Brigantine and the Atlantic County Pine Barrens

On April 5, 1971, my parents bought a Cape Cod house in Brigantine, NJ, a barrier island in the Atlantic Ocean along the South Jersey shore. I was only six months old so my first memories of Brigantine came later. Some of my earliest ones include an island with only one traffic light, dirt roads along the back bay, and the old Seahorse Pier. We enjoyed the beach without a beach tag, and my dad would drive his white Jeep Wagoneer on the undeveloped North End without a permit. With only one way on and off the island over the Brigantine Bridge, Brigantine felt private, peaceful, and safe.

Brigantine Beach

My parents owned a mom-and-pop corner deli in South Philadelphia. Each summer Sunday afternoon, they closed the store, drove across the Walt Whitman Bridge and headed “down the shore.” As a child, this was the highlight of my week. My excitement would grow as we passed landmarks like the Atlantic City Racecourse and Zaberer’s Restaurant on the Black Horse Pike because I knew we were getting close to Brigantine. I eagerly anticipated spending a day in the ocean and catching toads at night with my childhood friends. After sunset, cool seabreezes chilled the summer air, and I would sit on our porch watching shooting stars while wrapped in a blanket. And in the very early mornings, Brigantine was and still is the island of amazing sunrises. 

  • Brigantine Lighthouse on the Lighthouse Circle in Brigantine, NJ

My family made our weekly trip through large swaths of pine trees interrupted by small towns and farmer’s markets in Atlantic County where Brigantine is located. I first heard the term “Pine Barrens” from my mother when she used it to describe the wooded mainland just outside of Brigantine.

What are the Pine Barrens?

In 1968, John McPhee published The Pine Barrens, a book about New Jersey’s vast wilderness east of Philadelphia. According to McPhee: “Settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries found these soils unpromising for farms, left the land uncleared, and began to refer to the region as the Pine Barrens.”

McPhee’s book generated interest in protecting this unspoiled ecosystem and, as part of the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, Congress created the Pinelands National Reserve. In addition, New Jersey passed the Pinelands Protection Act in 1979. The State of New Jersey Pinelands Commission, established by Governor Brendan T. Byrne, was tasked with developing a plan for governing land use in the Pine Barrens. Through this effort, the Pinelands Commission adopted the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan in 1980.

The Pinelands National Reserve, classified as a U.S. Biosphere Reserve, contains 1.1 million acres, including 800,000 acres of intact forest. Brigantine itself is partially in the Pinelands National Reserve, although not in the state-designated pinelands area. 

Most of Atlantic County is in the Pine Barrens with a total of 14 municipalities (partly or entirely) located in the state-designated area or national reserve or both. Fast facts about some of these municipalities:

  • Galloway, birthplace of the legendary Jersey Devil, is the largest municipality in New Jersey by total area (land and water combined). The main campus of Stockton University is located here as is the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge’s headquarters, visitors center, and popular Wildlife Drive across the bay from Brigantine.
  • The Mays Landing section of Hamilton, a municipality with the largest land area in New Jersey, is the county seat.
  • Hammonton, the self-proclaimed Blueberry Capital of the World, and Egg Harbor City, are both stops on the Atlantic City Line. Hammonton is also the site of Stockton University’s Kramer Hall.
  • The iconic Sweetwater Marina and Riverdeck is located in Mullica along the river of the same name, which forms Atlantic County’s northern boundary and empties into Great Bay, very near Brigantine.
  • Port Republic is the site of the Revolutionary War Battle of Chestnut Neck.
  • Egg Harbor Township is the most populous municipality in the county while Corbin City is the least populous municipality operating under the city type of government in New Jersey.
  • The site of the St. Padre Pio Shrine is located in Buena.

To learn more about the Pine Barrens, check out Ghost Towns and Other Quirky Places in the New Jersey Pine Barrens by Barbara Solem.

Changes in Brigantine

In the late 1970s, casinos came to Atlantic City, and Brigantine became both a resort town and a bedroom community, spurring development on the island. The Marine Mammal Stranding Center opened in 1978. The famous Brigantine Haunted Castle replaced the Seahorse Pier. Brigantine began requiring beach tags and 4×4 permits for driving on designated beaches. Although island landmarks such as the Brigantine Lighthouse and Brigantine Inn remain, change swept the island with many oceanfront motels converting to condos. The Ocean 21 Condos built on a parking lot across from my house obstructed some of our ocean view but also provided increased protection from storm surge along with the cultivation of dunes.

  • Brigantine Lighthouse on the Lighthouse Circle in Brigantine, NJ

The stronger dune system along with a new seawall and stormwater pumps helped Brigantine survive Hurricane Sandy when it made landfall near the island in 2012. My house along with my neighbors’ houses, even those on the beach front, remained intact and escaped any flooding.

Brigantine has come a long way since the 1500s when the Lenni Lenape named it Watamoonica (Summer Playground) and sea explorer Henry Hudson called it a “very good land to fall in with, and a pleasant land to see” in 1608. Although I sold my family house in 2020 after my parents passed away, Brigantine will always be my island home and the isle of the rising sun.