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The mystery of the Jersey Shore's 'ghost tracks'

LOWER TOWNSHIP - They are called the "ghost tracks" of Cape May. And until a couple of years ago, no one had seen them in about 80 years.

The 'ghost tracks' as seen along Sunset Beach near Higbee Wildlife Management area in the North Cape May section of Lower Township.
The 'ghost tracks' as seen along Sunset Beach near Higbee Wildlife Management area in the North Cape May section of Lower Township.Read moreJACQUELINE L. URGO/Staff

LOWER TOWNSHIP - They are called the "ghost tracks" of Cape May.

And until a couple of years ago, no one had seen them in about 80 years.

Then the short stretch of rusted railroad tracks - a remnant of a time when the silky quartz sand along the New Jersey coast was excavated and shipped for use in glass making or building projects - disappeared again under the shifting topography north of Sunset Beach.

Now about 30 feet of steel track, once used by a sand-mining operation at the site, has surfaced once again, running parallel to the water between Sunset Beach - where Cape May's concrete ship landmark juts out of the surf - and Higbee Beach, a remote, undeveloped strand that is part of the Higbee Wildlife Management Area.

"When you cross that bridge into Cape May you are, at least mentally, able to step back in time. . . . It really is a city lost in time. And those tracks are such an immediate visual representation of that city lost in time," said Ben Miller, a Cape May historian who has collected information and historical photos about the tracks since they first resurfaced in 2014. The tracks emerged and then were covered over after that initial exposure, but were unearthed again by coastal erosion around Thanksgiving last month.

The narrow-gauge tracks were never used as a part of a passenger line, but instead date to 1905, when the Cape May Sand Plant began operating on the site and continued to harvest sand until the company ceased operations there in 1936, Miller said.

Miller said large cranes were used in the operation that would scoop the sand off the beach along the surf line and place it into the boxcars that a small locomotive had pulled right up to the waterfront on the tracks.

Now the rusted tracks, and the timbers that have held them in place for more than a hundred years, are visible within a gully that has been cut through a portion of the beachfront, where a rushing slurry of sand and water washes beneath.

So furious is the stream at times that a salt foam layer has formed in spots where the tracks and wooden railroad ties supporting them have trapped marsh grass, seaweed, and other debris. Heavily pigmented reddish dust from the rusty metal has accumulated in spots.

A couple of miles north along the same beach closer to the Cape May Canal, which fronts the Delaware Bay, another set of train tracks had been uncovered briefly several years ago. Those tracks were World War I era and had been built by Bethlehem Steel Co. to transport munitions to an explosives test site along Higbee Beach.

"They are less evident than these tracks are right now . . . they may even be submerged at this point," Miller said of the munitions tracks.

Even farther north along the bayfront in the bygone village of Bayside in Cumberland County, a 20-foot section of tracks occasionally juts out of the wetlands, running perpendicular to the water's edge. They are a leftover from the heyday of the ghost town, nicknamed "Caviar," that once had a population of more than 4,000 workers and boasted twice-a-day train service transporting people and boxcars full of oysters and sturgeon to hungry markets in Philadelphia and New York.

Transportation experts estimate there are more than 80,000 miles of abandoned railroad tracks in the United States - not necessarily counting submerged tracks like those found along the New Jersey coastline.

"Those train tracks are creating a segue to telling more of the history of the area to a whole new generation . . . they are really mesmerizing to people," Miller said.

Miller said he finds their existence especially intriguing because a similarly placed set of tracks - of a heavier gauge because they once supported trains and trolleys that transported people through Cape May and a settlement called South Cape May, which was wiped off the map by hurricanes and storms over the last century - now lies off the coast at the bottom of the sea "mangled and twisted" by the force of the storms that destroyed it.

"It's incredible to me that the power of the ocean literally twisted up those much heavier trolley tracks, but these train tracks have held together and are so preserved that people can still see them . . . can still see that history right before their eyes. It's amazing," Miller said, likening the find to the legends of buried pirate booty in the region.

"It's as if those train tracks are the buried treasure bringing back and showing us what used to be here," Miller said.

That's how Nanci Neff of Bethesda, Md., views it, too. Neff, who owns a summer home in Cape May, recently trekked more than a mile to find tracks of the abandoned sand plant.

"Cape May in general is a pretty amazing place," said Neff, 62, who sold residential real estate for 30 years. "I could go to the beaches in Maryland, but for me, they just don't have what the Jersey Shore has . . . these hidden little gems, like these old train tracks. Things like this make this place so interesting. They call these the ghost tracks, and I'm glad I had a chance to see them."