Atlantic City: The Last Hurrah
By: Diane Toogood
The dictionary defines era as a period of time characterized by notable historical change. Well, it seems that our era of detecting the Atlantic City beaches is coming to a close. The beaches of Atlantic City and Ventnor are meeting their demise by man and machine. Beach replenishing is now in full swing, and pretty soon all of the old silver, gold, and jewels will be buried far beneath the sand, to be lost forever. Those once wonderful beeps will be replaced by silence.
I remember the first time that I ever hunted at Atlantic City. I was with my son, James, and my hunting partner, Brian Mayer. This was right after a really good nor'easter storm. Due to prevailing winds and the conditions of the beaches that day, Brian said, "Come on down! We have prime conditions to detect." So, we met him there and walked out onto the beach. In one particular spot there was black plastic showing through the sand. I remember Brian yelling, "Today is going to be a great day! All the black plastic is showing." I later learned that this was a good sign that the beach was totally eroded, exposing the hard sand where we could uncover some great finds.
The beach sand was as black as coal, which I thought rather odd because I had never seen black sand before. Back then I was fairly new to the beaches, and I'm afraid my expression must have suggested that Brian was nuts. However, I soon discovered that there were coins everywhere! It seemed as if every step we took there were coins or pieces of old silver jewelry to find. I remember Brian finding an old diamond ring, and telling myself, "I think that I am going to enjoy detecting the ocean beaches." We found a lot of silver that day. Unfortunately, I didn't find any gold, but Brian found a few pieces. Well, that was the beginning of my experience with nor'easter storms.
This article wouldn't be complete without a little bit of Atlantic City history. Happy birthday, Atlantic City! Yes, it is 2004, and it has been 150 years since Atlantic City was founded. Long before that, the island was the summer home of the Lenni Lenape Indians, who named the island Absegami. After a time the name was transformed into present-day Absecon Island. In 1854, the city was incorporated.
Atlantic City's inexpensive train access allowed thousands to flee the hot cities and enjoy cool summer pleasures at the seashore. Services included dining, lodging, and amusements for all ages. Also offered were loads of entertainment, and most of all, the famous Miss America beauty pageant, which has been held there every year since 1921.
The first boardwalk was opened on June 26, 1870. The nearly 4-1/8 mile walk was the first of its kind to be built in the U.S. In 1872 came the nation's first postcards that incorporated colorful views of Atlantic City. From the 1880s to the 1940s, Atlantic City was a major vacation resort. During World War II, it served as a training site for military recruits, and a recovery and rehabilitation center for wounded soldiers.
The legalization of gambling led to the first casino there, Resorts International, which opened in 1978. Within a decade, a dozen casinos were open, and the number of visitors had grown from 700,000 to over 33 million! By the year 2000, the city's tax base had skyrocketed to over $6.7 billion. Think how many people have hit those beaches, and of what they left behind!
When I went to Boardwalk Hall for their kickoff birthday celebration, they had a lot of old pictures on display. Sammy Davis, Jr. was shown sitting on a famous beach called "Chicken Bone Beach" with his friends. Older photos showed horses and buggies on the beaches, with thousands upon thousands of people strolling on the boardwalk or lying on the beaches. One of the biggest attractions was Steel Pier, with its famous diving horse. The horse and rider would dive into a 4' deep pool of water. That is probably why I once found an old horseshoe on the beach while detecting.
There were famous singers and night club acts that drew masses of people, and the appeal of the beaches was too much to resist. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis first appeared together onstage at the 500 Club. It was definitely the place for people to see and be seen. Scores more stories could be told, but I'm sure you get the idea. Millions of people have been coming to the Jersey Shore since the late 1800s to vacation, swim in the cool waters, lie on the sandy white beaches, and gamble in the casinos, and during much of that time, metal detectors didn't even exist. Everything that was lost remained lost. Just imagine the countless silver coins, jewelry, service medals, spoons, tokens, toy soldiers, and yes, those pesky .22 cartridge cases from the old shooting galleries that cluttered the beaches... just waiting to be found!
The biggest drawback of detecting in Atlantic City is the unusual high iron content of the beaches. After a storm you can see piece of iron everywhere, and you've got to use the right detectors and techniques to compensate for all of the ferrous content. My own choice is Minelab machines, which can rule out the iron and work very well under these difficult conditions. A total of seven amusement piers have lined the beaches. Over time, they have deteriorated, burned down, or been wiped out by storms, especially the hurricane of 1944. As a result, all of their iron debris has made its way to the beaches.
In fact, the iron deposits got so bad that the decision was made to replenish the beaches. I remember last summer, when I was metal detecting, I found many nails that looked like whittled-down darts. When other people enjoying their time at the beach asked what I was finding, I showed them the nails and told them they should wear a good pair of water shoes so that they wouldn't get injured. Brian himself escaped a tetanus shot when a nail got lodged in his water shoe.
I have only been searching the beaches since 1996, and I have learned a lot about detecting from Brian, who has been at it now for 27 years. He helped me to pick out a good detector and scoop, and also taught me the geomorphology of the beaches, the significance of their features and conditions. I also had the privilege of sharing four years of my detecting trips with a very special guy known simply as Beachcomber. He is an electronics genius and a great teacher and friend, and has shared a wealth of tips and "trade secrets." I couldn't write this article without them!
Thanks to good friends like these, I have so many wonderful memories, and I've learned much that can only be gained with good guidance and experience. I've learned about reading the beaches... what the winds and waves mean to a surf hunter... and when the best time is to hit the beaches. With this knowledge I have been able to make better finds. Once I was under the impression that anyone with a metal detector could just go out and find all the good stuff. How wrong I was! It takes a lot of know-how and the correct equipment to get the most out of this hobby. It also takes a willingness to learn from others and to make the best of challenging situations. Looking for cuts, troughs, depressions, ripples, pebbles, and shells is only part of it. You must have a very positive attitude and, above all, enjoy your day.
I remember when I first started to hunt with Beachcomber. Every time we would go detecting he would find gold, and I wouldn't. I used to get so upset and discouraged. Not until I learned how to make a grid pattern and learned the geomorphology of the beaches did I reap the rewards. However, as I gained experience and honed my skills, I found that I could hunt with the best of them. Every time we would hear of an approaching nor'easter we would get excited like kids in a candy store. We knew the beaches would be littered with silver and gold, just waiting for us to come and pluck it out of the sand.
Since then, my house had become known as "Detector Central." Everyone calls to say, "Hey, a nor'easter is coming! Where are we going to head to first?" On other occasions, someone who has been out hunting in a storm may call to say, "You have to go to this beach, it's spewing silver everywhere!" I remember times when Brian has called and suggested that we return to areas where we have found a lot of silver before. Once we each recovered around 60 silver coins in one day. The very next night Brian, Mark, and I went to the same exact spot and it was as if Mother Nature had replenished the beach all over again. Our pouches were full, and at 3:00 a.m. we decided to call it quits. Before we left, a bike cop came by, asked what we were doing, and was shocked that we could find stuff like that on the beach.
By the way, there was a beach located about one block north of where we were detecting that the guys used to call Half Dollar Beach because of all the 50¢ pieces found there. I had only recently learned about it, and regretted not having known sooner.
I wrote an article awhile back called "A Tale of Two Stars," about the time that my friend Mark and I went to the beach after five days of severe northeasterly winds. The beach was down to the hardpan, and we both found five gold rings and a lot of silver. The one ring that I found proved to be a flawless blue star sapphire. Another time, while detecting with Brian, I found my first diamond ring, which has been my find of a lifetime so far! I remember just last winter pulling out four Walking Liberty halves, one right after the other, following a storm.
The point I am making is that Atlantic City has been a totally awesome place to detect. Pretty soon this will all be a memory, one that we will cherish for the rest of our lives. They have already replenished about half of the beaches with new sand and will be covering Atlantic City all the way through Ventnor. Last weekend, after a storm, we spent three days searching the same areas and found so much silver that it boggles the mind.
I met a guy about two years ago named Harry (alias Buff Man) who has done well on our beaches. After about seven of us had pounded a particular area, Harry hunted it and found a beautiful vintage platinum & diamond engagement ring. You will probably see it next April in the Best Finds of 2004. In that area alone, we have both found four exceptional rings that we don't plan on parting with anytime soon.
Harry is a truly hilarious man. I refer to him as "Buff Man" because of all the Buffalo nickels that he finds. (I know this article will crush him, because he probably thinks that I am talking about his physique!) About two years ago Harry was fortunate enough to find himself in the right place at the right time. They were digging beneath the boardwalk, then dumping the sand and smoothing it out on the beaches. The coins that he found kept him busy for about a year!
As I said, this is the "Last Hurrah" for us all. True, there could be some big storms to take away all the new sand, but a maintenance contract calls for replenishment of the beaches in this same area every three years. So, that's that.
Nevertheless, I'll never forget the great finds that we have made, or the friends I've met along the way. Together, we've had the chance to enjoy this great hobby of metal detecting at the Atlantic City Beaches, and even though it is like losing an old friend, the memories will keep a smile on my face for all time.