Morris Guards

Honor Guard
by David Schwartz, Tue, Jun 29, 2010
in Casino Connection, Vol 7, No. 7, July 2010

Col. Morris
Morris Avenue is not named for a city, like its neighbors Brighton and Chelsea, and it's not named after a state, like most streets uptown. Morris Avenue is named for Colonel Daniel E. Morris, the city's first civil engineer and railroad surveyor. He was also the namesake of the Morris Guards, for nearly a century one of Atlantic City's stalwart civic organizations.

Edwin Smith, a member of a volunteer militia in Philadelphia called the State Fencibles Infantry, wanted to establish a similar group in Atlantic City. Working with fellow resident Joseph Shaner, they talked to several prominent local figures and received a particularly warm reception from Morris, who not only promised to support the group financially, but deeded a lot at 12 South New York Avenue to be used as an armory.

The group officially came together on March 12, 1887 in the parlor of the Malatesta Hotel, and was formally chartered on May 11. With 72 volunteers, the Morris Guards relied for their survival on rank-and-file members (who paid dues of 25 cents per week) as well as wealthy benefactors.

First and foremost, the Guards were a military organization. The group held weekly infantry drills at the New York Avenue armory, which was completed in early 1888, and kept in a constant state of preparedness. On the rooftop rifle range, generations of Guardsmen honed their shooting skills.

Soon, more than 100 Atlantic City men were enrolled in the organization, ready to serve their country should the need arise. They didn't have long to wait. In February 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine was rocked by an explosion and sank outside Havana, Cuba. Much of the public assumed that Spain, with whom the U.S. had sparred over Cuban independence, was to blame. On April 23, Congress officially declared war on Spain, and the Morris Guards immediately volunteered their services.

Acting Governor Foster Voorhees (for whom the city and township are named) accepted the offer. The volunteers mustered into the war effort as Company F of the 4th Regiment of New Jersey, U.S. Volunteers.

Lewis T. Bryant served as captain, with C. Stanley Grove and Walter E. Edge his lieutenants. Edge went on to bigger things; the newsman who founded the Atlantic City Daily Press (today the Press of Atlantic City) was elected governor of New Jersey in 1917 and served until 1919, when he became a U.S. senator. He remained on Capitol Hill until 1929, when Herbert Hoover appointed him ambassador to France (1929-1933); from 1944 to 1947, Edge served as governor again.

But neither Edge nor his compatriots found military glory in the Spanish-American War. They were sent to Greenville, South Carolina, in November 1898 (months after most of the U.S. military had already left Cuba), and awaited deployment to the Caribbean. Before they could be transferred, the war ended. The company never fired a shot in combat.

The Guards did more than train to fight, however. According to the group's original charter, they were also to "provide for the social enjoyment and mental and physical improvement of their members generally." For many years, the armory was the entertainment capital of the city, with plays, musicals and minstrel shows put on by members. The Guards also fielded several athletic teams, including basketball and baseball squads, and sponsored sports carnivals featuring everything from judo to gymnastics.

Originally constructed as a wooden building, the armory was rebuilt in 1901 in brick and stone. It had its own bowling alley and a ballroom big enough to host fancy-dress balls.

The Morris Guards also participated in many parades and events; for a while, they served as official escorts for Miss America contestants. At its peak, the organization boasted nearly 1,000 members. It was as much a part of Atlantic City as the Boardwalk and salt water taffy.

Though the Morris Guards did not serve as a unit, hundreds of its members enlisted in World Wars I and II and the Korean War. All told, eight Guardsmen perished in service to their nation in these conflicts. During the Second World War, the Guards conducted a military training program that readied civilians for service in the armed forces.

In the postwar years, the Guards began to decline. By the early 1980s, there weren't enough members to fund the upkeep of the armory, which was sold in 1982 and converted into offices.

Though the group's numbers dwindled, it retained a slate of officers who met regularly to award scholarships and keep the name of Daniel Morris-and the previous century's good work of the Guards-alive.

So Morris is a name that definitely belongs on an Atlantic City street. It commemorates not only the city's first civil engineer and a prominent early philanthropist, but one of the organizations that gave the city character for more than a century.

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Copied from online article at http://casinoconnectionac.com/issue/july-2010/article/honor-guard; bolded part was added by me, to emphasize the recognition of their part in the Miss America Contest in 1933.
By David Schwartz David G. Schwartz (www.dieiscast.com), an Atlantic City native, is the Director of the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV and the author of several books, including Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling.