New Jersey's eerie 'telephone pole farm' will soon be gone

Work starts this week on removing wooden poles and other equipment from the former AT&T site.

BERKELEY TOWNSHIP, N.J. - A windswept coastal no-man's-land here, where hundreds of oddly placed wooden poles and scary-looking antennas and guidewires have created an eerie sci-fi landscape for nearly a hundred years, will soon be returned to a more natural state.

The 220-acre little cape known as Good Luck Point juts into the Barnegat Bay between the Ocean County towns of Ocean Gate and Bayville and straddles a marshy area along Bayview Avenue that has been part of the venerable Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge for more than a decade.

But it has looked very little like an environmentally protected area thanks to a collection of more than 500 poles, strings of wires, metal grids, and other pieces of equipment left over from when it was a hub for American Telephone & Telegraph's ship-to-shore radio service. That service ended in 1999.

To boaters, it's become a kind of landmark called "the telephone pole farm," where from a distance the poles seem to stick up out of the marsh like a field of battered toothpicks.

Work, however, is scheduled to begin this week- using $1.7 million of $10 million in Hurricane Sandy grant funding that Forsythe has received from the federal government - to remove the old equipment from the site, according to Virginia Rettig, Forsythe's refuge manager.

A crew of about a dozen workers from the contractor Amec Foster Wheeler Environment & Infrastructure Inc. will spend about two weeks at the site employing a fleet of three or four airboats to glide throughout the marsh, cutting and chopping down the poles. The wood will be recycled or sent to a landfill, according to the contract.

Some of the metal poles will remain and will be used as platforms for osprey nests, biologists said.

"It's really a fascinating and wonderful part of communications history," said Rettig, on a recent hike at the site. "At the same time, this will eventually become a great place for the public to take a walk and enjoy the remarkable natural beauty here."

The site played a historic role in a now-inactive ship-to-shore shortwave communications network that was operated by AT&T from the 1920s through 1999. The site was one of only three in the nation - the others were in Florida and California.

Under the call letters WOO, it became a renowned transmitting station within the network and helped globally broadcast Voice of America - the U.S. government-funded multimedia news service - when it was in its infancy during World War II.

The site continued to be used by AT&T through the 1990s until satellite and cellphone technology replaced the network that allowed mariners to place telephone calls through AT&T on VHF channels. The land was purchased in 2003 by the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, which subsequently donated it to the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.

It's unclear exactly how the seemingly random placement of the poles, antennas, and wires that appear in the marsh actually functioned to transmit the calls, but the station's transmitter here worked in tandem with a receiver site on another marsh about 15 miles to the south in Manahawkin. The network helped to operate the company's "long line" system via stations in Miami and San Francisco, according to historical documentation.

But the documents fail to indicate just why the Good Luck Point site was selected by company officials in the 1920s. Rettig guesses that AT&T probably obtained the rather remote, marshy land "rather cheaply."

Rettig said because of the site's historical significance, her agency had to prepare a detailed report on the how and why of remediating the wetlands back to its original, natural state. It has not been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the agency was given the go-ahead to complete the project.

Over the ensuing years since the AT&T operations there closed, the poles and metal antennas remained mostly upright, but sometimes - usually during severe nor'easters and hurricanes - some of the equipment would be pulled down by the battering winds. A two-story reddish-orange brick, bunkerlike building - now derelict with broken windows and graffiti - once housed delicate equipment and offices for the site, but now only adds to the bleak look of the place. The site is protected behind a padlocked, chain-link fence.

The section of the site containing the building and an adjacent gravel parking lot are actually owned by Berkeley Township and officials have said they plan to tear down the building and work with Forsythe to create a visitor access point, Rettig said.

The site was never made accessible to the public because of the safety issues regarding the remaining equipment. Biologists had long wanted to clean it up and restore the marsh so its value to wildlife could be improved, but there was never enough funding.

When Hurricane Sandy swept through the region, it certainly damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and commercial properties, but it also decimated natural parts of the area where important and endangered species thrive, according to Amy Drohan, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist.

Drohan said parts of Forsythe - which winds noncontiguously from along a 50-mile stretch along the Jersey Shore from Lacey Township south to Galloway Township - were inundated during Sandy with wreckage and debris from flooded homes, marinas, and other entities. The rest of the $10 million received in the grant will be used for that cleanup, she said.

And despite the industrial-age remnants on the site - with some birds having been injured or killed when they have gotten caught in the wires - nature has managed to actually thrive there, said Drohan, noting that as many as 18 osprey nests and a number of peregrine falcon nests are contained in the area.

"It's really very unusual to see so many osprey nests in such a relatively small area," Drohan said. "But for some reason, they've figured out how to exist together here. It'll be interesting to see what happens in the spring when they return and the site is restored to a natural area."



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