Many times when a notable political figure passes away, people call it “the end of an era.” With the passing of Alexander Chowanec, commonly known as “Captain Al,” an important era in Jersey City politics came to an end in early June.
Chowanec’s career bridged a period of Hudson County political history from John V. Kenny in the 1960s to the rise of Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop in 2013.
“Al was significant to the political scene of Hudson County for over 50 years,” said Freeholder Bill O’Dea. Chowanec had hoped to see O’Dea become mayor of Jersey City some day.
“He started in the Kenny-Whalen days of the 1960s,” O’Dea said. “He was a committeeman for decades, a ward leader and on my staff for 20 years. He was more than a loyal friend, he was family to me. He would have taken a bullet for me — and then reminded me every time he saw me that he would.”
Chowanec died after a short illness. He’d been hospitalized about a month.
“They operated on him almost three weeks ago,” O’Dea said. “There were complications. Because he only had one kidney, they had to do daily dialysis.”
Chowanec’s loss of a kidney while in his early 30s had propelled him into charity work. Just minutes before being wheeled into surgery for removal of his diseased kidney, Chowanec later recalled, he did a lot of thinking.
He said he kept thinking of the boys and girls who suffered similar ailments, some of whom he got to know personally during the days when he prepared for surgery. He said he wanted to find a way to help them.
He learned that the hospital was without an important piece of equipment used in diagnosis and treatment of the kidneys. Through fundraising drives, he and his friends purchased a probing kit that allowed doctors to explore the bladders of infants and small children. The kit went to what was then St. Francis Hospital in Jersey City.
A man of many talents
But such things were only the beginning. He seemed to live multiple lives at once, as a community activist, political player, fisherman, singer, drummer, artist, poet — even a cartoonist, as some of his poster designs for a future O’Dea for Mayor showed.
He bragged about being born in Margaret Hague Hospital, a true test of whether you really were a native of Jersey City.
He married Olga in 1967 and had three daughters, who provided him with six grandchildren. Born to two immigrants, Chowanec was fiercely patriotic toward the United States and served in the U.S. Army Reserve for nine years and in the National Guard.
But he was also an entrepreneur at a young age. During an interview in the early 2000s, he recalled that he got his first job at a local grocery store. He hated working for other people and eventually went into business for himself.
Chowanec, a mechanic for U.S. Trucking in the 1960s, took over ownership of a gas station in downtown Jersey City
“I bought a Shell station on Grand Street and ran that,” he said. “A year later, I hit the lottery.”
Chowanec got a liquor license, and his father gave him a building in which he opened a popular watering hole called the Harbor Casino.
His brothers ran it, and when they went onto other careers, Chowanec sold the gas station, and he and Olga ran the Harbor Casino for the next 39 years.
The old Harbor Casino was a wood-fronted establishment with crossed oars out front and other nautical features, a relic straight out of the 1950s and 1960s.
Outside, you didn’t always need to look at the paper plate posted with the daily specials. You just had to sniff. Kielbasa was a popular dish. So was the variety of seafood.
“My wife, Olga, used to do all that,” Chowanec said.
Entering the old place was like stepping back into history, a scene that might have come out of harbor tales of Melville’s “Moby Dick,” filled with heavy smoke, laborers from construction and shipping.
People often sat shoulder to shoulder, bending over beer or chowder, as barmaids weaved between the tables. Barmaids Joanne and Annie were like family to the customers.
The Harbor Casino felt like an English or Irish pub, which may explain why former Mayor Jerramiah Healy occasionally sang there.
Off-duty police officers, local municipal workers, construction workers from the developing waterfront, tugboat captains and other mariners, and young professionals from nearby offices often came to drink beer and eat.
As others have pointed out, the name Harbor Casino is a bit deceptive, because, though it was near the water, it wasn’t on it, and it was never a casino.
The Harbor Casino was one of those places where you could order crab year-round.
A pub for politicos
While the place attracted a host of people from the area, the Harbor Casino rapidly became a political hangout, especially after Chowanec got involved in local politics.
Opened in 1967, the Harbor Casino hosted the notorious political boss John V. Kenny and his cronies, known as the Hudson Eight, in the early 1970s prior to their going off to serve their sentences in federal prison.
“For the last few days before they were to go off to jail, they hung out here,” Chowanec recalled.
The Harbor Casino became the happening place for politicians around Hudson County, especially from Jersey City.
Supported by then Deputy Mayor Joseph Sesta, Chowanec formed the Al Chowanec Democratic Association which became a dominating political force in Ward E.
The association sponsored countless events in the community and supported a number of other civic and charity groups throughout Jersey City, holding toy drives for the needy and fundraisers for charitable causes.
Chowanec also donated money to the Marist Lady Knights after the team won the state championship in 2001 and needed money for team jackets.
His civic association was noted for holding events for senior citizens as well.
In the early 1970s, he served as a member of the Columbus Day Committee in Jersey City.
He knew mayors and senators, from political boss Kenny to the well-respected Rep. Frank Guarini.
Chowanec has been credited with helping to introduce former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley to the Hudson County political community. Among his memorabilia is a hand-signed Christmas card from President Bill Clinton in 1995.
For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Al Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org