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Maurice River Recollections Project
River Reaches
Debra A. Barsotti
Research Journalist
Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River
and Its Tributaries, Inc.

The Maurice River Reaches Project - River Recollections
Warrington Hollinger
Keeping Watch on the Tides of Change

"It took from 1950 until now to lose all of this…and all of this," lamented Warrington Hollinger, as his fingers followed the shoreline contours on a map of the lower Maurice River and the Delaware Bay.

Hollinger, a life-long resident of Port Norris, located the spot that was once Elder Point. He pointed to Fowler's Island. "At one time this was all joined together," he said. "There was just a little spot called Taylor's Gut. It started to break open in 1950.You could jump across it."

He pointed to where the Maurice River Cove Range Light once stood. It was replaced by two range lights. The two lights were raised on tripods. They were set up so that when they came into view, they would line up with the channel, helping to direct the river traffic, Hollinger explained.

On his map, Hollinger located the Maurice River reach known as Basket Flats. "That is practically gone now," he said, repeating for emphasis, "Almost all gone."

Hollinger shifted his focus from the navigation charts to the wide windows of his second-story office. He pointed to a spot about 30 feet off the western shore where the top decks of two barges surface above the water. He explained that the State sunk the massive barges decades ago in an attempt to prevent or slow the river's encroachment on the land. Those efforts have been long-abandoned.

"One of these days, you're going to look out and see nothing but the bay," Hollinger said with a note of sadness.

Hollinger lived, worked and raised his family in Port Norris. He has been an active participant in the Maurice River community during its high tides and the low tides. He has concerns about the current conservation trends, fearing that without dedicated efforts to preserve shorelines or channel the waters, there will be no interest in developing the region. He's worried that as the tides lap over the land, any thoughts of investment will be swept away.

Hollinger voiced his concern for the town and its residents, and wondered how they will fare without business or industry in the area. Hollinger doesn't feel optimistic about the future of what was once a thriving community on the Maurice River.

Hollinger's office is on the second floor of a weathered building on the edge of the Maurice River. It sits on what was known as the gas wharf, there at the end of Route 553 or Main Street, Port Norris, at the reach called Peak of the Moon. There are a few structures on the wharf now, but Hollinger can remember what was there in the oyster's heydays.

This building was the US Customs Office and the office of the Division of Shellfisheries.
Cobb's Sail Loft was there. Roy Yates had this building down below. The Newcomb Brothers had a grocery and meat store, which is now torn down. And Hollinger's blacksmith shop was just beyond Newcomb's, now part of the clam factory. On this stretch of the reach, back in the 1920's, there were several businesses - other sail lofts, another blacksmith shop, two hotels and little eateries, a shucking house and a shell grinding facility. There were quite a few houses nearby, too. One of the sets of train tracks stopped right there. The other tracks headed further down river.

When Hollinger was growing up, the town of Port Norris was self-sufficient. "Uptown" was the higher ground where businesses catered to the needs of local families, watermen and those who worked in oyster-related businesses. There were clothing stores, service stations, and the "American Store." There was a lumberyard, a machine shop, a movie theater, and a Ford agency. Emory and Evelyn Davis had a hotel, but it burned down in 1928. There was a telephone exchange building. And the Post Office was in a room behind a pool hall. Trolleys ran though the streets of the town and out beyond - and then back to Bridgeton.

Hollinger's family lived at Main and Market Streets. His dad had one store there - and another in Millville. They were involved in the town's organizations - the Board of Education, the Fire Department, the Post Office. Warrington Hollinger has served as fire chief, and is now the fire commissioner.

Generations of Hollinger's have lived and worked in this part of Cumberland County.
Family members became partners in different endeavors on and near the Maurice River, carving a living for their own families and helping to develop the area for others. They owned businesses and property. Hollinger's father and his uncle became Miller & Hollinger. They had a shucking house, where oysters were culled from their shells by the crews of expert shuckers.  Miller & Hollinger also operated a shell grinding plant, where the discarded shells were pulverized and sold to other businesses.  "That was at Peak of the Moon," Hollinger said, adding that the tract of land along that reach, and as far inland as Main Street, Port Norris, was owned by his family for quite a number of years. "At one time we had 500 Chintoteague Ponies down there," Hollinger said. "And we had a half-mile racetrack there." Hollinger said that the racetrack was as popular as Woodstown's Cowtown Rodeo is today.

"We used to have a big celebration there once a year," Hollinger recalled. He said that winnings were paid out in silver dollars. This was a lively era in the history of Port Norris, and the Hollinger family played an important role in the community. In additon to their business holdings, they operated the rodeo and provided the impetus for community celebrations.

Hollinger said that his uncle brought the ponies to Port Norris. "My uncle went down to Chincoteague and bought 500 ponies. Ponies ran all over that meadow for a number of years," he said. That was back in the mid-1930's. Hollinger said that some of the ponies stayed close to the barns on the property, but most ran loose on the meadow. That era ended when some kind of disease was transmitted through the grasses of the meadows. "It wiped practically all of them out," Hollinger said.

Hollinger described the ebb and flow of Port Norris. The town swelled as the oyster industry brought wealth and opportunity. The Maurice River was the highway for the oyster fleets. Hollinger explained that the hub of activity increased in "the months of R."  That colloquialism referred to the time frame between September through April, all months that have the letter "R." That's when oystermen dredged and harvested the oysterbeds.

Hollinger and Miller owned one of the many shucking houses that operated on both sides of the river. And there on the gas wharf, Hollinger's blacksmith shop served the oyster industry, crafting equipment for the oyster and clam boats. In the late 1940's, Hollinger decided to take the plunge into the oystering business himself. Luck was not with him. Shortly after he made the decision, the oyster industry went into a sharp decline. That's when the parasite MXP destroyed the oysterbeds.

In 1950, when the oysters started to go, Hollinger converted his two boats to use for clamming. It would take even more capital to convert the shucking houses from oyster operations to clam processing. Most of the shucking house owners were not interested in making the investment.
Hollinger said that in Commercial Township only Riggins and Rawlings were willing to convert their facilities. Hollinger related how he and Bobby Riggins started traveling around the country, selling the canned clams. Riggins eventually sold the operation to Gorton's of Gloucester. The company offered Hollinger a chance to relocate. He chose not to leave the Maurice River and the community where his roots were.

Weathering the economics of the river may be even more difficult than weathering some of its storms. But many, including Hollinger, remained steadfast through both situations. Hollinger recalled one weather storm in the 1950's. Some say that the hurricane caused the rush of a tidal wave to flood the region. Hollinger remembered the day. He, Bobby Roberts and Ricky Harris were out in their boat. "The tide just kept coming," Hollinger said. "There was no telling the river from the bank." The trio helped stranded people, transporting them by boat up river, he said. Hurricanes Donna and Hazel also left their trails of destruction: High winds, choppy waters, and flooding rains stranded vehicles and devastated some of the local business establishments. Sometimes winter was just as harsh. Hollinger talked about some of the bitter cold seasons when a freeze over the Maurice River interrupted business as usual and caused damage to the boats that hadn't been moved upriver.

But the ebb in the economic situation was a storm that eventually impacted the life of the town. Hollinger watched as Port Norris faded. The shrinking residential base left rows of empty homes. Businesses that once thrived began to disappear. The oyster-related enterprises, and later, the clamming industry, slipped into the pages of history.

As Hollinger watched, the shorelines of the lower Maurice River disappeared, literally and figuratively. He remembered how he once rode on his "depression tractor" all the way from Port Norris to Mauricetown on high banks that separated the river from the land. These were just memories now. From his perspective there in his office with a view of the Maurice River, Hollinger wonders which would be easier, changing the tides of economics or the tides of the river.

Hollinger keeps his collection of vintage oyster cans on display throughout his office. Hanging on the walls are the detailed chartings of the oyster beds that provided a good living for his neighbors and friends. Hollinger's lifetime of memories and his collections preserve the history and legacy of his Maurice River town.