By Chris Gaydos @searchingforamerica
Long Beach Island has appeared on maps for several centuries. Early explorers from the 1600s made note of this long barrier island, including two ocean inlets on the north and south ends and an expansive bay leading to the mainland. Although waves, tides, winds, and storms are always affecting and changing the island, its existence has remained relatively unchanged: 18 miles long and 6 miles out to sea. Until the 1800s, there was little interest in the maintenance of LBI’s beaches and inlets; its population was sparse and industry limited to whaling, sporting, and the transport of goods in and out of the bay. This all changed with the development of resort communities such as Beach Haven in 1874 and the expansion of railroads, making LBI more and more accessible to vacationers and its resultant growing economy.
Today the New Jersey shore tourism economy exceeds 20 billion dollars a year. Maintaining the beaches and inlets of LBI became a growing concern especially in the 19th and 20th centuries to keep up with the growing population and the expansion of commerce. The near loss of the Barnegat Lighthouse—Old Barney—as well as the complete loss of Tucker’s Island, which once stood between Little Egg Inlet and Beach Haven Inlet, are two vivid examples of the effects of man and nature along this barrier island. We often refer to beach erosion as loss of sand, however, it should be noted that what the sea, storms, and wind take from one area often ends up in another. This is part of an active equilibrium that has spanned centuries. This equilibrium now contends with manmade structures introduced to combat changes due to nature, thus creating the need for more changes.
photo by Chris Gaydos
Barnegat Inlet and Old Barney
Barnegat Inlet, bordered by LBI on the south and Island Beach on the north, has always had a reputation for being very difficult to navigate because of its shallow nature and many sandy shoals. In 1614, the early Dutch explorers named the region Barendegat, or “inlet of the breakers.” History describes many inlets along New Jersey that have opened and closed due to storms or erosion, but Barnegat Inlet has always remained open, providing access to the bay and the New Jersey mainland and its abundant natural resources. In the 1800s, our young nation’s waterways were essential to its growing economy, as well as for protection during foreign conflicts. The New Jersey coastline and Barnegat Inlet became noted for shipwrecks that resulted in economic and human losses. In 1835 a lighthouse was built on the northern end of LBI in what was then Brownsville, to aid navigation through the narrow and turbulent inlet. In keeping with the general pattern of sand deposit along the New Jersey Coast, Island Beach on the opposite side of the inlet gathered sand and migrated southward while the side of the inlet surrounding the lighthouse and light keeper’s house (the north end of LBI) suffered severe erosion. It was not long before this lighthouse was in danger of being lost. General George Meade was appointed to design the building of a new lighthouse, which we know today as “Old Barney.” The new Barnegat Lighthouse was completed in 1859 just two years after the previous lighthouse fell into the water. General Meade was a member of the Topographical Division of the United States Army Corps of Engineers and went on to find great fame in the Civil War when he defeated General Lee at the battle of Gettysburg. For LBI, this would mark the beginning of a long and ongoing relationship with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose mission has always been to maintain the navigation routes around LBI, but now also includes beach replenishment and environmental protection.
The United States Army Corps of Engineers
In 1775 George Washington appointed the first Army Engineer when the Continental Congress recognized the need to develop fortifications during the Revolutionary War. It was not until 1802 that Thomas Jefferson created the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the school where they would be educated, West Point. France was an important influence on the United States’ early government and provided the blueprint for combining science and the military. At its inception, the Army Corps was funded by a Congress in which the Northern States and Southern States differed on how funds should be spent; however, the need for coastal protection, navigable waterways, and the advent of westward expansion in the 1800s saw the Army Corps expand and ultimately create much of our nation’s infrastructure. In 1866 the Philadelphia District of the Army Corps of Engineers was formed and charged with the maintenance and protection of New Jersey’s coastal waterways extending into the Delaware Bay and Delaware River. Today’s Army Corps has grown to over 30,000 employees, mostly civilian, headed by an Army Major. The District has one dredger, the McFarland, which is docked in Philadelphia.
Photo courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers Philadelphia District
Groins and Jetties
The Army Corps’ first public projects were designed to aid navigation. On LBI this came in the form of dredging. Dredging in the Barnegat Inlet needed to be done regularly and helped keep the passage open and safe most of the time. However, in the early 1900s, LBI experienced several major storms and one major hurricane that caused significant problems, especially on the southern side of the inlet. Old Barney was once again in danger of falling into the water. In the 1930s the Army Corps built a series of groins east and west of the lighthouse along the beaches in an effort to reduce the rapid rate of erosion. Groins are structures built perpendicular to the beach and in theory trap sand and save beaches. In reality what one beach gains the neighboring beach loses. By the 1930s the situation was so bad that the mayor of Barnegat City (later named Barnegat Light) ordered the deposit of old cars, trucks, and baby carriages along the inlet beach to create a barrier to the sea.
The federal government finally approved the construction of jetties in Barnegat Inlet and from 1939 to 1941 the Army Corps built a north jetty (along Island Beach) and a south jetty extending eastward off the northern portion of LBI. In contrast to groins, jetties are manmade structures designed to keep inlets open. It was arrow-shaped, narrow at its farthest point in the ocean, with the intention to create a strong current, thus flushing the sand carried in and out by the tides. Its construction was a bit unusual in that there was no road access on Island Beach where the north jetty would be built. Supplies were barged from the Barnegat City area, but the stone, rocks, and boulders were actually cabled across the inlet after tall supporting towers were built on either side of the inlet. The results were not as expected: sand poured in, and several new channels were formed within the inlet, actually making the problem worse. In 1943, a sand dike built along High Bar Harbor was created with material being dredged from the inlet in an attempt to eliminate the new southerly-based tide. At that time, what we now call High Bar Harbor was an island west of Barnegat Light notable for the High Bar Gunning Club. The presence of the new sand dike caused sand to accumulate near today’s 20th Street in Barnegat Light, creating a connection to High Bar Harbor. A road was built, development ensued, and the community of High Bar Harbor was created.
It would not be until 1991 when a new south jetty would be built, this time parallel to the north jetty and not narrowed at its extension into the ocean. You can still see the remains of the old south jetty off the beach in Barnegat Light, especially during low tide. Routine dredging and jetty repair are still required to keep the inlet open and safe for sportsmen and commercial fishermen alike.
Vanishing beaches (and sometimes houses) due to storms, waves, and tides continue to affect the Atlantic coast of LBI. The need to attract vacationers and safeguard homes and property has resulted in varied methods of “protecting” the dunes. Beach grass is planted annually to create a root system that will “anchor” drifting sand. Geotubes, large tubular structures, have also been placed along beachheads in an attempt to raise their elevation and minimize the damage during storms. After a Feasibility Report in 1999 recommended enhancement of LBIs oceanside beaches, the Army Corps of Engineers and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection embarked on a beach replenishment program designed to widen and raise the existing beaches from Loveladies to Holgate. Offshore sand from several miles into the ocean has been pumped onto the beaches to create the desired dimensions as an army of heavy equipment moves block to block. Dune grass and access fencing and paths complete each section. This project was interrupted after Superstorm Sandy when the Army Corps addressed damage on LBI and other barrier islands, where in some cases the ocean met the bay. The year 2016 will mark the end of the beach replenishment program on LBI, covering some, but unfortunately not all of its beaches.
The popularity of Long Beach Island has created a need to control the effects of nature and—just as in the 1800s when our evolving country debated how public funds should be spent—the conversation continues. Dredging Barnegat Inlet and maintaining the north and south jetties will continue. Certainly back bay flooding from storms and tides is a major concern to residents and businesses on LBI. In addition, the Philadelphia District of the Army Corps of Engineers maintains the NJ Intracoastal Waterway along the bays west of LBI. This system of inland waterways was originally designed to aid commercial shipping. Continued dredging of this waterway today is more for the benefit of leisure boaters, but the fragile environment within the bay also requires attention. Recently, clean dredged material from the Intracoastal Waterway was used to fill parts of Mordecai Island west of Beach Haven. While not significant for economy or public property, Mordecai Island is environmentally important to local and migrating wildlife. Otherwise “useless” dredged material can be used to enhance the marshes and wildlife environments in the bay. Plans are currently underway to see if an oyster reef can be sustained along Mordecai Island. Environmental maintenance of the bays is becoming more of a priority as we look into the future. Local communities, the State of New Jersey, and the United States Army Corps of Engineers continue to work together to find solutions to keep LBI a stable island for all to enjoy.