MAURICE RIVER TOWNSHIP — The once-thriving bayfront community of Thompsons Beach resembles a post-apocalyptic landscape where cinder block rubble, splintered piling and an isolated chimney are the only indications people once lived there.
The township is working with the state and federal government to remove these reminders of civilization and return the ghost town to nature, while improving access for ecotourists and outdoorsmen.
The project began in December and is planned for completion sometime next month. By then, the bayfront should serve as an attraction for horseshoe crabs and migratory birds as well as bird watchers and fishermen.
On a recent afternoon, Maurice River Township Mayor Andrew Sarclette parked his truck at the end of Thompsons Beach Road, where there is a wooden observation platform and ramps for kayakers to slide into the marsh.
The parking lot was built by the Public Service Enterprise Group, or PSEG, as part of a wetlands remediation project to make up for the environmental impacts of the company’s nuclear plants in Salem County.
In the mid-1990s, the utility company also provided about $1.2 million for the township, originally intended to fix the roadway that was constantly overtopped and blocked by high tides and storms, but ultimately used to buy out the remaining property owners there.
There were once hundreds of buildings along Thompsons Beach, primarily vacation homes, but also some businesses and primary residences. A hurricane devastated much of the village in 1950, and erosion steadily wore away at what remained until there were about 14 structures left.
Eventually, the municipality gave up trying to maintain access to the community and condemned all the remaining properties in 1997.
The few residents and landowners there were outraged and several moved to sue the township. Nonetheless, they had to leave, although some still hold a grudge.
George Kumor, one of the last two year-round residents of Thompsons Beach, still keeps an eye on what is going on there. At a recent public hearing on the restoration plans, he pressed the township to ensure that public access is a priority.
The Hickman family was the last to leave in 1998, 21 years after moving there full time. Sarclette said he saw Leroy Hickman in that area recently, and he is still unhappy about the situation.
“For the people who had homes and vacationed here, it was a tough thing,” Sarclette said. “For someone to tell you to leave is hard. But there was no logical way to make it work.”
It’s now a 3/4-mile walk from where the paved road ends to the beach, only accessible during low tides, and even then through thick, black muck. Sarclette wore high rubber boots as he splashed his way through puddles to get there.
The beach is littered with bricks, concrete and other debris that were used as futile attempts to hold the bay at bay. All it does now is serve as an impediment to breeding horseshoe crabs, which get stuck in the rubble and die.
A government-hired contractor has been using excavator machines to collect the remains of these makeshift seawalls, piling them on the beaches to be pummeled and eventually dumped on top of the muddy roadway to make it easier to travel across.
Sarclette said there is actually more debris than needed for the unpaved portion of Thompsons Beach Road, so some will go to Moores Beach Road, another route to a long-vacated bayfront community once developed but taken back by rising sea levels and steady erosion.
These areas are visible on clear days from bayfront developments in Middle Township such as Reeds Beach and Pierces Point, places pummeled during Hurricane Sandy and now hoping for beach replenishment projects to keep the homes there safe. Several properties in Reeds Beach fell into the water during the storm and are being demolished.
They do not currently face a situation such as the evacuation of Thompsons Beach, but they are part of a long list of places along the Delaware Bay that are constantly in precarious situations. More isolated and less developed than the oceanfront, they receive less attention and aid for shorefront protection.
Thompsons Beach has a long history. The marsh there was first diked and developed into salt hay fields in the 17th century, and the levees were maintained into the 19th century, until the value of salt hay declined.
Left to the elements, the dikes wore away, which hastened the erosion of Thompsons Beach, Sarclette said.
Now, after centuries of resisting nature’s will for human enjoyment, there is the potential that people and wildlife can comfortably coexist there for the first time in centuries.
“Hopefully, the population will come back,” said Sarclette, referring not only to horseshoe crabs but also to people who appreciate the scenery as well.
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