a school of fish. Maybe it thought it was turning back toward the sea when it hooked that left into Keyport Harbor.

I don’t know but I am pretty sure that once it got into that creek it wasn’t a very happy fish. The water was shallow, brackish, cold and its narrow banks confining.

'Lester has been eaten by a shark'

Next, the shark came across a group of boys swimming off a pier in the back of the creek, at least a mile and half from the bay, eight miles from the ocean. Lester Stillwell was one of those boys. He started to thrash in the water as the shark attacked. His friends thought at first he was having an epileptic seizure, then they saw the fin. They ran to town screaming “Lester has been eaten by a shark.”

They were met with disbelief but enough curiosity to get a crowd gathered down at the Wyckoff Docks. As the crowd grew, one of the locals, Watson Fisher, dove off the dock to have a look for Lester’s body. Watson was attacked by the shark in front of the horrified onlookers. He was pulled from the creek and died a short time later at a hospital in Long Branch.

Thirty minutes later, Joe Dunn, a visitor from New York City, was swimming in the creek with his cousins. They were about a half mile downstream from Wyckoff dock and unaware of the earlier attacks. Suddenly, Joe was pulled under. His cousins frantically pulled him from the water, the flesh from his left knee to his ankle shredded. Even so, Joe was the lucky one that summer. He survived.

This swim platform with the sign “Are you ready to meet God” stood at the entrance to Matawan Creek for as long as I can remember until Sandy wreaked her havoc in 2013.

Media frenzy ensued. There were rewards offered for the capture of the “man-eating shark.” Experts appeared confused and there was dynamite being set off daily in Matawan Creek. Shark attacks pushed World War I off the front pages. Even President Woodrow Wilson chimed in and instructed the United States Coast Guard to “seek out and destroy the shark.”

So, what happened? 

Matawan Creek as it looks today (Jack Gilbert)
Matawan Creek as it looks today (Jack Gilbert)

Did they ever get it? Maybe so, maybe not. Was there more than one shark? No answers here, but I will give you this — on July 14, Michael Schleicher, an employee of Ringling Brothers Circus, caught a 7.5 foot Great White in the Raritan Bay near Coney Island (some reports say “a few miles from Keyport Harbor.”) Experts of the time identified the stomach contents of that shark as being human. Was this the rogue “New Jersey Man Eater?” Well, there were no more attacks after that summer.

The memory of the attacks faded and people headed back into the water. The Jersey shore rolled along from Sea Bright to Cape May, building grand boardwalks and nightmarish freak shows, adding carnival rides and of course the spectacular beaches, all comforts and amusements that we still find along the Jersey Shore today.

You may ask where the sharks are today. They’re still there, coming in and out of rivers and creeks, swimming just past the breakers in Seaside and LBI. Spawning in the back bays, making headlines now and again as the next generation of sharks open their hungry jaws to checks us out. After all, we did just see a couple sharks coming out of the creek last year — Matawan Creek.

Captain Jack Gilbert has been boating and fishing in the Raritan Bay and the Atlantic Ocean for more than 35 years. He has been fascinated with the 1916 Shark attacks for many years after fishing in Matawan Creek with his family and hearing locals retell the story.

He owns Captain Jacks Boating School, which offers New Jersey Boating Safety Certficate Courses; New York Boating Safety Courses; USCG Captians License Classes and Red Cross First aid; CPR classes in 13 locations through out the state. 

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