By Rick Geffken
SEA BRIGHT – When the Rooney family moved to Sea Bright from Jersey City in 1962, their new home faced the sea wall holding back the Atlantic Ocean. Councilman Charlie Rooney sometimes muses that “the people who were living along this part of Sandy Hook must have been upset when that sea wall was first built and ruined the beautiful ocean view they enjoyed from their porches.” Charlie, son of former Sea Bright mayor, the late Charles Rooney Jr., grew up on Ocean Avenue in the shadow of the 1932 Highlands “Million Dollar” Bridge. Charlie’s still lives there, but lots of things have changed, including the construction of a new bridge some years ago.
What hasn’t changed is the importance of that seawall to the peninsula town of Sea Bright. Rooney is backing a referendum to extend the seawall through the south end of town, insuring the continued safety and the very existence of Sea Bright as a vital community.
While it might seem obvious that the seawall was built to protect homes along the narrow strip of sand, the actual reason it was constructed was to keep trains running on Sandy Hook. Yes, Sandy Hook trains are a unique, if improbable, part of our Two Rivers coastal history.
In the emerging industrial days of post-Civil War America, trains and trolleys were the most popular mass transportations. Local train lines allowed city people to explore places far beyond the reach of their customary horses and buggies.
Cultural Resources Specialist Jean Howson of the RBA Group has written an extensive study of transportation in and around Highlands. She describes how, beginning in 1865 steamboats from New York docked at Spermaceti Cove landing at the northern terminus of the Long Branch and Sea Shore Railroad. People were flocking to Long Branch, the bustling resort which would eventually become the vacation spot for seven United States Presidents. Thousands of people needed a way to get to Monmouth Race Track too.
As a result of steamship groundings in Spermaceti Cove, the railhead was moved farther north in 1869 to the deeper-harbor Horseshoe Cove. Highlands became a day-trippers delight. An 1873 article in the publication Picturesque America, noted “Beyond the (Shrewsbury) river, stretches a narrow strip of sand, upon which the surf of the Atlantic ceaselessly beats. Travelers proceeding by the Southern Railroad of New Jersey, or the pleasure party visiting the famous watering place of Long Branch, land from the steamboat at Sandy Hook. The railroad runs along the narrow strip of sand that separates the river from the ocean, giving the passengers charming views of the hills.” Charming indeed, for summer time visitors; during winters, not so much.
Then as now, the “narrow strip of sand” was subject to beach erosion due to the vagaries of wind and weather. Hurricanes, nor’easters, and full moon high tides all conspired against the railroad. Tracks, built only five feet above mean high water, were repeatedly undermined. In response, the New Jersey Southern Railroad constructed a 2,000-foot trestle and a seawall, or jetty, on the ocean side of the narrow peninsula in the 1870’s.
Severe storms with easterly winds, such as the Blizzard of March 1888 and a September 1889 blow, piled snow and sand dunes over the tracks, washing them out and interrupting train travel for days on end. High tides constantly washed rocks and other debris on the rails. Both trestle and seawall were continually reinforced and rebuilt after 1881 when the Highland Beach Association starting putting up homes and cottages along what had once been Wardell’s Beach.
When we think of the New Jersey coast, we think shipwrecks. But Sandy Hook saw train wrecks too. A few grainy pictures of derailings there survive. They show the hazards of running iron rails on wooden ties across unstable beaches. Teams of men are seen working to put train cars, and sometimes engines, back on tracks strewn with rubble. While it surely occurred to railroad officials that they were fighting a losing battle without end, it took other circumstances to make it easier for them to give up.
Sandy Hook’s geography attracted entrepreneurs like William Sandlass Jr. who opened his Highland Beach Excursion Resort in 1888 on the formerly undeveloped barrier beach. He built his bathing pavilions and amusements on leased land alongside the railroad tracks and a sandy road leading to the government fortifications at Sandy Hook. A few years later these fortifications and proving grounds were renamed Fort Hancock.
The immediate popularity of the Sandlass’s Highland Beach Resort over whelmed the transportation infrastructure. A criss-cross bridge – so called because railroad tracks ran in one direction while pedestrian and horse-drawn traffic ran in another – was built in 1892. The Horseshoe Cove railroad terminus was abandoned. Steamboats then landed at Atlantic Highlands where passengers continued by train to points south.
The Highland Beach railroad station was moved further south on Sandy Hook because of the changed traffic patterns. Accident potential was real enough that Sandlass installed large signs around his resort warning his guests to use caution near the railroad tracks. Historian June Methot referred to the criss-cross bridge as an example of “Victorian Idiocy.”
Howson writes that the criss-cross bridge was largely outmoded by the 1920s due to the increase in automobile traffic. The Central Railroad of New Jersey’s Southern Division (which had absorbed the New Jersey Southern) constructed new rail lines further inland, obviating the old Shore rail routes. Tracks and ties were torn up.
If you run or bike along the path at the foot of the concretized sea wall in Sea Bright today, you can imagine when the Long Branch and Sea Shore railroad tracks were there. It’s harder to imagine Sea Bright there if that seawall had never been built.
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