Liz Goldsmith was walking the shore between Sunset and Higbee Beach last Tuesday when the ocean – fueled by the combination of storms, coastal erosion and the daily low tide – unearthed one of the area’s rarest finds. The tracks, which date to the early 20th century, were first seen in over 80 years in 2014 and have since been uncovered by various weather events in subsequent years, including a couple of large storms in 2018.
Mysterious WWI-era railroad tracks hidden in the Atlantic Ocean? It’s not quite the plot of a thriller novel, but an actual discovery found on a beach in Cape May, New Jersey, last week after a violent coastal storm.
Nicknamed “ghost tracks,” the tracks were used to aid in sand mining and munitions testing during World War I, according to NJ.com. The Cape May Sand Company also used the rails from 1905 to 1936 to remove sand from the beach and process it into glass or cement.
Local historian Ben Miller told NJ.com in 2017 that cement made from the sand carried along the tracks helped build the Panama Canal.
“These are like hidden treasures – unearthed,” Miller said. “Suddenly they are there, and what used to be just the sandy beach you walked along is suddenly like a portal into the past.”
Matthew Malkiewicz, an electrical engineer whose sideline is photographing steam trains, said he was one of the first to see the ghost tracks when they appeared eight years ago.
“In 2014 I was informed that some of these traces in Cape might reappear after 80 years,” Malkiewicz recalled. “And then the next morning I ran there at low tide and was there at sunrise to take those first photos.”
He suggested that when the tracks are out of sight, they’re very much out of mind. “People who work and live on the beach … had no idea a train ever ran there.”
Goldsmith’s find of the track in 2022 was made possible by the coastal storms that battered the New Jersey shore early last week. The storms not only dropped several inches of rain and caused fierce gusts of wind, but also accelerated growing concerns about beach erosion in the region.
Huge amounts of sand have been swept from beaches across the region, including Sunset and Higbee Beach. Erosion was worst farther north in North Wildwood, particularly in the area near 7th Avenue and JFK Beach Drive, 6abc reported, as all of the beach area and replenishment sand was wiped away.
“This caused significant beach erosion on some South Jersey beaches, including the erosion of sand dunes, which in some cases turned into sheer cliffs,” said Tom Kines, senior weather forecaster at AccuWeather. “Beach erosion affected the shoreline south into the Carolinas.”
“Unlike the East Coast storms that we typically see in the winter, this storm battered the coast for several days, while a nor’easter typically only causes problems for a day or two,” Kines said. “Because the wind was blowing from the same direction for several days, the waves got bigger and bigger, hitting the same beach day after day.”