written by Chris Gaydos @searchingforamerica
Photos courtesy of the Barnegat Light Historical Society
How did the center of Long Beach Island (LBI) become so flat? Why does the road in Surf City widen for no apparent reason? Why is there goldenrod and ragweed? The answers to these questions can be traced back to the Long Beach Railroad. For 49 years, from 1886 to 1935, the railroad ran north and south on LBI. This railroad is responsible for much of the geography of the island today.
If you visited Long Beach Island in the 1870s, you would see miles of hilly sand dunes, bogs, creeks, bayberry, and—in some places—grazing cattle. The town of Beach Haven, founded in 1874 on the south end, and the town of Barnegat City, established in 1881 on the north end, were the island’s only organized communities. There was no system of roads connecting these towns so travel was limited to horse-drawn carriage or boat.
Until the 1870s, those who visited the southern end of Long Beach and its famed Bond Hotel (Long Beach House) in Holgate had to travel via coach through New Jersey and then boat across the Barnegat Bay to reach the shoreline. It is not an understatement that this was a long and arduous trip. Some of these visitors were wealthy men who could afford the private coaches and ships that enabled their journey. In 1871, Archelaus Pharo, a wealthy businessman from Tuckerton, completed the Tuckerton Railroad. The railroad connected with the Pennsylvania Railroad in Whitings and provided passengers non-stop travel from Camden to Tuckerton. From there they would take a coach to Edge Cove a few miles away on the bay, where ships would carry them to the island. A few years later he improved travel to LBI by building a train spur from the train station in Tuckerton to the dock at Edge Cove. Despite all these improvements, travel could be delayed for a multitude of reasons and often took a full day. Steamers did not operate in the winter; sailboats were unpredictable; storms could wash out the train tracks.
Barnegat City 1919 4th and Central looking down central tracks
Building a Railroad
Archelaus Pharo was also busy in Beach Haven forming the Tuckerton & Long Beach Building, Land, and Improvement Association. His partners were well-connected and influential men from Philadelphia, including Charles Parry of the Baldwin Locomotive Company, William Sewell, NJ State Senator and railroad baron, and Jay Cooke, banker and financier. They were regular visitors to Beach Haven, building cottages and grand hotels. In order to attract and accommodate visitors to his Baldwin Hotel, Parry built the Mercer B, better known as the “Beach Haven Flier.” It ran on narrow tracks and could carry passengers from the dock landing to his hotel. At this time, the roads consisted of wooden boardwalks and graded, but not graveled, pathways. Soon, several other horse drawn trolleys enhanced the resort atmosphere.
Along with the increase in visitors to LBI and the demand for hotels and housing, there was a big demand for building materials and other supplies. However, obtaining these provisions was still dependent on ships crossing the bay, which could be very slow, especially during the winter months. During the 1800s, railroads in the United States were essential in connecting businesses and people. Despite the Tuckerton Railroad being successful in improving transportation to Long Beach Island, the success of expanding this new resort area would require train service up and down the island, and more importantly, a link to the mainland.
Mercer B, better known as the “Beach Haven Flier”
Executives at the Pennsylvania Railroad recognized the need for this railroad expansion and surveyed two potential routes, one originating in Absecon and the other in Manahawkin. The Absecon route would cross the bay and arrive at Sea Haven (on Tucker’s Island) before heading north to Beach Haven. At this time investors were attempting to develop Sea Haven to create somewhat of a rival resort to Beach Haven. The Manahawkin route would cross the bay arriving in what we now call Ship Bottom. The train would then be able to travel north or south on Long Beach Island. The southbound train would likely end in Beach Haven. Perhaps the strong connection between the Pennsylvania and Tuckerton railroad executives and their investment in Beach Haven led them to choose the Manahawkin route. In doing so, they eliminated a direct route to Sea Haven, leading to its eventual demise.
In 1885, work began laying 6,000 feet of trestle from Manahawkin to LBI with a drawbridge crossing the last channel after Cedar Bonnet Island. Meanwhile, track was being laid up and down the island along what we now call the Boulevard, leveling the sand dunes, filling in the bogs, and building bridges over the creeks, marshes, and the natural ocean-to-bay breeches required to keep the island from flooding during tidal surges.
Left to right - Al brown, al sprague, alex inman, and clarence click bennet 1908
The railroad was completed in 1886, and a peculiar looking one-car passenger, freight, and engine, affectionately known as the “Yellow Jacket” because of its yellow color, rolled into Beach Haven and Barnegat City. Over the ensuing years, other combinations of train cars were introduced, but the Yellow Jacket would always be synonymous with the Long Beach Railroad. At that time, the railroad line was leased by the Pennsylvania Railroad and operated by the Tuckerton Railroad.
Land speculators and entrepreneurs were eager to expand development beyond Beach Haven and having a railroad station would almost guarantee its success. Building a hotel was a good way to gain the attention of the Pennsylvania Railroad executives. William Hewitt owned an area called Waverly Beach (now called North Beach Haven). In an effort to capitalize on the success of Beach Haven, he built the Waverly Hotel and parceled land for purchase; however, it did not have its own dock for steamships to accommodate passengers from the mainland. In order to gain the attention of the Pennsylvania Railroad, he and his investors raised $43,800, and Waverly Beach became another station. His partner, William Ringgold, went on to develop Spray Beach.
The railroad stations were generally simple lean-to structures, but the Pennsylvania Railroad did build a few housed stations. The only remaining station house is along 11th Street in Barnegat Light, now a private home. Though much of the railroad on LBI no longer exists, there is one feature that most people will recognize: the widened lanes of the Boulevard in Ship Bottom and Surf City. During the railroad era, these sections were actually track shunts where horse-drawn or hand-drawn cars could access the train. When the road for automobiles was built in 1914, it followed the main train tracks, but it had to go around these small shunts. With the removal of the train tracks in 1936, these widened roadways remained, only to become an extra place to park.
Vacationers were not the only focus for the railroad on Long Beach Island. As time passed and expansion progressed, the need for building materials increased, especially lumber for houses. Gravel was also in constant demand with the development of roads and especially for the maintenance of the railroad beds. The import of gravel had an interesting effect on LBI. The island had always been notable as an escape from allergies because of its distance from the mainland and the absence of plants that produced pollen. Unfortunately, the gravel brought to the island contained the seeds of ragweed and goldenrod, which quickly became established; these were the very plants that people were trying to avoid.
Fishing and eelgrass were two industries that also benefitted from the trains. Harvey Cedars was a major producer of eelgrass, which was used extensively during the later 1800s and early 1900s as packing material, insulation, and stuffing for mattresses. Both eelgrass and fish could be brought to market more efficiently by train, eliminating the unpredictable process of ship transport. Even as cars were introduced onto the island in 1914, trains remained important as a carrier of freight.
The Beginning of the End
Operating the railroad on LBI was not without its obstacles and was almost never profitable. Maintaining the tracks across the bay and up and down the island was unforgiving and expensive. The underlying sand was always shifting; the tides and storms created track washouts; bridges needed repair; fires erupted from engine sparks; and, during the winter months, equipment had to be removed and stored. The train was notoriously slow and in need of constant repair. Financially, the companies that owned and leased the railroad servicing Long Beach experienced changes in ownership and even bankruptcy.
In 1914 an automobile causeway was built over the bay, connecting to a north-south road that paralleled the railroad track. Although the trains were still used primarily for freight, as time went on, trucking became a better option for this job. For a period of time during WWI, the government seized control of the railroads and the number of passengers dropped. The northern spur to Barnegat City was shut down in 1923, partly due to the overall decline in passengers and the temperance movement that took hold in Barnegat City, as well as problems with erosion. Finally, a great Nor-Easter in 1935 washed away the trestle from Manahawkin to Ship Bottom, discontinuing the use of trains on Long Beach Island. The tracks were soon taken up, leaving little trace of the Long Beach Railroad. Now, although we cannot see the remains of the railroad itself, we can see how its 49 years of operation changed the island forever.