The Ghost Train of Brigantine

When Stockton University announced its 33rd Annual Pinelands Short Course, which was held last month on March 12th, the first program I registered for was Atlantic County’s Ghost Railroad: The Brigantine Railroad and Trolley System. Although I grew up in Brigantine, I never heard that a train and trolley line once ran on the island, and I was eager to learn more.

Presented by Norman Goos, librarian for the Atlantic County Historical Society, the program delved into the history of the Brigantine Beach Railroad. From 1890 to 1910, the railroad connected Pomona in Galloway to the then sparsely populated island of Brigantine. Much to my surprise, I learned that the railroad’s terminal in Brigantine was located at Roosevelt Boulevard. Roosevelt Boulevard is the road that runs next to the street where my house was located and leads from the beach back to the bay where the Brigantine Golf Links lies. The railroad traveled through what is now the golf course to reach the terminal. 

According to Goos, after three previous railroad plans failed, the Brigantine Beach Railroad, announced in 1887 was finally built. The Brigantine Beach Railroad trackbed began near the White Horse Pike and crossed what is today the Atlantic City Line track and Garden State Parkway. The trackbed then ran along Great Creek Road, which was built for this railroad. It angled off today’s Jimmie Leeds Road, crossed Shore Road, and went down Lily Lake Road. It then traveled along what is now part of Wildlife Drive in the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge (Brigantine Division). From there, a big trestle and gallows drawbridges crossed Grassy Bay and marshland into Brigantine. 

Unfortunately, the railroad was short-lived. Plagued by storm damage, accidents, and labor issues, the rail company went out of business. Goos described how most of the tracks were removed for scrap during World War I. After that, the railroad faded from memory, like many of the ghost towns and other ghost railroads of South Jersey.

Wildlife Drive where the Brigantine Railroad Ran with Brigantine in the Background (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

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.

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.

A Stockton Grad Invokes the Spirit of Brigantine

If you ever visited the seawall at the north end of Brigantine, a popular attraction with both residents and visitors as well as American Herring Gulls and Laughing Gulls, you may have noticed the seven-plus foot tall abstract sculpture inspired by a seashell. Across from the iconic Pirate’s Den restaurant, the seawall took the place of the equally iconic Brigantine Castle and Amusement Pier almost a decade after fire destroyed the castle in 1987. Installed in 1996, it serves as a bulkhead protecting the vulnerable north end of the island from the storm surge that sometimes lashes this narrow strip of beach. 

The seawall survived Hurricane Sandy but suffered a breach and some damage. That makes it particularly fitting that the alabaster sculpture was installed in its present location on December 6, 2013, a little over a year after Hurricane Sandy hammered the little barrier island after making landfall nearby. The day of its installation was the Friday before my father, a summer resident of Brigantine for 42 years with a deep love of the island, passed away.  The sculpture stands guard now, along with the memorial benches, lamp posts, and coin-operated binoculars lining the wall.

In February of 2020, shortly after I moved off the island and before I sold my family’s shore house there, I spent some time in Brigantine and stopped by the seawall to take some pictures with my new DSLR camera, a Nikon D3500. It was a cold gray day. The surrounding dunes looked barren and stark save for evergreen bushes and the occasional piece of driftwood.  A lone intrepid herring gull perched on the railing, watching me warily as I snapped photos before taking flight.

I stopped at the sculpture and decided to photograph one upper corner, admiring the way it angled against the backdrop of the cloudy sky. I do not remember exactly when I first noticed the sculpture. It was sometime between the time it was installed at the seawall and when I moved to Brigantine as a year round resident in October 2015. Whenever it was, I admired it immediately but didn’t know any of its background until much later.

When I had the time, I did more research and found out that a Brigantine resident and Stockton University grad Gregg Knight sculpted The Spirit of Brigantine, aka the Seashell Sculpture, after being inspired by a broken shell found by his wife. When I lived in Brigantine, I used Gregg’s company The Fence Doctor to replace an old fence and gate on my property. Little did I know that the company was owned by a talented local sculptor. According to his LinkedIn profile, Knight obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Art/Sculpture in 2012.  In addition to The Spirit of Brigantine, Gregg also created a similar sculpture called Aspirations, which can be seen across from the Lighthouse Circle on the southend of Brigantine.

Brigantine, NJ public seashell sculpture called Aspirations by Gregg Knight of Knight Sculpture Studios in front of the CVS near the Light House Circle
Aspirations (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

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. 

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.

Brigantine Lighthouse on the Lighthouse Circle in Brigantine, NJ
Brigantine Lighthouse (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

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.

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.