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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Did George Freeth surf in Atlantic City in 1903?

It is commonly assumed that the Hawaiian born, George Freeth made his first appearance surfing on the mainland of the United States in 1907. The Hawaiian Star heralded his departure on July 3rd of that year with the headline proclaiming


On July 22nd of 1907, the Santa Monica Daily Outlook commented

SURF RIDERS HAVE DRAWN ATTENTIONMany people daily gather to watch the Hawaiians in the surf at Venice…

Although not named, the “Hawaiians” that the Daily Outlook speaks of are most likely George Freeth and fellow Hawaiian, Kenneth Winter. An August 2nd article in the Hawaiian Gazette title “FREETH SURFING AT VENICE” mentions

“Freeth and Kenneth Winter tried surf-riding at Long Beach, but found the rollers there unsatisfactory, finally making a contract with Manager Hanna at Venice. There, exhibitions are given by Freeth every afternoon…”

But this may not have been the first time that George Freeth surfed on the mainland of the United States. One week prior to his departure in 1907 a curious article appeared in the June 28th edition of the Hawaiian Gazette that might place George Freeth surfing in Atlantic City, New Jersey as early as 1903. The headline read “Freeth Will Ride Atlantic Rollers” and goes on to claim “Freeth has the privilege of being able to boast that he is the only man living who has ever surfed on the Atlantic coast.”. The article goes on to tell the tale of a young George Freeth shaping his own board and riding the surf at Atlantic City, New Jersey.

“With a hatchet and jackknife he fashioned this into a surfboard and again sought the sad sea waves. Far out he swam and then, among the breakers, began to have a real swim, pretty soon he noticed a rowboat coming out his way but he was having too good a time to pay any attention. Pretty soon the boat with four life-savers aboard got abreast of where he was standing on his head on the slab.
“Here, young fellow, you can’t do that here,” shouted one of the rowers.
Freeth saw that they were speaking to him and just to show that he could do it, he balanced on the board again and wiggled his toes in their direction.
“Get in out of here.” Continued the life-saver, “no one is allowed to come this far out; we can’t spare all the men on the beach just to look after you.”
“You run along back to the girls,” said George, “This looks pretty good to me out here. I think I’ll swim out a little farther where I won’t keep hitting my knees,” and Freeth started to push his slab in the direction of Ireland.
That made the life-savers mad and they began to chase George. Three of them tried to corner him but he dived under them and splashed in their faces with his feet as he passed. Then he caught a roller and surfed past them towards the beach. He did all kinds of stunts, zigzagged between the pier legs, and had the time of his life, but he had to come out sometime and when he did the whole beach police force was laying for him. What they did to him George doesn’t tell and it would be unfair to say here, but he didn’t surf at Atlantic City anymore.”

This article does not give a date for when this event happened but it does note that Freeth boarded a steamer, “rounded the Horn” and “was given a discharge in Philadelphia”. The only time Freeth had left the Hawaiian archipelago prior to his 1907 California visit, was sometime during the summer of 1903.

From the August 18th 1903 Evening Bulletin, Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii;

“George Freeth, son of Mrs. E.K. Freeth, of Emma Street, won the fancy and high diving and the 100-yards swimming race in the tournament at West Chester, Pa., on Independence Day. Young Freeth is an employee of one of the local telephone companies of that place.”

Roughly one hundred miles from West Chester, Pennsylvania, the world-famous seaside resort of Atlantic City, New Jersey would not have been too far away for the young George Freeth to visit.

There is no author attributed to the June 28th story in the Hawaiian Gazette. Possibly it was Alexander Hume Ford who is credited with the two photos appearing along side the article. But until a secondary piece of evidence comes to light supporting the claim in the 1907 article, we can only take this unnamed writer at his written word.

Did George Freeth surf in Atlantic City in 1903? It certainly seems possible.