Two questions: What on earth was the Ku Klux Klan doing on the Jersey Shore, and how did I not know this until I started my background research for this blog?
It turns out that much of what I thought I knew about the history of the KKK - the standardized white regalia, the cross-burnings - actually came from D.W.Griffith's inflammatory 1915 silent film Birth of a Nation, the first real blockbuster ever made. The KKK in its original incarnation was a short-lived organization founded during the Reconstruction Era to effect the violent overthrow of Republican state governments in the South via a reign of terror focused on African Americans. The federal government moved decisively to quash the group in 1871, after which its official activity largely died down.
The Belmar Station property was a lavish spread that included the Marconi Hotel, a power plant, a number of wooden outbuildings, and around 90 acres of land, later enlarged through the purchase of additional land. It was listed in contemporary documents as the Klan’s New Jersey State Headquarters and became the epicenter of Klan activity in New Jersey. For several summers the organization sponsored a circus behind the Marconi Hotel. It also maintained one and possibly several giant crosses that were lighted up on summer evenings, a spectacular but terrifying sight for picnickers across the river on the beach.
Apparently the original hope was to create a summer retreat by selling subdivided lots to Klan members. This plan was thwarted by prolonged litigation between factions of the membership and ultimately by the Depression.
In November of 1941 the property was acquired by the Army and just days later Pearl Harbor sent their operations into high gear. If my parents were even aware of the area’s history as a KKK stronghold, it certainly wasn’t a part of their Neptune. They and their friends were newcomers themselves, and many were Jewish, Catholic, or African American. Besides, they had a war to fight and children to rear.
An odd sidelight: While researching this post, I learned that the Monmouth Pleasure Club had hosted meetings attended by national KKK officials, whose “grand wizard” was Hiram K. Evans of Illinois. In his honor, the Marconi site became known as the “Evans Encampment.” I subsequently found an announcement by the War Department that the site of the Signal Corps Radar Laboratory. in a solemn ceremony held on March 31, 1942, would be designated Camp Evans in memory of Lt. Col. Paul W. Evans.
Would it be excessively cynical of me to wonder if there was reverse engineering going on here, in order to keep but sanitize the Camp Evans name?