When Eric San Juan was growing up in Lakehurst, he heard the stories of the Hindenburg disaster, for which his home town is famous. But, he said when he delved more deeply into its past, he realized there was a great story to tell.
"I thought the town was very boring with nothing to do and I couldn't wait to get out in the larger world," said San Juan, a journalist and author, who now works in Lakehurst as an editor for a group of weekly newspapers. "It took maturity to realize something interesting was going on there."
As a news reporter, San Juan said he heard the story of the Blue Comet, a luxurious train that ran through Lakehurst in the early 20th century, and decided to write a story on it for the local newspaper and that led to other stories about Lakehurst.
"By 2005, I had so much material, I realized there was a book here and when I had the time and opportunity I would go back and turn those stories into a book," said San Juan.
That book, "Lakehurst: Barrens, Blimps & Barons," was recently released and covers the colonial era through the American Revolution and into the 19th century when the main industry was iron mining. It traces William Torrey's efforts to turn the town into a center of railroad activity, which helped to build up the population. Later in the 19th century, Lakehurst became a resort town, but by the time of the Depression, the resorts waned and the rails fell by the wayside. That's when the military base, Navy Lakehurst, became prominent and the center of employment for the town, San Juan said.
"The borough hasn't done much changing in the 20th century," he said. "If the town has changed, it's become more of a bedroom community."
Helped in his journey through Lakehurst's history were the Lakehurst Historical Society and the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, who made things easier on San Juan because they already had so much material about the borough. Plus, many residents still living in town have families who lived there for generations.
San Juan said one person in particular who helped give his book the more human element he was looking for was long-time resident Gladys Prosperi, who was in her late 80s or early 90s when he first interviewed her. Sadly, Prosperi, who was very active in the Lakehurst Historical Society and might have been a founding member, passed away before the book was published.
"She saw and remembered a number of things in town and had vivid memories," said San Juan. "She had wonderful stories to tell."
It didn't hurt that many historically significant buildings were still standing, he said, such as Old St. John's Church where the historical society is housed — the oldest Roman Catholic Church in Ocean County — and the large Victorian-style homes across the street from the elementary school, which were part of the Pine Tree Inn, one of the resorts in town 120 years ago.
San Juan said when his first stories about Lakehurst's history were published, he received an explosion of calls from people who wanted to share more stories of the past with him.
"I already have a file set aside with more stories," he said. "I've continued to get calls."
During his research, he said he found out many things he didn't know about Lakehurst, like an old rope factory that burned down had a pipeline, the Russian Embassy was located in town and there was chemical warfare testing at the base, just a mile from where he grew up.
San Juan is hoping his book inspires people to explore the history of their own home towns, especially younger people who will be the ones responsible for making sure our history is preserved for future generations.
"Understanding the roots of your town give you not only a greater appreciation for where you grew up but of the world around you," he said. "Considering its roots and how it came to be brings me closer to where I happen to be. I hope it will inspire young people to write similar books about their towns."
As for Lakehurst today, San Juan said it's a very special place.
"It's one of the few places in the Central Jersey region that still retains the small town charm often only seen in movies," he said. "Lakehurst still has a main street, a downtown, a small population. Everyone knows each other. It's a throwback when everthing's strip malls and subdivisions."
San Juan's latest book is available for purchase through Amazon. He also wrote the book, "Stuff Every Husband Should Know," co-authored, "A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense," and contributed to "Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture."