Bayonne, battleship: Imperfect together
By KIM MULFORD
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
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
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
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
'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
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
'You're not from around here, are you?'
'No, I'm just visiting. What's there to do
'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.