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Trash and treasure: Historic Burlington Island is ready for a comeback — but first it needs a major cleanup

The historic Burlington Island, once home to Native Americans, the affluent from the Main Line and a 1920s amusement park, is now a virtual landfill of debris. The Board of Island Managers, along with volunteers and a Philadelphia clothing company, want to restore it and reopen it to the public.

Burlington Island, once the home of Native Americans, a Colonial trading post, wealthy Main Line residents on summer break and a 1920s amusement park, is filled with decades of debris.
Burlington Island, once the home of Native Americans, a Colonial trading post, wealthy Main Line residents on summer break and a 1920s amusement park, is filled with decades of debris.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Just off the coast of Burlington City, in the middle of the Delaware River with a view of the Burlington Bristol Bridge, sits a 400-acre treasure that was once home to a colonial-era trading post, Main Line residents on summer break, and a 1920s amusement park.

The walking paths of the serene Burlington Island wrap around a freshwater lake that rests in the center, where a bald eagle’s nest overlooks the site as its perpetual protector.

But despite its natural splendor, Burlington Island is also a dump.

Scattered throughout the property are mounds of 1950s refrigerators, dishwashers, a 40-foot oil tank, and the carcasses of delivery vehicles that dropped off supplies when the Delaware River would freeze and trucks could cross. A circular cement pit, once the foundation of a carousel, had a more recent life as a gathering place for teens to party.

Now, the leaders of Burlington City and its Island Board of Managers hope to return the island to the vitality of

its heydays, as a place to relax and enjoy nature.

“The trash has been there since the islanders and the city knocked everything down,” said Michael Zalot, president of the Island Managers, who has been on the board for half a century. “They didn’t do terribly much to remove it all, until just recently."

“It’s a wonderful natural resource and it’s almost like going to another country," he added. “There’s no cars, it’s just peaceful and calm."

The trash on the island has been accumulating since at least the mid-1970s, when the remains of rundown summer homes were demolished because of safety concerns. The debris was never completely removed and there were still visitors who arrived by boat over the decades who also left behind trash.

In 2012, the island was closed to the public by then-Burlington City Mayor James Fazzone, who was concerned that emergency crews could not easily get onto the site, 150 yards away.

Now, there’s a move to reopen it.

On April 10, volunteers and 20 employees of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection removed 1,300 pounds of soda bottles, beer cans dating to the 1960s, barbecue grills, bicycles, and other items.

On May 5, a major weeklong cleanup will begin with the goal of hauling away most the large items.

United by Blue, a Philadelphia-based sustainable-clothing brand that removes one pound of trash for every item they sell, has contracted an industrial barge from River Services, a marine transportation company, and will work with city and and state employees and volunteers to retrieve the trash for a week.

“It’s a really unique setting in which we’re helping to clear out historic infrastructure that has been stuck on the island due to the lack of resources to get it off,” said Maria McDonald, regional coordinator for United by Blue.

The Board of Island Managers and other Burlington City leaders want to bring the island back to life for family recreation and educational activities for the region. There’s no set date for it to reopen, and funding is needed, but that is the goal of the nonprofit, whose board members are paid $100 a year.

“Burlington Island has a great history and, hopefully, an even brighter future,” said Joe Abate, a member of the Island Managers board for more than 20 years. “Once we clean it up, they should open up the island to the public. There’s fields here that there’s no reason the Boy Scouts can’t come to and use. There’s projects, like the Girl Scouts, they put bat boxes up.

“There’s the youth of our community who are just begging for things to do,” he added.

On a recent tour of the island, Island Managers board members said once all of the trash is removed — which could take until the end of the year with additional volunteer efforts — they have grand plans.

They want to rebuild a dock so the island is more accessible. Abate said he and others want to bring a VFW camp to the island, similar to a model he’s seen work in Michigan. At the camp, veterans and their families could go hiking and canoeing, study nature or just enjoy the outdoors.

Karen Robbins, a local business developer and longtime advocate for Burlington Island, has been working on fund-raising for an indoor/outdoor water museum. She said she and the Island Managers are also looking for organizations involved in water conservation to curate and operate their own exhibits.

The Center for Aquatic Sciences at Camden’s Adventure Aquarium signed and delivered a letter of intent to the Board of Island Managers last year that says it will collaborate with the board to provide, “environmental education experiences for residents of and visitors to Burlington City’s Burlington Island scenic natural resource.”

Robbins said there is a need for educational programs about Native American settlements on the island before Swedish, Dutch and English settlers took it over in the 1600s. The Mantas (or Leaping Frog) tribe of the Lenni Lenape referred to the Burlington Island as “Matinicunk," according to Island Managers documents.

Thomas L. Swan, Burlington City councilman who joined the recent tour, says he supports the Island Managers and their initiative to create a useful public space for residents and visitors.

“This island is a natural beauty and I want to work with the Board of Island Managers to help clean up and make this island safe for people to use it," Swan said. “It’s amazing teamwork and it’s greatly appreciated.”