By Lori Draz
July 12, 1916 was a very bad day to be in the water. That was the day two Matawan residents lost their lives to a shark in the Matawan Creek. Now 100 years later, the town recently commemorated this attack, which is forever linked to Matawan and to the Jersey Shore.
The creek is not very wide and taking a swim to cool off was a pretty common thing, but that day, the unimaginable happened. Eleven-year-old Lester Stillwell began screaming. His playmates saw the creek filling with blood and ran for help. Lester was being attacked by a shark; it was unthinkable. The boys implored a local merchant, 24-year-old Stanley Fisher, to help. Stanley was known to be both strong and helpful and he bravely went into the creek, wrestling Lester’s lifeless body from the killer. The story goes that Stanley successfully fought the shark and made it to the edge of the creek, when the shark returned, grabbing Stanley, seemingly with purpose, attacking and killing him as well.
The story – so bizarre, so tragic, and so impacting – is still told and retold, as if it had happened yesterday. Reports appeared in newspaper after newspaper and the horror and panic rippled through the whole world. People went out hunting for the killer. In fact, it was this story that, 60 years later, inspired author Peter Benchley to write the best-selling book that became the blockbuster movie “Jaws.”
From July 9 through 17, the Matawan Historical Society commemorated the 100th anniversary of the shark attacks with a series of events, including a memorial service and the dedication of a monument at Memorial Park to the two victims, held at 2:00 p.m., the exact hour of the attack. There were also presentations about sharks and marine life; kayak, trolley, and self-guided tours; an art exhibit of vintage postcards; an ice cream social, and shark-inspired movies. Matawan historian Al Savolaine also signed copies of his new book, “Stanley Fisher: Shark Attack Hero of a Bygone Age.” Some even took the Hero Walk that retraced the three-quarter-mile walk that Stanley Fisher took to Matawan Creek.
The story is still so vivid that it is likely people will still be telling it 100 years from now.