Barnegat Branch Rail Trail - Challenges to Historical Preservation
One of the largest controversies in the township of Lacey over the last ten years has been over what to do with the Barnegat Branch Rail Trail. The original proposal called for a road that would stretch from Bayville to Barnegat, providing an extra access corridor that would serve to alleviate the crippling summer shore traffic by serving as a convenient artery for the populations of the South Toms River, Berkeley, Bayville, Lanoka Harbor, Forked River, Waretown, Barnegat and Manahawkin communities. The traffic in the summer grinds to a halt in a gridlock that stretches the length of Route 9 from parts of Central Jersey down to Atlantic City, which given the location of the aging (and aged) Oyster Creek Nuclear Plant in the southernmost section of Forked River, provides a constant worry for the residents vis-a-vis the lack of clear evacuation routes. The proposed roadway was intended to provide an additional access to Route 70 for residents, by giving them access to Routes 72 and 37 in additional to the single lane Lacey Road.
- The Barnegat Branch Rail Trail itself sits on a railway line owned by the Toms River and Waretown Railroad (1870). The railway extended its line to Barnegat in 1879. In 1893 the Toms River & Barnegat Rail Road Company then took over control of this property. Eventually all this came under control of the Central New Jersey Railroad. (http://www.northeast.railfan.net/cnj.html)
- Passenger transit operated along this railway until the 1950s, with freight continuing down the line until the 1970s. Parts of these connecting tracks can still be found in Toms River, where the tracks are largely unused even though the tracks and traffic signals are kept in working order for those rare occasions when a bit of freight or a single engine heads down those tracks.
- Sometime after the railway right of ways were abandoned the land reverted back to the communities themselves and the land was allowed to lay fallow, used only rarely by residents as a walking paths - and by high school kids looking for a "safe place" to smoke cigarettes and use recreational drugs. The unpatrolled, unpoliced and isolated nature of the rail trail contributed to the unsavory reputation it developed among citizens.
- These right of ways became something of an eyesore - long strips of sandy trails lined by strands of scrub pines, littered with trash and serving as a location for criminal activities. Lacey's solution was to ignore it for as long as possible, with police checking out complaints dutifully, but given the isolated nature of the right of way there were few direct complaints as people rarely saw the crimes taking place.
- Additionally the seasonal nature of both Seaside and Long Beach Island and the lack of additional access roads in proximity to a dense local population combined with the oldest operating power plant in the country, Oyster Creek, created an immediate - though undiscussed - danger to the surrounding communities.
- The township saw a perfect excuse to take care of an unsightly old trail that was really more trouble than it was currently worth, and proposed the building of a new road on the old right of way. Immediately however the prospect of the new road came under fire from various community members, and unfortunately for the town - the leaders turned out to be some of the wealthiest and most prominent members of the community.
- To complicate the plan further the Ocean County Board of Freeholders gained control of the trail outside of Lacey Township and set into motion plans of their own for the right of way. Despite this, Lacey has to date continued to doggedly pursue plans of their own for the right of way.
The target community resource is not a neighborhood or a building per se, but is instead an abandoned railway corridor that runs between Bayville and Barnegat in Ocean County New Jersey. For a time it served as an important connection between New York and the New Jersey shore communities that first began to grow and accommodate the birth of leisure travel and vacations among the working classes in the 19th century. This early corridor served as an important artery for both freight and passengers in the years after the civil war, "the railroad [crossed the] Barnegat Bay, connecting what is now Ocean Gate to the present day Fourteenth Street in Seaside Park. From there the track ran north, connecting to Point Pleasant and the Long Branch RR. The construction of the bridge and track were begun in 1881 and the entire line was completed in 1882" (discoverseasideheights.com).
The Barnegat Branch Trail - as it’s known now - passes through an area that has been settled since shortly after the Revolution and crosses a fairly historic artery - "Lacey Road". The community that rests upon this junction of right of way and roadway is known as Lacey Township and is named for Continental Army General John Lacey, who settled in the area. "General John Lacey in partnership with his son Thomas R. Lacey developed Ferrago Forge on the middle branch of the Cedar Creek eight miles northwest of Forked River in 1809 which included an area he had surveyed in 1794. It included a dam that created "Forge Pond." The settlement that sprang up around the forge was first called Ferrago Village. General Lacey built a road from the forge to Forked River in 1810 to ship the iron products from Ferrago Forge and nearby Dover Forge built in 1809 by Lacey's son-in-law, William Smith, in what is now Berkeley Township. The road was named Lacey Road" (laceytownship.org).
One would think a township so blessed with resources that date back to the Revolution would have a stronger preservation mindset, however, that has not been the case with this rail right of way. Now traditionally speaking, railway right of ways are not commonly included on either the State Register or the National Historic Register, however this particular railway does meet the criteria for the National Register.
Specifically the railway right of way crosses Lacey Rd, a road that was laid by a founding father. "The corridor is unique in and of itself - displaying architectural and design features unlike any other rail corridor in the State of New Jersey. There still remain many archeological remnants of its history including original train stations, rails, and a turntable" (Beachwood historical alliance). Beyond the stations, rails and the turntables, there also remains the railway bridge that crosses the Barnegat Bay that the Barnegat Branch trail connected too. "The railroad bridge over the bay is long gone, but today you can still see some of the bridge pilings near the shore of Barnegat Bay. The bridge remnants are readily visible from the bay shoreline in Ocean Gate, just to the south of Pier Ave" (discoverseasideheights.com). (Note that the bridge wasn't on the Barnegat Branch Line, but any train coming south from Long Branch to Barnegat or heading north along the same lines did cross that bridge.)
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- Rutgers The State University of New Jersey
- Historic Preservation