Island Beach State Park

The History of Island Beach State Park




Native Americans used the Jersey shore like many modern day Americans have for the past century - they stayed at the coast during the summer. European ownership of the area containing Island Beach State Park began in 1635 when an English Earl was granted a parcel of land that included Island Beach. This deed meant little in terms of how the land was used but it did establish a private claim to the property. In subsequent years fisherman built summer shacks within what would become Island Beach State Park and eventually the United States Lifesaving Service established some rescue bases along the beach. Henry C. Phipps, a partner of Andrew Carnegie, purchased the land in 1926.

Phipp's land manager later established the Boro of Island Beach, which existed as a legal entity until 1965. The State of New Jersey purchased the 2,694-acre Phipps estate in 1953. The state wanted to preserve the natural beauty of the island and provide recreational facilities for swimmers, hikers, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts. The park was officially opened in 1959.

The History of Island Beach State Park - a more comprehensive narrative.

Early History

The original inhabitants of the area today known as New Jersey were Native Americans from the Lenape tribes. They had permanent settlements on the mainland and built seasonal homes at the coast. The Lenape were the earliest known visitors to the land where Island Beach State Park is now located. During the summer they would hunt waterfowl and shorebirds, fish, crab, collect shells for producing wampum, gather eggs, and trap turtles and muskrats. The Lenape were removed from all of their New Jersey settlements by 1758, which put an end to their seasonal shore activities.

One of the earliest European accounts of the Jersey shore comes from the journal of a crewman traveling on the ship 'Half Moon'. This boat was under the command of Henry Hudson and in 1609 it traveled by Barnegat Inlet and anchored off of the Jersey coast. A journaling crewman, Robert Juet, wrote that the New Jersey coast was 'a very good land to fall in with, and a pleasant land to see.'

Shortly after, in 1614, the Dutch navigator, surveyor, and cartographer Cornelius Hendrickson navigated the Onrust through Barnegat Inlet to the Toms River. As the first European explorer to set foot on what became Ocean County soil he audaciously declared the area was now Holland's land. These lands thereby became part of the New Netherlands.

In 1635, Charles I of England issued the first Earl of Stirling land grants in the New World that included land that would become Island Beach State Park. Holland's claims to the land had previously been surrended to the crown under pressure from England.

Many years later a descendant of Earl Stirling and an heir to his vacant earldom, James Alexander, fled his native Scotland to seek refuge in America.

Alexander's son William later petitioned the courts to regain his family title and in July 1761 he was officially recognized as Lord Stirling. This gave him the title to the Island Beach State Park land parcel and it became known as Lord Stirling's Isle. During the French and Indian War Stirling was aide-de-camp to Governor Shirley of New York. He then distinguished himself during the Revolutionary War, serving in all of its major battles and achieving the rank of Brigadier General.


Early in the century small settlements were established in Little Egg Harbor (Tuckerton) and Goose Creek (Toms River).

The barrier island that Island Beach State Park is a part of was once separated from the Barnegat peninsula by a natural inlet. Cranberry Inlet originally opened, by natural forces, in 1750. It is believed to have been located where modern day Ortley Beach is now found. The Inlet was eventually closed, again by nature, in 1812. The cranberry bogs in the area gave rise to the ephemeral inlet's name. At that time the fruits of the cranberry plant were an important resource for sailing ships. Sailors would collect the preservable cranberries to help prevent scurvy during long ocean voyages.

Cranberry inlet also became part of the history of New Jersey's Revolutionary War efforts. Local pirates were commissioned by the Continental Congress and the colony of New Jersey to prey on British shipping. Ships seized by the so called privateer boats were taken up Cranberry Inlet to Toms River or up Barnegat Inlet to Tuckerton. As a part of these hostilities a British expedition once attacked the Toms River Blockhouse. A compliment of twenty-five local militiamen were stationed there, under the command of Captain Joshua Huddy. The British forces razed Toms River and hung Huddy. A notoriously vicous local outlaw, John Bacon, and his men also carried out the Barnegat Light Massacre during this same period. This heinous crime occured when Bacon and his men slaughtered twenty crewmen from a salvaged British sloop.

By the late 1700s, Toms River and Tuckerton were busy seaports supporting a number of small businesses and homes. Colonists there would willingly purchase contraband goods from England and the West Indies. Tavern owners were especially eager to buy West Indies' molasses so they could make rum. Salt was also an important commodity at that time. It was the center of a small bay industry. Salt was in high demand, in part, because it was needed to make saltpeter, an ingredient of gunpowder.


Maritime activities continued to flourish in the local area. Fishing, commerce, and passenger transport were important local industries. The War of 1812 also saw the return of ship warfare. Commodore Hardy, aboard the British ship Ramillies, conducted raids while patrolling off Barnegat Inlet. His aim was to stop American ships from reaching New York. A New Jersey militia was formed to combat these coastal British attacks.

Increased shipping traffic along the coast's ever-changing shoals resulted in more shipwrecks. During the winter of 1826-27 over 200 ships were lost. The Jersey coast earned the nickname 'the Graveyard of the Atlantic.' Monmouth county resident William Newell once witnessed a shipwreck off Long Beach Island while he was visiting an uncle in Manahawkin. This event made a strong impression on Newell. Years later when he became a congressman, he tried to convince his fellow representatives that something needed to be done about the shipwreck problem along the Jersey coast. Some of Newell's contemporaries, such as Daniel Webster and John Quincy Adams, were initially unconvinced by his arguments to allocate money for life saving efforts.

In 1846, the wreck of the John Minturn helped Newell find support for his concerns and an expenditure for $10,000 was successfully attached to a lighthouses bill. The money Newell secured was for purchasing equipment to be used "for the better preservation of life and property from shipwrecks on the coasts of New Jersey." This marked the beginnings of what would later become the United States Life Saving Service. Three service stations were eventually built on lands that today encompass Island Beach State Park. The operation of the Life-Saving Service was developed and formalized by Captain Hugh McClellan at these New Jersey life saving stations. He took six trained, uniformed service members to New Orleans for the World's Fair and demonstrated the lifesaving techniques he and his men had developed. These methods became the national standard. At its peak the service maintained 271 stations on the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts, as well as the Great Lakes. Over 177,000 lives were saved by 1915. That year the Life Saving Service merged with the Revenue Cutter Service, creating the United State's Coast Guard.

By 1850, over 10,000 people lived in the newly formed Ocean County. Stagecoaches would transport visitors to the shore for 87½ cents. Recreational hunting and fishing was unheard of in the area at that time. The arrival of the railroad, however, created opportunities for sportsmen from New York and Philadelphia to access the jersey shore. Early accommodations for these hardier souls were rather primitive but served as an impetus for developing a tourism industry. Resort hotels were eventually constructed for the less adventuresome visitors that simply wanted to enjoy relaxing at the beach.

In the 1850's, the present day Barnegat Lighthouse was completed. It cost $60,000 and reached a height of 163 feet. It is the second oldest lighthouse in the United States and is also the tallest in New Jersey.

Eventually two sportsmen hotels were built on what was to become Island Beach State Park. The Reed and Haring Hotels employed locals to act as guides for their visitors. Numerous gun clubs were also built on the marshes in the bay. In addition to serving as recreational hunting guides, locals could earn money by harvesting wild goose and duck that were sold to fancy city restaurants.

It was during this time that the culture of the 'Baymen' began to emerge. Early settlers to the area found they could supplement their diet and income with fish, clams and waterfowl. It was not long before these baymen were able to support themselves entirely from the waters of Barnegat Bay. They trapped muskrats, hunted shore birds and water fowl, harvested salt hay and eelgrass, fished for striped bass and bluefish, tonged for oysters and clams, tended lobster and eelpots, caught turtles and blue claw crabs, built boats, carved decoys, and acted as guides to visiting sportsmen.


In 1926, Henry Phipps, Andrew Carnegie's partner in Pittsburgh steel, purchased the Island Beach State Park property. He planned to create an exclusive summer resort and managed to have three homes built: the Ocean House, the Bay House and the Freeman House. The stock market crash brought an end to his development ideas. Phipps died in 1930 and Island Beach was left under the watchful eye of the estate foreman, Francis Freeman.

Francis Parkman Freeman was born in 1884 and at one time managed farms in upstate New York for gentlemen' farmers. He served in World War I, married after the war, and lost both his wife and infant daughter in childbirth. Freeman then went to Russian-speaking Armenia to teach agriculture as part of the Far East Relief foundation. In 1926 he accepted the foreman's position at the new Phipps estate. Two years later he married children's mystery author Augusta Hueill Seaman.

In 1933 Freeman, his wife, and retired Coast guard captain, Joseph Tilton, created the Borough of Island Beach. Each assumed multiple roles: Freeman was Fire Chief, head of the Board of Education and Mayor while his wife was Borough clerk, Tax Collector, and Borough Registrar. Tilton and the two Freemans met twice a month to govern the borough. They also managed Phipps Barnegat Bay and Beach Company which issued passes to visitors and administered nearly 100 land leases. Freeman's rules were simple: 'Leave the flowers and don't annoy the osprey. When the state purchased the area the existing leases were honored with the stipulation that once the original owner dies the lease would revert back to the state.

During World War II the Island Beach State Park property was evacuated, except for the Freemans. They remained to manage the borough and a Coast Guard detail was assigned to patrol the area's beaches. In 1945 scientists from John Hopkins University came to Island Beach to test the world's first supersonic anti-aircraft missile. The test launch, as part of the Operation Bumblebee program, was a success and was important in the early development of rocket propelled weaponry.

In 1945 the National Monument committee was formed. This agency attempted to purchase Island Beach State Park for the National Park service. Despite the support of President Herbert Hoover, the agency was unable to secure funding for purchasing the land. The State of New Jersey eventually purchased the property in 1953 for the price of 2.7 million dollars.

When Governor Driscoll accepted the deed from Phipps' heirs, he stated: 'Island Beach is unique. It is a jewel. There is nothing like it anywhere on earth.' The park opened in 1959 under the Department of Conservation and Economic Development. It is currently managed by the Division of Parks and Forestry under the Department of Environmental Protection.

Island Beach is currently one of the most popular state parks in New Jersey and attracts approximately one million visitors every year.

This history is adapted from a brochure issued by Island Beach State Park.



N.J. Department of Environmental Protection Island Beach State Park

Friends of Island Beach State Park

Barnegat Bay National Estuary Program

Island Beach Weather


Site Map