It was high noon in Wildwood yesterday and as imaginary tumbleweeds rolled across the barren beaches, the sheriff in town confirmed that the Golden Nugget roller coaster had mined its last ounce of joy.

The sheriff was Jack Morey, executive vice president of the Morey Organization, the amusement company that owns the one-of-a-kind, indoor/outdoor coaster that has been encased in an Old West mining town on a boardwalk pier since summer 1960.

The three-story ride is a staple of the Wildwood landscape, and even though its rickety rails haven't seen a rider since 1999, its skull-like facade still peers out over the beach there.

Making a decision on the Golden Nugget's fate has been an internal duel, Morey says - one between his heartstrings and his purse strings.

"We just couldn't make it work," Morey said yesterday, as if breaking terrible news to a family in a trauma center.

On Jan. 31, the Morey family will officially bid the Golden Nugget farewell with a ceremony on Hunt's Pier, one of many piers the family owns along the boardwalk.

Those in attendance will walk away with a piece of memorabilia from the ride, which at one point included vultures, cacti, attacking bears, barrels of dynamite and more than few skeletonized gold miners.

"It's going to be a farewell, not a funeral," Morey said.

For the few drifters on the Wildwood boardwalk, a ghost town in December, the news felt like a death notice.

"My dad would take me and my sister on it when we were little girls, said Ruth Gentry, 55, a Lancaster County native in town for her wedding anniversary.

Ruth and Tom Gentry took their first vacation as a couple in Wildwood in 1969 and have ridden the Nugget "more times than they could count." Tom may have even stolen a kiss or two when the ride descended from the rooftop desert into the darkness of the mines.

"It's always been a part of our lives," she said.

The Morey family considered a complete restoration of the ride, a transformation into a museum or picnic center, and even completely moving it, piece by piece, to another pier. The numbers never worked out, he said.

"That's why I left it there for eight years, waiting for something miraculous to happen."

The price tag for a renovation ranged from $3 million to $5 million, and even then, Morey couldn't guarantee it would have passed New Jersey's strict amusement safety standards.

"There was so many rumors and so many questions about it, we felt that we needed to be honest with the guests and make a decision," he said.

Thomas Rebbie, owner of the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, said former owner John Allen made a promise to the Hunt family that he would never duplicate the Golden Nugget he built for them.

"There's only one Golden Nugget," Rebbie said. "It's heart-breaking, but I know if the Morey brothers couldn't make it work then it truly couldn't be done."

Morey said the actual coaster inside the building could be sold to another amusement park. The props, he assures, will wind up in the proper hands - either in other Morey amusements or local museums.

An ambitious new coaster, which could stretch across the beach between piers, is in the works, Morey claims, as well as a new haunted house, which could fill the void left when another Wildwood landmark, Castle Dracula, burned down in 2002.

Wildwood historian Ralph Grassi, who runs a Web site dedicated to boardwalk culture, knew the bell would eventually toll for his beloved Nugget as it did for the Castle.

"It's been there all my life and I'm really saddened by this," he said. "I can't tell you how often I would just go up there to look at it like some dreamy-eyed kid."

For more information about the Golden Nugget, including a video tour, visit www. *