LOWER TOWNSHIP — The past is never far below the surface in this part of southern New Jersey. And when the waves erode a beach, it may not be below the surface at all.
Train tracks constructed more than 100 years ago have reappeared in the sands along the Delaware Bay near Sunset Beach.
The track’s rusted rails and deteriorated wooden ties look like the remnants of a long-lost civilization. And in a way they are, hinting at the industrial past of this now-marshy section of the township.
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About 50 feet of rail was exposed by shifting sand in the fall, and it has attracted photographers, railroad fans and other sightseers this offseason.
The tracks, which pop out from below the sand only to descend below the beach once more, first reappeared in 2014.
Records from the Cape May County Clerk’s Office indicate the tracks were owned by the Atlantic City Railroad Co. and leased to the Cape May Sand Co.
A 1908 contract between the railroad and the sand company states that the track system — 10,632 feet of rail — connected with tracks belonging to the Cape May, Delaware Bay and Sewell’s Point Railroad Co.
A 1907 map shows the tracks beginning south of Sunset Boulevard and extending north toward Higbee Beach, with several offshoots from the main line.
The rails were in a constant struggle against the elements.
“They had already lost one set of tracks by that point and they had to move them,” county Records Clerk Laurie Thomas said.
Indeed, the hand-drawn map labels one of the offshoots as “washed away” in 1907, a fate that may be repeated with the recently-unearthed tracks.
Ravished by salt water, wind and sand, some ties have begun to fall off the rails into a tidal stream flowing underneath the track, leaving the future of the tracks uncertain.
In their heyday, the tracks transported thousands of tons of sand per year.
The sand company’s main office was at 512 Washington St. in Cape May, and its purpose was “to dig, buy, sell, deal in and deal with sand and gravel of all kinds,” according to incorporation papers filed in 1905.
And the Cape May Sand Company had a good run, Thomas said, before the Harbison-Walker Magnesite Plant took over the Lower Township site in the 1940s.
“It was open during the Great Depression,” she said. “At the sand plant, at least they had jobs.”
The tracks outlasted the sand company and the magnesite plant, to the point where the area near the tracks is no longer industrial. The rusty rails border the Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area and are situated not far from Sunset Beach.
The old tracks are also in full view of the SS Atlantus, a World War I-era concrete ship that wrecked off the coast in 1926, when the tracks were still in use.
Both serve as visible, ghostly reminders of a past that’s neither gone nor forgotten. Contact: 609-272-7411 JTomczuk@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressTomczuk