LOWER TOWNSHIP — It’s an idyllic setting featuring sun, sea, sand and surf. Oh, and a set of railroad tracks.
Sun, sea, sand and surf are always here at Sunset Beach and draw large crowds, especially at sunset as the orange ball sets into the Delaware Bay.
The railroad tracks just appeared recently, after a storm washed sand from the beach.
Railroad tracks on a New Jersey shore beach are so oddly out of place, similar to that roller coaster at Seaside Heights after Hurricane Sandy, that even more visitors have been coming recently.
The curious gawkers, local photography clubs, and people with metal detectors are drawn by the rusty metal rails, but few know the story behind them. There are actually two stories, local historian Ben Miller said.
Miller, an author of books about the region’s history, said the first set of tracks near the Cape May Canal date to World War I and led to a little-known munitions proving ground. They were constructed by the Bethlehem Steel Co. to transport munitions to the beach for testing.
“They would detonate them in the sand and the water to test the concussion, the power of the shell, but they did not shoot the shells into the bay,” Miller said.
For years, unexploded ordnance has been found on the beaches here. These were the so-called duds that never blew up. They were simply left behind when the war ended and Bethlehem Steel President Eugene Grace, a Cape May native, closed the operation.
“That’s why so much unexploded ordnance has washed up on the beach. What didn’t detonate was left behind,” Miller said.
Miller said Grace, the son of Cape May sea captain John Grace, had contracts during the war to test munitions for Russia, France and England.
The munitions came to Cape May by rail and were trucked to what is now the Higbee Beach parking lot. The narrow-gauge rails were used to bring them to the beach. A platform with concrete sides, a pillbox of sorts, was where Bethlehem Steel workers stood for protection during a detonation.
“They stood behind that to see the blast,” Miller said.
David Rutherford, a Sea Grove Avenue farmer, recalled his father, Robert, finding a shell on the beach that dated to 1918. It was about 6 inches wide and 18 inches long. Robert took it home and stored it in the root cellar at their dairy farm. After his father died, Rutherford decided to get rid of it. He called the Coast Guard and the local police. Several men from Naval Weapons Station Earle showed up to take it and detonate it.
“When they detonated it, they said it blew a hole the size of a school bus,” Rutherford said.
The second set of tracks is even older. Miller said some have speculated that the tracks are part of a trolley line that once ran from Cape May to the steamboat landing at Sunset Beach, or that they had something to do with the World War II-era plant that extracted magnesium from seawater. Miller said neither is true.
“The train tracks for the (Harbison-Walker) Magnesite Plant were perpendicular to the beach, and the trolley came as far as Cape May Point and that was it,” Miller said.
The tracks, Miller believes, are from a sand-mining operation that began in 1905 and operated into the 1930s. Old pictures show steam shovels being used to dig up beach and dune sand. It was dumped into open train cars and hauled to an outdoor sorting facility nearby and then to a six-story, clapboard-sided wash house.
“They took the sand and sifted it to get the seashells out. They sent it to Millville to the glass factories,” said Robert Elwell, a former Cape May mayor and local historian.
Some went even farther than Millville. The sand featured a lot of quartz, and its hardness made it ideal for certain construction projects. According to a 2012 article on the operation in the publication Exit Zero, in 1910 some of this sand went to Panama to be used for the locks on the Panama Canal.
The Cape May Sand Co. also excavated Davy’s Lake, Cape May Point author Joe Jordan said. The freshwater lake just yards from the bay always seemed an oddity — and it is. It is man-made. The lake, Jordan said, was created by the Cape May Sand Co. around 1910, when equipment operators S. Walter Davis and David Wilkshire dredged into a natural spring. The lake has borne their names ever since.
Rutherford’s father worked at the sand plant when he was a teenager, and he made a keen observation as thousands of cubic yards of sand were removed from the beach.
“When my father worked at the sand plant, he observed buildings were washing away in Cape May Point. The buildings would wash away and several days later the bricks would be found where they were excavating sand on the beach,” Rutherford said.
Several beach blocks in the borough are now out in the water. Somehow, the people of the time never quite put two and two together.
Rutherford recalled the track running all the way to Davy’s Lake. They initially took the sand down Sunset Boulevard in chain-driven trucks, but later a rail line was constructed along Pond Creek Meadow, which was later used by the Magnesite Plant.
“They diverted Pond Creek to the plant for a source of fresh water,” Rutherford said.
Miller said old piling and piping showing up on the beach also was part of the sand-mining operation.
“They were intake and outfall pipes for the plant,” Miller said.
The remnants are now just more riprap on the shoreline, a seaside curiosity from when people did not just play on the beach but found a way to make a living from it.
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