Long Beach Island: Weathering the Storm

by Editorial Staff--SouthJersey.com, C. Preston | Apr 20, 2015
Long Beach Island: Weathering the Storm You’re cruising down Route 72 with the windows down and the warm breeze blowing through your hair. The sun is shining, the music is loud, and the tall pines are all you can see for miles. As you make your way toward civilization, your nostrils are suddenly inundated with that biting, salty-rotten air that makes you want to shout “We’re heeeere!” Driving over the causeway, you finally arrive on an island that has brought centuries of good times to people from all over the tri-county area.

The beloved eighteen miles of land we call Long Beach Island has a rich history marked equally by prosperity and devastation. For centuries, nearly every new development was destroyed by the powerful storms which seem to prey on this vulnerable barrier island. While many have predicted that one great storm will eventually wipe out Long Beach Island completely, its devoted residents have never let that idea stand in the way of creating a great community, as well as one of South Jersey’s most adored vacation destinations.

It all began in 1614, when Captain Cornelius Jacobsen May sailed down New Jersey’s coast from New York. Recognizing the treacherous condition of the water off the northern shores of present-day Long Beach Island, he named the inlet “Barendegat” meaning “Inlet of the Breakers.” 200 years later, the first rendition of the island’s famed tourist attraction would be built here: Barnegat Lighthouse. Erosion, a common problem on the island, caused the original lighthouse to fall into the sea in 1857. Two years later, the lighthouse which present-day visitors know and love was erected further inland. It has the distinction of being the second-tallest lighthouse in the United States and was used for navigation until 1927, when the light was reduced and then fully extinguished in 1944. However, “Old Barney” was opened to the public in 1991 and remains a favorite spot for tourists.

The loss of the first Barnegat Lighthouse is just one example of the destructive power that storms have over Long Beach Island. However, in 1821, one storm actually proved to be beneficial. The Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane managed to destroy what was once a swampy, uninhabitable piece of land in Surf City, dubbed the Great Swamp, and turn it into a marsh. Stands of cedar trees were uprooted and whole bogs were washed away. It was here that a group of Burlington County farmers were able to build the first large hotel of any of the Jersey shores. The Mansion of Health, as it was called, became the stepping-stone for the lavish hotels that were to be built on the island later in the 19th century. Unfortunately, the construction of a rail line from Camden to Atlantic City prevented the Mansion of Health from flourishing, and it burned down in 1874---a fate that would become all too familiar for hotels on the island.

Like the storms so common to Long Beach Island, railroads could also act as a curse or a blessing. While the Mansion of Health suffered from the construction of a rail line, nearly twenty years later, the island would benefit significantly from the Tuckerton Railroad. Built in 1871, this 29-mile railroad ran from Whiting in Northern Ocean County to Tuckerton. Travelers could take the train from Camden to Whiting and make the trip to Tuckerton for just $2.50 round-trip. Then, it was just a steamboat ride away to the island. With the journey now made easier and cheaper, Long Beach Island’s tourist industry was on the verge of a big boom.

Robert Engle, manager of the already-established Parry House, set out to create a magnificent resort all his own. In 1876, the Engleside Hotel became one of the largest hotels in Beach Haven, catering to Philadelphia’s upper-middle class population. The Engleside remained in constant competition with the Parry House, until the latter was destroyed by a fire in 1881. Just two years later, the Hotel Baldwin took its place and, unlike the Engleside, allowed alcohol, thus establishing itself with a more free-spirited crowd. By 1886, the Manahawkin and Long Beach Railroad was constructed across the Manahawkin Bay, bringing even more vacationers to the area. Robert Engle, never one to pass up a good opportunity, pushed for the construction of a boardwalk in 1896 to handle the heavier foot traffic from the bathhouses. At first, the boardwalk was simply for practical purposes---so guests would not track sand into the lobby. Eventually, it became a spot for socializing and was widened in 1898. Finally, in 1917, a twenty-two block boardwalk was erected. Lit by kerosene oil lamps, the boardwalk eventually included a municipal fishing pier and even some shops. But, just as all good things must come to an end, the boardwalk, pier, and every structure on it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1944. Now, if it wasn’t the storms ruining a good time on the island, it was another act of nature. Robert Engle’s famed hotel was not just known for its elaborate menu or relaxing, open-air decks. Tragedy struck the island in the summer of 1916 when 24-year-old Charles VanSant went for a swim with his canine companion in front of the Engleside Hotel. Perhaps sensing the impending danger, the dog swam ashore and it was not long before VanSant’s calls turned into cries for help as blood filled the water all around him. Eventually, two swimmers dragged him from the ocean while the blood gushed out of his mangled legs and onto the sand. He died two hours later. This incident was the first shark attack ever recorded on the eastern coast of the United States.

Sadly, both the Engleside and the Baldwin would meet a similar disastrous fate. Following a steady decline, and owing thousands of dollars in back taxes, the Engleside Hotel was demolished in 1943. The Hotel Baldwin would last less than twenty years more, surviving one fire in 1947 and eventually succumbing to a second, larger blaze in 1960.

By 1962, after surviving devastating storms and several large-scale fires, the island faced yet another catastrophe. From March 6th through 8th, Long Beach Island was hit with the strongest nor’easter the island has ever seen. The Great Atlantic Storm of 1962 pounded the New Jersey coast, wiping out entire streets and almost all of the boardwalks. Long Beach Island became divided by five new inlets that were formed by the treacherous seas, and seven residents lost their lives during those three terrifying days.

While that storm was considered unusual, caused by a combination of three pressure areas and high tides from the Spring Equinox, it is likely only a matter of time before another "perfect storm" strikes the island. It is then quite possible, though most Long Beach Island devotees would not like to admit it, that the island could be lost forever---swallowed by the turbulent and unpredictable sea which has been threatening it for so many years.

Until that fateful day arrives, however, Long Beach Islanders will continue to weather the storm of the ever-changing nature of the island. Like the ebb and flow of the tide, tourists will come and go, structures will be built and rebuilt, and those who love the island most will prove that resilience did not end with their predecessors.


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Author: Editorial Staff--SouthJersey.com, C. Preston



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