Beach and Barrens Politics

When I pursued my Journalism degree at Temple University, I took a course in political science. I always remembered my instructor telling us that politics were unavoidable because human beings would always be part of the equation. You could strand two people on a desert island together and still have politics. Brigantine, my former home, is a barrier island not a desert island, but the little beach resort has seen its share of local political squalls. In Greenhead Politics, Brigantine author Patrick Costello chronicled his own experience with what he calls “the underbelly of small-town politics.” 

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA) hosted a series of webinars about the Pine Barrens and its preservation efforts in the region. One of the most insightful I watched was Pipelines, Progress, and Problems, which provided an overview of the complex political landscape of the Pine Barrens and some of the biggest issues facing it. Politicization of the Pine Barrens began when Congress created the Pinelands National Reserve in 1978 and New Jersey passed the Pinelands Protection Act in 1979. Some of today’s issues have their roots in the work done in the 1970s.

Pinelands Commission Appointments

The State of New Jersey Pinelands Commission, the state agency responsible for governing land use in the Pine Barrens, is composed of 15 commissioners. The governor nominates seven commissioners and the seven Pinelands counties appoint seven more. A federal representative from the Department of the Interior also serves as a commissioner. However, according to the PPA, there has not been a federal representative since the last one passed away, and the state Senate, which approves the gubernatorial nominees, has not confirmed the governor’s latest nominations.

Natural Gas Pipelines

The PPA also takes a stand on the issue of natural gas pipelines through the Pine Barrens. It worked to defeat the South Jersey Gas pipeline and opposes construction of the Southern Reliability Link. In April 2021, however, a New Jersey Appellate Court rejected the arguments of the PPA and Sierra Club to halt construction of the Southern Reliability Link. 

Off-Road Vehicle Use

No issue seems to stir up more passion than the use of off-road vehicles in the Pine Barrens. According to the PPA, “illegal off-road vehicle use is causing widespread damage to critical Pinelands habitats.” This position causes controversy with members of the off-road and enduro communities who oppose the creation of a public map designating which sand roads and trails can be used by off-road vehicles. Most recently, in May 2021, the state closed six small areas within five Wildlife Management Areas, citing unauthorized off-road vehicle use as one cause.

Is there a Boardwalk in Brigantine, NJ?

New Jersey is famous for its iconic boardwalks. The City of Brigantine Beach, my former island home, does not feature a boardwalk of its own any more. According to this Atlantic City Press article, in 1944, Brigantine removed an old boardwalk between 19th and 34th streets because it proved too expensive to maintain. Instead, as a child, some of my earliest memories include trips across the Brigantine Bridge on summer nights to visit the neighboring historic Atlantic City boardwalk, the first of its kind in the United States.

The closest Brigantine ever had to a boardwalk like Atlantic City’s was the Brigantine Castle, another fixture of my childhood. Built in 1976, the Brigantine Castle was an amusement pier built on the location of the Seahorse Pier, an old fishing pier at the narrowest point of the island. The attraction featured a haunted house, arcade games, a miniature golf course, shops and a fishing pier at the end.

The North Brigantine Natural Area

The pier also provided an excellent vantage point for viewing the undeveloped three mile stretch of beach on the northernmost point of the island. After the amusement pier burned down in 1987, the site remained empty for several years. A seawall replaced it in 1996 and serves as both a bulkhead against storm surge and a short seaside promenade, still offering great views of Brigantine’s North Beach, officially known as the North Brigantine Natural Area.

Located within the Pinelands National Reserve, the North Brigantine Natural Area makes up part of the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island habitat on the east coast. With a viewing platform and dune trails, it provides opportunities to view many types of shorebirds and other species, some of which are featured in these photo galleries.

Swallows Enjoying the Viewing Platform

A Slideshow of Gulls, Terns, and Sandpipers

A Songbird Slideshow

Remembering the Brigantine Castle and Amusement Pier

I was a small child when the attraction opened in 1976, too young for my parents to take me through the haunted castle portion of the pier, a giant green structure with turrets that dominated the skyline. Until I was old enough to brave the castle, my parents took me to play the various carnival style games along the rest of the pier such as the Monkey Water Race game, the Duck Pond, and various Spin the Wheel games, allowing me to amass a large collection of some of my favorite stuffed animals, toys, and other childhood treasures. There was also an arcade with redemption games, including my favorite Skee Ball. I played miniature golf a few times on the course built on the roof of the castle. 

When I was older, my cousins would come to our shore house to spend some time during the summer. We would walk to the castle each night with a small allowance given by my parents. My visits through the haunted castle were limited by our typical nightly allotment of two dollars, which was not enough to cover the slightly higher entry fee to the castle. Entrance to the rest of the pier was free.

The castle and pier were accessed by a large ramp. Turning right after you reached the top, you would find the castle’s creepy foyer, home to a fortune teller machine similar to the one  featured in the movie Big. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, played in an endless loop. A disturbing mural featuring two enemy tribes of aliens  with a dead one hanging from a tree covered one wall. The only visible feature of the castle interior was a room full of wax monster figures gathered around a dining table. Dracula stood at the head giving a toast. The devil hung on the wall above the assembly. 

Highlights from visits within the castle included an actor playing Dracula jumping out of a picture frame and the infamous rat room. My first trip through was delightfully terrifying. Subsequent visits were less thrilling as I teased Dracula and figured out the “tails” of rats I felt lashing me in the rat room were rubber hoses.

With the rise in popularity of video games in the 1980s such as Ms. Pacman, Reflections Arcade across Brigantine Avenue from the castle, proved a magnet for Generation X teenagers like me. Spy Hunter was my favorite game. 

My cousins and I lost interest in the castle as we entered adolescence. Summertime visits there seemed routine now, and we were moving on to other entertainment, outgrowing the attraction of haunted houses and plush animal prizes. We took little note when the castle closed and the property was put up for sale in 1984 but burned down a few years later. The castle lives on in memory, though, and the nearby Pirate’s Den restaurant features a gallery of Brigantine Castle photos at its entrance.

Remembering Dr. James Still on Juneteenth National Independence Day

I had the day off yesterday in honor of Juneteenth, a special day that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. It actually falls today, and President Biden signed a bill this past week making June 19th a federal holiday officially called Juneteenth National Independence Day. My company made this a company holiday last year so I feel like they were ahead of the curve on this one. In honor of Juneteenth, I thought it might be a good day to post about Dr. James Still, a son of former slaves who became a legend in the Pine Barrens in the 19th century.

Henry Charlton Beck’s classic book Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey contains a chapter about Dr. Still. First published in 1936, the book explains the basic story of Dr. Still’s life: He was born in 1812 in the Indian Mills section of Shamong, NJ in Burlington County (then part of Washington Township). When he turned 21, he went to Philadelphia to work and begin his self-education. Still took an interest in the medicinal uses of plants and began making remedies from sassafras roots, extracts and herbs. Back in New Jersey, he began selling his cures in local pine settlements. Word of his success reached two Philadelphia pharmacists, Charles and William Ellis, who began buying his cures. Dr. Still practiced medicine for the rest of his life. He died in 1885 as one of the wealthiest people in Burlington County and famed as the “Black Doctor of the Pines.”

According to the Dr. James Still Historic Office and Education Center, Dr. Still’s parents, Levin and Sidney, escaped slavery in Maryland and took refuge in the remote area of Shamong to protect Sidney and the two children she fled with from slave catchers. As an added measure. Sidney changed her name to Charity, and the family changed their last name to Still. The center is commemorating Juneteenth this afternoon with a special event at 3 p.m. Burlington County also held a Juneteenth eve volunteer cleanup at the center yesterday. 

In honor of Juneteenth and Dr. Still, here’s a gallery of local plants and fungi that the good doctor was likely familiar with as a native of the region. Perhaps he used some in his cures.

The Osprey: America’s Fishing Hawk

Benjamin Franklin famously did not approve of the Bald Eagle as the national bird of the United States, although the story that he preferred the wild turkey is a myth, according to the Franklin Institute.

For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

– Benjamin Franklin

Personally, I wouldn’t trade the Bald Eagle as America’s national bird for anything, but I do share Ben Franklin’s appreciation of the “Fishing Hawk” or, as it is officially known, the Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) and thankfully America is blessed with an abundance of them.

Smaller than a Bald Eagle, the Osprey is nevertheless a raptor with striking white and dark brown coloration and larger than a Red-tailed Hawk. My favorite place for Osprey watching in South Jersey is the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Wildlife Drive in the Brigantine division has multiple nesting platforms along its route where Osprey pairs return each year after migrating south for the winter. Ospreys, with their fish hook-like talons, are obviously expert fishers and the bays and coves along the drive provide ample opportunity.

When searching for and pursuing fish, the osprey hovers over the water until it spots one. Then it dives in after its prey, not always successfully, as this series of photos demonstrates.

And when it succeeds in catching a fish, the osprey still has to fend off thieves, not only bald eagles as Ben Franklin pointed out, but also members of its own species. This osprey eluded another osprey trying to steal its hard-earned dinner.

Osprey eluding another osprey trying to steal fish near Wildlife Drive at Forsythe Wildlife Refuge
Osprey Thief (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Sweetwater Riverdeck and Marina

As an ex-sailor who proudly served aboard the USS Forrestal (CV-59), my dad loved nothing better than going out on the back bays of Brigantine in his little green aluminum dinghy, fishing for flounder, weakfish, and blues, a pastime he shared with me as a kid. Along those sheltered thoroughfares so familiar from my childhood, boaters can cruise from Brigantine, past the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, and into Great Bay. From there, they can continue up the Mullica River to the famous Sweetwater Riverdeck and Marina nestled along the river’s banks, deep in the Pine Barrens of Atlantic County. 

Sweetwater began in 1927 as a speakeasy during the Prohibition era known as Sweetwater Casino. Since then, it evolved into a favorite local restaurant and beloved landmark with a colorful history. Some highlights:

  • 1989 – A group of avid boat enthusiasts establish the Sweetwater Yacht Club with the marina as its home.
  • 2005 – Inspired by a book she found in the Sweetwater gift shop, Linda Stanton founded Lines on the Pines, an annual festival celebrating Pine Barrens arts and culture.
  • 2008 – A devastating fire destroyed the original Sweetwater Casino.
  • 2016 – Mike and Kim Iles purchased the property and renamed it the Sweetwater Riverdeck and Marina.
  • 2019 – The original bar was demolished and construction began on a new facility.
  • 2020 – Sweetwater reopened under restrictions put into place during the COVID-19 pandemic but remained as popular as ever.

I visited Sweetwater for the first time in 2020 with author Barbara Solem. She describes Sweetwater in her book Ghost Towns and Other Quirky Places in the New Jersey Pine Barrens:

“In season and on weekends, there is an outside deck bar, where guests can enjoy a drink, a meal, or a snack while listening to live entertainment.”

Solem, Barbara. Ghost Towns and Other Quirky Places in the New Jersey Pine Barrens . Plexus Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

I joined the Sweetwater Yacht Club in 2021. I don’t have a yacht or even a dinghy but fishing on the bay in Brigantine with my dad while growing up gave me an interest in boats.  The Yacht Club functions as a social club that supports boating activities as well as local charities. Their season begins with the Burgee Raising Party in May and ends with Fantail Weekend at the Frank S. Farley Marina at the Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City. Looking forward to a great season with them!

See more photos from the Sweetwater Yacht Club 2021 Burgee Raising in this Beach and Barrens Facebook album.