This story originally published July 2019. This article is part of “Unknown New Jersey,” an ongoing series that highlights interesting and little-known stories about our past, present, and future — all the unusual things that make our great state what is it. Got a story to pitch? Email it to [email protected].
There isn’t much left of the former Borough of Island Beach half a century after its official dissolution in 1965 as an Ocean County municipality incorporated just 32 years earlier.
And that should come as no surprise, seeing as how there was never much of Island Beach to begin with, aside from a steel baron’s oceanfront estate, a 19th Century life saving station, and a handful of fishing shanties leased to the families of baymen who once bunked there after long days of crabbing or otherwise dredging up a living on Barnegat Bay.
Nor is it surprising that the borough is unknown even to people whose flip-flopped feet tread there today, on the beaches and sandy ground that now make up Island Beach State Park, which is run by the State of New Jersey and includes the governor’s summer residence.
“That’s interesting,” said Steve Denison, a 64-year-old machinist from Andover Township, who was surf fishing in the park on a warm summer sunny day. “You always wonder, who owned this property at one time? Because you know somebody did.”
The Borough of Island Beach was incorporated by an act of the legislature in 1933 from a total of about 2,700 acres of land in Berkeley, Lacey and Ocean townships on Barnegat Peninsula, according to sources including John P. Snyder’s authoritative Story of New Jersey’s Civil Boundaries: 1606-1968, and an article by historian Thomas P. Farmer, “Best Laid Plans for Island Beach,” reprinted by the Friends of Island Beach State Park.
Although it’s attached to the Ocean County mainland at Bay Head on its north end, Barnegat Peninsula is essentially a 20-mile barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and Barnegat Bay, with additional access via the Mantaloking and Route 37 Thomas A. Mathis bridges farther south. The southern half of the peninsula, in Berkeley Township just below the Borough of Seaside Park, is occupied by Island Beach State Park, formerly the Borough of Island Beach. The park extends all the way down to the peninsula’s southern tip, across Barnegat Inlet from Barnegat Light, the northernmost community on Long Beach Island.
The Island Beach property had been purchased several years earlier by an entrepreneur and partner of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie named Henry Phipps, who planned to develop it as a high-end oceanfront resort between Atlantic City and Asbury Park.
But the Great Depression derailed the development plans, and the borough’s population of baymen and estate staff fell by two-thirds following its evacuation during World War II for use by the military, sliding from a peak of 31 in 1940 to just 11 a decade later, according to Census figures.
In 1953, the State of New Jersey bought the property encompassing the borough from the Phipps family for the purpose of creating the park. And in 1965, the Borough of Island Beach was officially dissolved and its acreage — Island Beach State Park — became part of Berkeley Township, as it remains today.
Even the president of the Berkeley Township Historical Society and Museum, Jerry Beer, was unaware of the borough’s existence before being asked about it by NJ Advance Media and then researching it independently.
“I learned something new today,” Beer said later.
At Bella’s Brooklyn Bagels in Seaside Park, a borough on the peninsula just north of IBSP, Cary Kimmel was among the noshers stopping in on a recent sunny morning. The 62-year-old business development executive lives on the peninsula, in the Ortley Beach section of Toms River, but he never knew about the defunct borough.
“I thought Seaside Park, Island Beach State Park,” Kimmel said. “I had no idea there was an independent borough there.”
But like others, Kimmel didn’t mourn the borough’s passing.
“I think there’s a beautiful park there that’s very pristine, gorgeous and available to all,” he said. “That’s a beautiful thing.”
Cara Villanueva thought so, too.
“I think it’s a good use of the land,” said Villanueva, who was in the park brushing the sand off her feet as she, her cousins, and her dog, Manny, a Vizsla mix, loaded up their SUV to leave, sun-tinged and satisfied with the day. “This is one of the few natural beaches where they allow dogs to run on the beach.”
Another Bella’s customer, Karen Kroon, who’s 57 and lives in Seaside Park, was one of the few people familiar with the Borough of Island Beach. Kroon said her family moved to the peninsula in 1962, and her toddler and preschool years briefly overlapped with the borough’s short existence, which was part of the local lore.
“It is fascinating history, right under our nose,” said Kroon, who moved off he peninsula as an adult but then bought a beach house in Seaside Park in 1995, and finally moved back full time in 2016.
Asked if the tourists and park visitors knew the history, Kroon said probably not. “Even the year-rounders, based on my observation,” she said.
Jim Frosbe, a former president of the Berkeley Township Historical Society and Museum, said he learned of the borough’s existence as a teenager from a police officer who gave him a tour of the park, showing him concrete munitions bunkers from World War II and the bayside shanties from much earlier in the century.
One of the shanties, an unoccupied structure known as the Judge’s Shack, attracted attention last spring when park friends warned it could be lost to a big storm. But most of the shacks, like the concrete munitions bunkers hidden among the sand dunes, are not visible to casual park visitors.
Caryn Shinske, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which operates the park through the Division of Parks and Forestry, said there are a few reminders of the borough within the park, including a timeline history in the nature center, in the park’s history brochure, and during park kayak tours and other nature programs.
The main road through the park — the only road, really — is a 10-mile, two-lane stretch of sun-bleached pavement called Shore Road, but known to some as the long black road, a continuation of Route 35 that narrows south of the park entrance, where the price of entry is a flat $6 per vehicle, with no additional charge for beach access, walking trails, or other attractions.
Despite the uniform scenery and lack of hills, bends, shoulders or shade, the park road is popular with cyclists like Paul Kiczek, who at 71 was looking fit as a fiddle in his tight-fitting cycling kit astride his carbon road bike.
Kiczek, a retired IT executive who lives in Morris County and has a summer place in Ortley Beach, said he felt like New Jerseyans weren’t even aware of Island Beach State Park, much less the borough it once occupied.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Kiczek said. “I think most people don’t know about it or how to enjoy it.”
Steve Denison does, though.
Denison, the machinist from Andover, had driven down to the park all the way from Sussex County with his wife and grandson. Like several other park visitors that afternoon, Denison had backed his SUV nearly to the shore break for what you might call a fisherman’s tailgating party.
The gate of the truck was open to the sea, with a cooler on it, and a few beach chairs were set out, along with a small nylon tent that served as changing room. Like some other tailgaters, Denison had driven a length of plastic pipe into the sand, where his fishing pole stood with its line stretching offshore trying to catch stripers or bluefish.
“Back right up to the water, everything you need is right in the car,” Denison said, as his grandson body-surfed and a pair of Wave Riders sped by offshore. “If I get a choice of a beach, this is it.”
Another park visitor, Frank Deluca, had no idea of its municipal history. DeLuca, 32, works in advertising and lives in Jersey City, where the Hudson River waterfront opposite Manhattan is one of the most intensely developed in the state. He was on his first visit to the park.
“I’d heard about it — less developed, open, dog-friendly,” he said. “I didn’t expect such undeveloped beachfront on the Jersey Shore. It’s a nice escape from the typical Jersey Shore experience.”
This article is part of “Unknown New Jersey,” an ongoing series that highlights interesting and little-known stories about our past, present, and future — all the unusual things that make our great state what is it. Got a story to pitch? Email it to [email protected].
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