Saving the Great Swamp: New film is a reminder that you can beat the big boys

Crowd listens to Q & A at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Crowd listens to Q & A at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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jetport, great swamp film

 

By Kevin Coughlin

It’s hard to envision what Greater Morristown would be like today if the Port Authority had succeeded a half-century ago in transforming the Great Swamp into the region’s fourth major airport.

It’s even harder to imagine a grass-roots effort, generations before social media, actually defeating such an entrenched colossus as the Port Authority.

Dillard Kirby addresses MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Dillard Kirby addresses MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

That nine-year fight is remembered in an hour-long documentary that premiered on Saturday before a large and enthusiastic audience at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown.

Any good story needs heroes and villains, and Saving the Great Swamp, Battle to Defeat the Jetport has several.

The prime villain: Austin Tobin, the late executive director of the Port of New York Authority, who insisted that the Great Swamp was the best place for a new airport, even though it lay just beyond the Port Authority’s jurisdiction.

His push for the airport was premised partly on the flawed notion that jets from Europe would need to land there before continuing across the U.S.  One of his prime allies was New Jersey Gov. Robert Meyner, who with Tobin continued pushing for the Great Swamp airport even after it appeared to be dead.

The heroes included a politician, a philanthropist and a housewife.

Congressman Peter Frelinghuysen Jr., father of present Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.), went toe-to-toe with Meyner.

Marcellus Hartley Dodge, owner of the Remington Arms company, gifted land to the Department of the Interior,  leading to creation of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and placing a roadblock in the Port Authority’s way.

Helen Fenske had lesser means, but her Green Village kitchen became a potent weapon in the battle. It was the hub for the volunteer campaign that was crucial to the battle.

Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin

Dillard Kirby addresses MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Susan Fenske McDonough at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Scott Morris enjoys joke from Nicolas Platt after MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Scott Morris and Nicolas Platt after MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Larry Fast fields questions at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Director Scott Morris at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen addresses MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Major funder Dillard Kirby speaks at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.) with Walker Kirby and Finn Wentworrth at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.) and Walker Kirby at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
From left, Hans Dekker of the Community Foundation of NJ, Chris Daggett of the Dodge Foundation, and Ruth Dekker, at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Co-producer Larry Fast, Morris Tourism Director Leslie Bensley, Associate Producer Phyllis Wald-Fast and Karl Fenske, at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Lincoln Norton, Ashley Wilcox Platt, Harding Mayor Nicolas Platt, and Lauren Remington Platt at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Phyllis Wald-Fast and Adrienne Kirby at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
David Welsh, Finn Wentworth at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Tom and Mindy Fast, with Dorothea Fast, mother of Tom and Larry Fast, at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Co-producer Larry Fast and Associate Producer Phyllis Wald-Fast, his wife, at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Rachel Davis and her dad, Karl Fenske, at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Director Scott Morris, Co-Producer Larry Fast and Hans Dekker of the Community Foundation of NJ at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Larry Fast and Scott Morris at MPAC screening of their jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Co-producer Larry Fast with Cam Cavanaugh, author of book upon which the jetport movie is based. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Audience member Geri Silk asks question at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Crowd listens to Q & A at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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“She loved to throw parties like this,” Helen’s son, Morristown attorney Karl Fenske, said at a V.I.P. gathering before Saturday’s free screening.  “She’d buttonhole you at parties like this, and say, ‘I know just the thing for you to do. We’re going to go to the Great Swamp and photograph spotted salamanders!'”

Karl’s sister, Susan Fenske McDonough, called the movie “beautifully done,” and agreed that their mother would have eaten up this event.

Larry Fast and Scott Morris at MPAC screening of their jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Larry Fast and Scott Morris at MPAC screening of their jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“She would be working the room,” Susan said. “One person can make a difference, which we saw with mom. She was just a catalyst and a bully, a person with a mission. She didn’t mind pushing people’s buttons.”

As a 9-year-old, Karl learned a lot at his mother’s side: How to cook, how to cultivate the press, and especially, the value of citizen involvement.

“Everybody makes a big deal about her. But she was just a lightning rod. She’d get people interested, and they would do the work,” Karl said.

The only downside to the evening: It was “a little sad, a little wistful,” seeing old pictures of his mom on the giant screen.

“I miss her. She was a great inspiration to me, and a lot of other people.”

‘THIS AREA WOULD HAVE BEEN DECIMATED’

The movie was based on a book by Cam Cavanaugh.

“It’s fabulous,” said the author of Saving the Great Swamp: The People, the Power Brokers, and an Urban Wilderness, who lives in Basking Ridge. “It illustrated every page of my book just as I would have wanted.

Director Scott Morris, who produced a PBS special about the restoration of Dick Cavett’s home, said weaving together archival footage, newspaper clipping and interviews for Jetport was a challenge.

The Great Swamp. Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service
The Great Swamp. Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

“Trying to boil down an extremely complex story to an hour film, that was the hardest part. So much happened, there were so many players over nine years. The challenge was to decide what would hold the audience’s interest, and hold it together,” said Morris, a Chatham resident for 25 years.

Morris and his crew shot 30 hours of interviews. Most were done in Harding Mayor Nicolas Platt’s home, Hartley House, where his godfather, Marcellus Hartley Dodge Sr., once lived.

The idea for the film came from a conversation between Platt and co-producer Larry Fast, an avid local historian.

Platt had been giving slideshow presentations about the jetport fight. He put Fast in touch with philanthropist Dillard Kirby.

Kirby and his wife Adrienne were major backers of the documentaries Morristown: Where America Survived and Open Spaces & Historic Places in Morris County.

Dillard Kirby was born in 1959–the year the airport story erupted–and grew up in Chatham, where the jets would have rumbled.

“This whole area would have been decimated. One runway would have stretched to Convent Station, and the other end would have been on Long Hill Road,” Kirby said.

Audience member Geri Silk asks question at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Audience member Geri Silk asks question at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“It’s a local story with national implications. It overlapped three presidents. It was the start of the environmental movement, and Earth Day as we know it.”

Kirby reached out to friends in the philanthropic community, and a dozen of them agreed to contribute, through the nonprofit Community Foundation of New Jersey.

The film took two years to complete. Actress Blythe Danner, who was recommended by Bonnie Monte of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, recorded the narration over two days in early November 2016.

Roger Grange was the cinematographer, and former Long Hill Committeeman Guy Roshto operated a drone for aerial video. Scott Morris’ son, Ben Morris, who is pursuing an advanced degree in music at Rice University, composed the score.

Editing of the film was completed just two days before the premiere.

‘PRETTY SLIM’ ODDS

The odds of beating the Port Authority during the 1960s were “pretty slim,” said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.), whose father, the late Rep. Peter Frelinghuysen Jr., was a key figure in the battle against the jetport. The ultimate triumph was one of the proudest achievements of his father’s congressional career, the congressman said.

It demonstrated the “power of local folks getting organized to oppose the high-handedness of New York and the Port Authority,” Rodney Frelinghuysen said.

Audience members liked what they saw.

Bob Yingling of Harding said it was interesting, after living here for 50 years, “to see on the screen what I heard about as a kid.”

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.) with Walker Kirby and Finn Wentworrth at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.) with Walker Kirby and Finn Wentworrth at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Georgia Van Ryzin saw her sixth grade teacher, Cynthia Robinson, in the movie. “My jaw was dropping thinking what it would be like” with an airport in the Great Swamp, she said.

“We love the Great Swamp,” added Georgia’s husband, Bill Van Ryzin. “We canoe and hike there.”

Co-producer Larry Fast, a former musician who toured with Peter Gabriel, said he was thrilled by the audience reaction.

“They laughed in the right places,” he said.

Now he and Morris will focus on getting their jetport saga aired on PBS.

Although Austin Tobin is the heavy in this drama, he actually is a hero, Nicolas Platt said.

“We owe a great deal of gratitude to the Port Authority of New York for suggesting this area could be 10,000 acres of airport. Without it, there would have been no movement to save something that was not threatened.”

And the Great Swamp now would be a collection of shopping malls instead of a wildlife refuge, Platt speculated.

Kirby said the tale is timeless–and cautionary.

“It’s about the precious, fragile, undeveloped land that we have, and how quickly things can change without ongoing diligence,” he said.

“And it’s about the significance a grass roots effort can have against an organization as powerful as the Port Authority, and the quiet, behind-the-scenes work of everyday citizens and philanthropists combining their efforts to save their community.”

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6 COMMENTS

  1. I have not seen the film yet, but I do hope that credit was also given to Josephine S. Margetts, Assemblywoman of NJ, who was also a major player in saving the Great Swamp.

  2. A very well done and enjoyable film! I certainly understand the need and support the preservation of open spaces. One area of the film I thought was lacking was the portrayal of the port authority. From my understanding the port authority has a jurisdiction of 25 miles from the Statue of Liberty. The Great Swamp and other areas of consideration for the jetport were located beyond their 25 mile jurisdiction. In the film it was mentioned a push was made to increase the 25 mile jurisdiction, but it did not pass. So how would have the port authority claimed land via eminent domain when they didn’t even have the authority to do it? The continued push by the port authority didn’t make any sense to me since it seemed they had no legal leg to stand on. I wish the film would have delved into their thinking and plans further.

  3. I hope that Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen will honor the work of his father, and all the people who worked to save the Swamp, by being an advocate for protecting our global environment. As climate change progresses, the biological integrity of the Great Swamp will be even more at risk. Will he only focus locally(re: bring home $ for projects in the District) or will he realize the danger that Trump’s anti-environment world-view presents to our local resources?

  4. Well written, Kev. To the previous comment, the tickets “sold” out almost as soon as they went on line. The producer and director are marketing the film now. Once they have secured purchasers, it will be available to local audiences. Updates at savingtheGreatSwamp.com

  5. Where/how could I see this film? I’ve moved from Morristown, but how I still love it….and how many times did I tell what I knew of the story of saving the Great Swamp to kids and guests. I’m out of the loop: just reading about the movie for the first time here. How about a showing in Church of the Redeemer? That seems a good fit. I could also bring it to Princeton. A showing at Stony Brook Millstone Watershed? So sorry I was not in that local crowd to watch it together.

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