BRIGANTINE — The ruins are a passing fascination for anglers on their way to the prime fishing spot at the island’s north end. And joggers sometimes catch their breath on the concrete steps uncovered in October by Hurricane Sandy, snapping photos of the crescent-shaped formation of piling at the water’s edge.
While the scene is mysterious and novel, it’s not new. Every few decades, after particularly destructive storms, the remnants of U.S. Lifesaving Station No. 25 return to the surface, a reminder of how fragile life is on this barrier island.
“We knew they were going to be exposed again, but at what peril?” said Jeff Doran, a retired Brigantine police officer who last saw the ruins after a 1993 northeaster. “It’s a bittersweet revealing.”
The brick and concrete foundation date to later incarnations, but the first station was established here in 1849, when Brigantine was a desolate outpost accessible only by boat. Back then, its shoals were famous for ensnaring vessels heading to and from the ports of New York City and Philadelphia.
“Back in the early days, there was no navigation they could use,” said Roy Kramer, curator of the Brigantine Historical Society. “A lot of them hugged the coast, looked for lights and used that as reference.”
The annals of the historical society are full of ships that lost cargo, crew and passengers when they ran aground in turbulent weather. In 1779, for instance, the transport ship Mermaid wrecked during a snowstorm near the island’s north end. Bodies of some of the 145 killed washed ashore on Brigantine beach.
Kramer said the lifesaving station was originally manned by volunteers. They risked their own lives to aid stricken vessels in exchange for a portion of the cargo or some other reward.
“In the beginning of the service, they had to walk from one end (of their beat) to the other,” he said, picking up tags at either end “to prove they walked it.”
Stations such as the one at North Brigantine formed the basis for the U.S. Coast Guard, which was created in 1915 when the Life-Saving Service was combined with the Revenue Cutter Service, which served as a form of maritime law enforcement.
Over time, Kramer, 55, has collected a number of artifacts for the museum, including a hand pump and spikes from the adjacent trolley tracks. After Hurricane Sandy, he stumbled upon a cache of glass bottles near the ruins.
“Apparently, they had a trash pile that the sand had covered over,” he said. “It wasn’t until Sandy that they started coming up.”
One of the more interesting artifacts from the lifesaving station is the base of a broken bottle with a Pluto devil molded into the glass. “This, I imagine, was a rum bottle,” he said.
The curator has even been able to trace the bricks to the Sayre & Fisher Brick Co., of Sayreville, Middlesex County, based on their F&S imprint.
Eventually, the island drew a steady flow of beachgoers each summer.
In 1890, a railroad trestle was built to bridge the gap between Leeds Point in Galloway Township and Brigantine. Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge Manager Virginia Rettig said the railroad bed became the first leg of the refuge’s scenic drive. It dropped passengers off at the end of what is now Roosevelt Boulevard.
Three years later, Kramer said, an oceanfront trolley was installed, allowing visitors to traverse the full length of the island.
Piling from those trolley tracks were exposed by Hurricane Sandy at various points along the island’s north end. At the site of the lifesaving station, they intersect a crescent-shaped bulkhead that Kramer said was probably built to protect the station from erosion.
Kramer said the lifesaving station was included in plans for a real estate development on the island’s north end. On “paper streets” laid out for that project, the station would have been located at 20th Street North. Today, the municipality stops at 14th Street North.
The same natural forces that unearthed the station a century later put an end to that development.
In September 1903, a massive hurricane destroyed the railroad trestle connecting Brigantine to the mainland, even plunging an entire train into the bay.
“They couldn’t afford to rebuild the trestle,” Kramer said. “All activity on the island stopped until the ’20s, when the Island Development Company came in.”
The lifesaving station was once again one of the few remaining operations on the island, until a bridge connecting Brigantine and Atlantic City was constructed in 1924.
And the lifesaving station itself wasn’t immune to the weather’s impact on the barrier island. In 1888, a hurricane destroyed the station, forcing the government to build a larger one farther up the beach. It was again destroyed in the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944.
William Thiesen, Atlantic area historian for the U.S. Coast Guard, said that storm was particularly devastating. Fifty-nine guardsmen were killed while performing their duties, including 47 on two Coast Guard cutters and 12 more on a lightship that sank during the storm.
Economic and technological developments led the federal government to nix rebuilding plans after the storm, and in 1948 the site was abandoned.
Chris Havern, another staff historian with the U.S. Coast Guard, said that by 1944 the advent of the helicopter and radio had eroded the need for lifesaving stations at regular intervals along the coast, which led to consolidation.
“Instead of having small numbers of personnel at many stations, you had larger stations manned with larger complements,” he said. “Basically, changing situations dictated that those stations were no longer necessary.”
Doran, the retired policeman, said the only time he saw the ruins was in 1993, although he had heard stories about the station.
“It was our hope back in 1993 that time and weather would cover the remains up so they could be discovered at a later date,” he said. “And here we are.”
Within a year, the beach reclaimed the ruins, a process that will likely be repeated in 2013.
“Unfortunately, they always seem to appear after pretty nasty events,” Doran said.
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