A gentle rain falls.
The soft sounds of raindrops cascading off the leaves to the forest floor is all that can be heard on a short walk through a wooded area off Weatherby Road and Route 49 between Belleplain and Upper Township.
As the drops fall, one by one, they coalesce, trickling over the ground, forming a small stream and gently running off through the woods.
These are the headwaters of the Tuckahoe River. The name comes from the Lenni Lenape and means “where deer are shy,” said Lois Broomell, genealogist at the Cape May County Museum.
Starting out as a small stream in the woods, the headwaters of the Tuckahoe flow through a spillway under Route 49 by the Head of the River Church and run east, forming the boundary of Cape May and Atlantic counties, as it empties into the Great Egg Harbor Bay.
But while it’s a small river, flowing only about 12 miles from head to mouth, it’s big in life and history.
Just a short distance from the church along Head of the River Road on the Atlantic County side lay the remains of the Aetna Furnace.
Constructed in 1816 and active to 1832, the furnace once employed as many as 200 men to make the bar iron spikes and bolts used in ship construction. Portions of the furnace and its waterwheel can still be seen along the river.
A little farther down, Diluzio’s Farm and Market, is run by Ginny Chiappini. It was the first farm in Cape May County to use irrigation for farming, Chiappini said.
“My father, Vincent DiLuzio, came here from Italy and bought the property at the end of the Great Depression,” Chiappini said.
Irrigation was critical to the farm’s success, she said.
Chiappini and her husband, Eddie, continued to carry on the family farm after her father died in 1985.
She continues even after her husband died in 2000, refusing to sell despite offers.
“I’m a farm girl,” she said. “I’ve lived here my whole life. The farm is my purpose in life. I learned to swim in the river, we’ve held family events here.”
It’s not about the money, she said, but holding onto her family’s history.
“Selling it will never happen,” she said.
The Scenic Riverview Campground on Route 49 is the only campground in Cape May County on the banks of a river, said co-owner Anthony D’Abundo.
He has operated the campground for 22 years, and some of its residents have been here longer than his stewardship.
“It’s quiet and people love it along the river, where they can see bald eagles and other wildlife,” he said.
One resident of the campground has hummingbird feeders set up. At least two dozen ruby-throated hummingbirds fluttered about for their turns at the feeders on a recent summer day.
“One day it looked like a cloud was over the trailer,” said D’Abundo. “There must have been over 100 hummingbirds flying around the site. I had never seen anything like it before.”
Farther along the river, nestled at the foot of the Route 50, sits Ed Bixby’s property. It has been in his family for generations.
Bixby has had a houseboat on the river for 65 years and spends more time on the houseboat in the winter than the summer.
“It’s part of my life,” Bixby said of the river. “The wildlife, the eagles, I’ve seen it all. Fishing, spearing eels, catching muskrat to sell the meat — I made my living off the river.”
On the other side of the river, on Mosquito Landing Road in Tuckahoe, is Yank’s Marine, established in 1969 by John Yank, who runs it with his wife, Bette Jean.
Yank’s Marine is a shipbuilding and vessel-repair business that sits on 30 acres along the Tuckahoe River. The first two passenger ferries ever built in New Jersey were built here last year, and they will build three more for New York City, Bette Jean Yank said.
John Yank grew up on the river, living in the house adjacent to the boatyard that was built in 1804.
Bette Jean said her husband grew up here, and “doesn’t want to leave.”
Passing farther down the river, most of the Tuckahoe is surrounded by the Lester McNamara Wildlife Management Area. Bordering on the Great Egg Harbor River to the north, the 13,000-acre WMA, now called the Tuckahoe Fish and Wildlife Management Area, completely encompasses the remaining length of the Tuckahoe River into the Great Egg Harbor Bay.
The original 12,000 acres of the WMA were bought in 1933 through funds from hunting and fishing licenses, said Kathy Clark, of the state Division of Fish and Wildlife. It’s home to nesting bald eagles, ospreys and other wildlife.
The Tuckahoe ends its winding journey by flowing into the waters of the Great Egg Harbor Bay adjacent to the B.L. England power generating station in Beesleys Point, Upper Township, where boaters, and personal watercraft users can be seen motoring in and out of the river mouth.