Many Presidents Found New Jersey Beautiful, Until Trump

Maybe he just values the sight of dollar signs more.

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New Jersey
Fields at the Sourland Mountain Preserve in New Jersey — a state at risk from an off-shore drilling proposal by the Trump Administration. Photos: Nick Muscavage.

When most people think of New Jersey, they wrongly associate the state’s industrial north with the rest of its land.

What those people don’t realize is that the state has been a favorite retreat for many people in the public eye, from politicians to artists.

With fall fleeting and winter around the corner, I took the opportunity to check out a nature preserve in the center of the Garden State. Sourland Mountain Preserve, a densely wooded park with rocky pathways and precarious protruding boulders scattered about, is located in Hillsborough, in Somerset County.

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At 568 feet high, the Sourland Mountains are hardly mountains at all but rather a long ridge extending through portions of Central Jersey. According to local history, the region, with its boulders of many sizes and shapes, provided hideouts for runaway slaves during the early 1800s.

Playwright and Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill lived in the Sourland Mountains. It is said that Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and painter George Bellows spent time in the mountains, too.

New Jersey
A trail in the Sourland Mountain Preserve.

As I walked trails that once inspired some of history’s most notable playwrights, I pondered the fact that New Jersey’s natural beauty has also attracted, and continues to attract, some of the most powerful people in the country.

John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, once found refuge in the Sourland Mountains, fleeing from British forces. A metal sign painted blue stands in East Amwell, marking the rock formation where Hart took cover. According to the Daily Beast, Franklin Pierce became the first known president to vacation in New Jersey when, in the 1850s, he and his wife stayed on the state’s most southern tip, Cape May, an idyllic coastal region with white sands and blue-green waters.

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At the time, a president vacationing in New Jersey created quite a stir. According to the Daily Beast article, the New York Times issued an opinion piece in which its editors quipped that the nation “lost its president.” They wrote that America was at a “critical moment” because “President Pierce is at Cape May” and “might as well be at Cape Horn” in Africa.

New Jersey went on to attract such additional sitting presidents as James Buchanan and Ulysses S. Grant. After being shot, President James Garfield was moved from the heat of DC to the shores of New Jersey, where he died in Elberon, a little more than a mile away from the plot that would later become President Woodrow Wilson’s summer White House. Today, President Donald Trump frequents New Jersey where he stays at his private golf club in Bedminster. The golf course is about a half-hour drive to the Sourland Mountains and nowhere near the sea, the preference of most vacationing presidents.

New Jersey
A boulder at the Sourland Mountain Preserve.

The distance between this president’s summer White House and Atlantic Ocean can be seen as a metaphor for some of his policies. In April, Trump signed an executive order that could permanently change the seascape that the presidents before him so fervently sought. As reported in The Washington Post, Trump’s executive order aims to expand offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, “as well as assess whether energy exploration can take place in marine sanctuaries in the Pacific and Atlantic.”

In mid-October, LLOG Exploration Co. reported an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that some reports are calling the largest since 2010’s BP oil fiasco, although the latest spill is just a fraction of the amount spilled seven years prior. It’s incidents like these, though, that are making environmentalists fired up about Trump’s executive order targeting the ocean.

Dubbed “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy,” the action reverses one by President Barack Obama protecting parts of the Atlantic Ocean from development and drilling. It makes a million acres of federal waters eligible for oil and gas leasing in a region that stretches from Massachusetts to Virginia.

Perhaps Trump doesn’t see in the New Jersey coast what many presidents saw before him. Or maybe he just values the sight of dollar signs more.