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South Jersey

June 22, 1998

Bayonne, battleship: Imperfect together

Courier-Post staff

I figured Bayonne must be a hot tourist destination, the way the USS New Jersey Battleship Commission crows about it. To hear its members talk, you'd think the famed battlewagon would founder anywhere else. 'It has to be in Bayonne,' they say. 'It'll get the New York tourists.'

Of course, folks in South Jersey disagree. To them, the only logical place to moor the ship is where it was launched - the Delaware River. Now berthed in Washington state, the battleship is a local product, from first beam to last rivet. It represents the blood, sweat and patriotism of its creators. And they're rightly proud.

South Jerseyans want the battleship in Camden, across from Penn's Landing. They note it would be easily accessible from Philadelphia and would attract more visitors than it would in North Jersey.

But what about Bayonne?

My husband and I checked it out, from a tourist's viewpoint.

We left our house in Alloway at, well, more like the slack of dawn, 6:50 a.m. The directions were simple - take the Turnpike north to Exit 14A. No problem. It was clear sailing, pardon the pun.

At 8:46 a.m., near the Bayonne exit, the Turnpike bridged an oily looking river, bracketed by industrial plants. Several acres of recently shipped foreign cars could also be seen, still in their shrink-wrap.

The striking sensation, however, was of sewer stench. I couldn't see what caused it because my eyes were watering.

Smog obscured the New York skyline. Everything, even passing cars, seemed coated in grime.

We arrived at Exit 14A at 8:49 a.m., coughing up the $3.45 toll. The wide lanes tapered into the streets of Bayonne, a city of 60,499, south of Jersey City and opposite Staten Island.

We saw narrow streets lined with buttonwoods and double-parked cars. The houses were neatly kept and pinched together the way they are in old neighborhoods. Flowers crowded front yards.

'It reminds me of a Shore town, like Ocean City,' Dave mused. 'Yeah, but without the Shore,' I replied.

Broadway, the main street, was blocked off for a street fair, so we detoured and came to Bayonne County Park, a stand of tall trees amid unmowed grass. It was crammed with joggers, little children with their moms and friendly dogs. The river view offered up industrial plants.

We drove on to find a sign for the Marine Ocean Terminal, the city's claim to fame. It will be closing in a few years. That's why Bayonne wants the battleship there.

The city has several plans for the site if the warship doesn't arrive. Possibilities include a cruise ship berth, a U.S. Coast Guard facility or a college or university. For now, though, it is home to a small Army base.

The New Jersey berthed here briefly in the 1950s, which is how Bayonne justifies its slogan, 'Bring the Battleship Home.'

The terminal straddles a man-made rectangle of land, jutting into New York Bay. A highway skirts its western flank. Across it are abandoned warehouses, landscaped with weeds.

The Army guards wouldn't let us in. No tourists. But they did point out where the ship would settle. The wide wash of water is directly below the highway. They said I could take pictures from there. I did.

Through the lingering haze, we could barely discern the Big Apple. New York, by the way, hosts its own floating museum, the USS Intrepid, an enormous aircraft carrier docked a few blocks from Broadway theaters.

Tourists go to stand on the 'Fighting I's' decks. But, would they come to Bayonne afterward when the only thing to do after seeing the smaller USS New Jersey is to try to find their way back?

Don't get me wrong. Bayonne is a nice place to live, if you like living in your neighbors' hip pockets. But why visit? We went back into town to find out.

The main street was crowded with people. It looked like a block party. I wandered upon a man beside a booth for the Liberty Classics Car Club. He held a jug, its bottom littered with three inches of dollar bills and coins - mostly coins. He was collecting 'to bring the battleship home to Bayonne,' as he said. I asked if it were a sure thing.

'Absolutely, it'll be here next year,' he declared in that thick North Jersey accent that sounds so, uh, New York. 'That story about Camden wasn't true. That should've never gotten out.' He looked angry. I dropped in a buck. He grew friendly.

'You're not from around here, are you?'

'No, I'm just visiting. What's there to do in town?'

'Well, we have the ice skating rink down a few blocks.' And there was his classic car club, which meets once a week. A movie theater would be built in a few years.

'It's a nice town,' he said. 'And you can just bop over to New York. Just take the tubes. I'm going to see a show tonight.'

Bayonne folks are gung-ho about bringing the old ship 'home.' Community organizations, including the car club and the Elks Club, raise money for the purpose. The entire town seems energized by it. I haven't seen that kind of enthusiasm to bring the battleship to South Jersey.

But can Bayonne attract the 400,000 visitors the ship needs annually to be self-sustaining as a tourist attraction? Doubtful. Will New York visitors be impressed by a ship docked in a smelly industrial zone? Probably not, even if it is the most decorated one in Navy history.

Commissioned in 1943, the ship is mounted with 16-inch guns, capable of hurtling 1,900-pound shells 23 miles. It is 887 feet long (nearly three football fields), weighs 45,000 tons and draws 38 feet of water. That's the problem.

The channel between Bayonne and Staten Island is 21 feet deep. A Dutch container ship ran aground there last month. The channel would need to be dredged. That'll cost a few million dollars. Is the commission planning a surprise?

Bayonne has friendly people, homey diners and a busy, if uninspiring, downtown shopping district.

But, now that I've been there, I'm convinced docking the New Jersey in Bayonne would be like putting the Statue of Liberty in Rancocas Creek.

The battleship should be brought home, all right - to its birthplace, the Delaware River.

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