Captain Joseph Azzolina

On April 15, we observed the 12th anniversary of the death of Capt. Joseph Azzolina, a businessman, municipal and state leader, Highlands native, military officer, newspaper publisher and so much more. Continued sympathy to his family on this anniversary.

A piece of History on a busy bridge

Changing the name of the bridge that spans the Shrewsbury River between Highlands and Sea Bright was clinched in 2011, when the state General Assembly approved Senate Bill 2073. The bill had already passed the Senate offering a change of name to honor the late Highlands native, Middletown businessman, and state Assembly, Senator, and United States Naval Captain, Joseph A. Azzolina.

It was old friends from even before they worked together at the Senate level who took the lead in the action to honor Capt. Azzolina. Sen. Sean Kean knew Azzolina from his reputation as an Assemblyman beginning in 1966, then later worked with him in the Assembly when Kean was elected to his first term in 2002. Senator Joe Kyrillos, who retired in 2018 and was honored himself when the Red Bank Bridge was named in his honor, knew Azzolina when the latter owned The Courier weekly newspaper in Kyrillos’ home town, and the young then assemblyman dropped off his own press releases for publication.

Azzolina lived in Middletown with his family, and was a successful businessman, growing his family’s first business on Miller St. to the Food Basket supermarket on the main street Highlands, then to the Food Circus in Middletown, eventually the heart of the Foodtown Enterprises still in the family today. He knew the Kyrillos family well. Kyrillos always commented on how his friend Joe loved New Jersey especially Monmouth County, and how the businessman’s immigrant parents had started their own small market, the one on Miller St. in Highlands, shortly after arriving from their native Italy.

Sen. Jennifer Beck had worked side by side with Azzolina when he was an Assemblyman and she was his chief of staff. But Beck had worked with and known Azzolina even earlier and always referred to him as her mentor. She spoke of his special affinity for the Bayshore and at the time of introducing the bill to name the bridge, said how honored and humbled the Sailor would have been at the honor paid to his memory.

The new construction was designed to eliminate the bridge openings that backed up traffic along the state highway. The construction on the higher bridge included high railings, putting an end to the summer ritual of daring Highlands kids who reveled at jumping from its highest peaks to the channel below, a ritual a young Azzolina also pursued. Yet even the new higher bridge could not quite put an end to traffic tie-ups on sunny days when everyone wants to go to the National Recreation Area at Sandy Hook.

Trying to put a Sunday early afternoon ride along Ocean Avenue in Sea Bright into a Hidden History context is only possible because of a recent 45-minute trip from the Sea Bright side of the Highlands to the Rumson bridges. There was plenty of time to reminisce about the 1950s when the same trip at the same time on a sunshiny-y weekend day would have taken three minutes, maybe five if keeping below the speed limits.

The new and beautiful Captain Joseph Azzolina bridge is successful in its purpose of keeping boat traffic sailing smoothly along the Shrewsbury River. No longer do bridge tenders stroll out, close the gates and stop traffic, to reappear again in the same slow pace to reverse the pattern and let vehicular traffic pass, once the boats are safely through. There was even a time when the bridge opened on demand of the river traffic; that was improved somewhat when openings were changed to twice an hour and even boats had to occasionally wait or improve their own arrival timing at the bridge.

The old Highlands-Sea Bright Bridge opened to allow marine traffic to pass. But for the vehicular traffic on the state highway between the two communities, the new improved situation only works if drivers are courteous, polite, and intelligent. On a recent weekend this was a tough combination to find.

Heading towards Rumson from Middletown along Route 36 at 1 p.m. on a July Sunday seemed like it would be a quick trip. But once the vehicle rounded the last curve before Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, it was evident the Oceanic Bridge in Locust would have been the longer but better option.

Traffic in the ‘through’ lane, the one NOT heading into Sandy Hook, was moving slowly but steadily, but one wonders why the lane heading into Sandy Hook was stopped. West of the bridge, there had been two signs posted indicating the park was closed. There was plenty of opportunity for drivers to choose other options rather than continue across the bridge, options that included going under the bridge, into the wonderful town of Highlands, and visiting a river beach…same water, same beautiful sand, simply a lot quieter, and much calmer. Far better than sitting in a car with impatient kids, angry drivers, and no beach in sight for an afternoon’s enjoyment. Another pleasant option could be going down into Buttermilk Valley and perhaps stopping at Hartshorne Park for a walk through the woods or heading back to Atlantic Highlands for a stroll through the Yacht Harbor. Or up the hill either to the magnificent Twin Lights or via Portland Road to see the newly renovated defense site complete with that huge gun from the Battleship New Jersey (and where the temperature inside the battery hovers somewhere in the ‘70s!).

Yet the cars were at a stop at the top of the bridge all waiting to get into Sandy Hook… for what? To turn around and head back? Didn’t drivers see signs saying the park was closed? To visit the Sandy Hook Lighthouse? Getting to Twin Lights would take less time, offer more spectacular views, and include a sensational museum full of great history and artifacts. Does anyone even know a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient from the Spanish-American War was once a lighthouse keeper here?

It was about the middle of the bridge where the rudeness showed up. Among all those cars NOT going to Sandy Hook lane were half a dozen drivers who WERE going to Sandy Hook, but knew they could move faster in the opposite lane and cut in at the last minute. Forget about the anger that caused; the stopping it created in BOTH lanes, the near misses, and the language children shouldn’t be hearing. Think of the idiocy of it. Why would you still try so hard to cut into a lane heading to where the Park folks were going to turn you back anyway? Even the smarter folks who made that apparently illegal turn at the end of the bridge to head back toward Highlands didn’t impede traffic as much.

But something happened to drivers on the other side of the bridge, once the vehicles going to Sandy Hook were out of the way. Suddenly, they seemed nicer, calmer, politer. The cars coming off the Hook…turned back by rangers who advised them once again the signs were telling the truth…the park really was closed to beachgoers…..had to get into that lane of traffic heading through Sea Bright. But they were waiting in line for a break, waiting patiently in line for a break. And they got it. Drivers continuing to Sea Bright from Highlands began to cooperate with the outgoing Hook cars; they were taking turns, the way it should be done! One car would continue the road, the next car would pause to enable a car leaving the Hook to blend in, then another road car would proceed, then a Hook car would blend in. Alternating, one car at a time. There were hand waves, signs of thanks, even smiles. It worked! Alternating cars actually worked! No more foul language, angry looks, instead, smiles, signs of appreciation. Life was getting better.

Because of the added traffic, the situation continued slowly along Ocean Avenue, but steadily moving with no horn blowing, no fist shakes, nothing but peaceful driving. What’s more, drivers were not only stopping at cross streets to enable other cars to get out, they were even stopping to allow those leaving the ‘rocks’ to cross safely. More waves, more thanks, more smiles.

For the drivers, there was time to enjoy the unique houses along the Strip. Sadly, these are not the gracious old Victorian mansions that provided many a fire drill for the volunteers in the Highlands, Sea Bright, Rumson, Atlantic Highlands and Navesink fire companies in the ‘50s and ‘60s when alarms sounded in the middle of the night and these volunteers rushed out to ‘save the fireplace’ and surrounding homes. But they are magnificent new dwellings, both single and multi-family, well-kept, attractive, and a credit to Sea Bright.

The twice hourly bridge closure at the Rumson bridge slowed traffic somewhat, but people didn’t seem to mind so much. At that point, there were walkers to watch, cyclists to see, and motorcyclists who carefully wended their way creating their own lane but safely moving forward. And when there was some type of emergency in the north end of Sea Bright requiring police from the center of town, cars moved quickly and safely to the sides of the road to create a lane for the police cars to pass.

Ocean Avenue is the same width it was 60 years ago. The ocean is still the same, albeit not visible because of the higher sea wall. The land side view is different, and the river is still vibrant to see in many areas. Actually, driving slowly along the Strip can truly be an enjoyable experience, once angry and frustrated drivers realize it doesn’t get them there any faster, any happier, or any safer, than simply accepting how popular we’ve become and enjoying the ride.


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