As a young boy growing up in Bayonne, there was never a shortage of things to do. The town was full of adventure for those willing to go out and find it. You had to be willing to get off the beaten track. Sad to say, but there are many people who have lived in Bayonne all their lives and still haven’t explored every nook and cranny. Being the adventurous sort, I’m sure I covered every inch. Because Bayonne is a peninsula, most of our young adventures involved the waterfront.
Each year, when spring gave way to the heat of summer and school let out and the days grew longer, I’d find myself leaving home at first light and not returning until well after dark. Many long summer days were spent in pursuit of blue crabs at a mysterious Bayonne locale known as “the Millions.” My first encounter with the Millions occurred when I was only a boy of six or seven. My favorite uncle, Jim Lantry, had occasion to visit the Bayonne Municipal Landfill, also known as the dumps. The landfill was crisscrossed with a network of dirt roads that Uncle Jimmy thought would be a great place to let me drive, so I climbed on his lap and away we went. One of the roads at the back of the dump opened onto a vast expanse of land that ended in a rough beach that was littered with derelict barges and vessels. At high tide, the waves of the Upper New York Bay lapped around the rotting hulks, making a perfect breeding ground for crabs.
Years later I would visit the Millions with my friend George Gavrun. Early in the morning we would depart from his home on Prospect Avenue for a day of crabbing. George was able to rig his bike with a trailer so that he could transport dozens of crab traps over city streets and dirt trails down to the Millions. His bike looked like one of those transport vehicles from Southeast Asia you’d see in the pages of National Geographic. I don’t know how he rode with all that stuff attached. I usually brought food and some kind of refreshments since there were no stores or anything else down the Millions. (Like “down the Shore,” that’s how we referred to it.) A typical day involved getting there early. We’d pick out a spot on an old barge and set our traps, which we baited with chicken wings. We’d toss the nets in and set up a few bushel baskets for what was certain to be a huge haul.
My first encounter with crabs was not a pleasant one. Years earlier—I must have been about 5 or 6—I was with my stepfather at Jumbo’s Tavern on Evergreen Street. After a few sodas and the obligatory game of shuffle bowl, I wandered into the kitchen. Being curious, I reached over the top of a sink to find out what was inside. I was rewarded with a crab snagging my finger, which caused me to run out into the barroom screaming, with the crab still attached. I’m still afraid of crabs.
After a while we’d pull the traps to find them loaded with crabs. George would carefully examine the haul, keeping only the large ones and tossing back females. He was totally unafraid of getting pinched and he had the scars to prove it. The bushel baskets would quickly fill up. On occasion, we’d light a fire and cook lunch—hot dogs or canned stew or something. One time, I found a dead fish lying around so I put it in a bun, slathered it with mustard and passed it off to George. He almost took a bite but stopped short when he saw the fish’s eyes staring back at him from the bun.
Down the Millions, there was little shelter from the sun. Occasionally a shack made from old wooden pallets would appear or a tarp being used as a makeshift tent popped up, suggesting that there was probably nighttime activity down there, but I visited only during the day. The shoreline was littered with flotsam and jetsam that floated in with the tides and floated out just as quickly. Junk from the landfill would commingle with the debris, and occasionally I’d find something of interest. Everything was covered in this black tar stuff that was a sure giveaway to your mom that you’d been near the water.
At certain times of the year we’d be able to catch soft-shell crabs, when the crabs began to molt. We’d catch them with a scap net along the sides of the barges and pilings. They were really a treat to eat when properly prepared. We preferred them breaded and fried served on toast.
Once the baskets were nearing their capacity, we’d load up our bikes and head back to George’s house. On Saturday evenings, we’d attend 5:30 Mass at Mt. Carmel and then return to cook the crabs along with a huge amount of linguini. The table would be covered with newspaper and we’d all eat crab until there was a mountain of shells in the middle of the table.
Biking and BBs
I remember learning to drive my friend Rich Zytko’s motorcycle on Hook Road and down the Millions. Its dirt trails and remote location made for a perfect place to learn. We would also use bow and arrows and BB guns to try and shoot rabbits and rats, although I don’t recall actually hitting any. On occasion you’d see wood ducks, wild turkeys, and pheasants as well. There was even a rare harbor seal sighting.
No one seems to know where the Millions got its name. I once asked my father and he referenced what he called the “Million Dollar Pier.” Trouble is, there wasn’t any pier and there certainly wasn’t anything worth a million dollars. In the early part of the last century much ado was made about the Million Dollar Pier being built in Atlantic City by John Young. One of the attractions was a daily Deep Sea Net Haul at the end of the pier. Tourists would stare in amazement at the assortment of creatures brought up in the net. Perhaps someone appropriated the name “Million Dollar Pier” for Bayonne’s own prolific fishing, with the years shortening the name to “the Millions.” Perhaps the reference is to the millions of crabs you could catch. The origin of the name, like the Millions itself, is lost to antiquity. The Bayonne Golf Club now stands where the Millions once were. Thankfully, public access is preserved along with areas for fishing and crabbing. Access is much easier as well. You can take the public walkway at the northeast corner of South Cove Commons. No longer do you have to tramp through the dumps, over dirt trails, and around piles of junk. But I have to say, I kind of miss the tar and the traps, the fires and the flotsam, the aura, aromas, and memories-in-the-making that was the Millions.—BLP