Poor Bay Head. Battered by Ocean. Encroached by NJ Transit. "Crown Jewel" with Challenges.

Updated: Sep 9


Bay Head beach plowing in April. All photos by R.C. Staab

The Bay Head Business Association describes Bay Head as "the crown jewel of the strand of beaches that constitutes Barnegat Beach Island: a dazzling rustic haven by the sea." Other than the rustic part, the description is fairly accurate for a town that simply gets its name from being at the northern tip or the "head of the bay." This small beach community is know for its large, well-tended homes stretching along a narrow mile-long strip of land from Pt. Pleasant Beach to Mantoloking.


But with so many places that are known for their crown jewels (i.e. England), there are challenges in maintaining status, especially with an unforgiving ocean to the east, a large bay to the west and those pesky Pt. Pleasant Beach neighbors.

(From the vantage point of the beachfront or boardwalk, this is a breezy overview of what you see, where to park and beach access, plus a bit or history and the latest happenings. See map below.)


Bulldozing the "cliffs"

The wicked, windy storms of January and February were particularly damaging to the beaches of Bay Head, creating "cliffs" with nearly vertical drops of up to18 feet from the manufactured dunes to water's edge. After receiving federal disaster aid, the beaches were plowed in April. While there are no longer cliffs, the grade is quite steep, hardly the postcard image of a wide sandy beach.


NJ Transit: between a lake and a hard place

If you read the previous Jersey Shore Walk story about Pt. Pleasant Beach, you may remember that local hero Captain John Arnold promoted and funded the extension of the railroad to that town. But the railroad company had no interest in extending further south along the thin peninsula. That meant the company needed a railroad yard for trains could turn around. Arnold had already built up much of what is downtown Pt. Pleasant so it's likely he encouraged the rail company to build its rail yard on an undeveloped wetlands area further south that is now part of Bay Head.


That rail yard comprises a substantial chunk of the Borough's land -- non taxable land -- and borders the small Twilight Lake which feeds into Barnegat Bay. After Superstorm Sandy, the yard’s two substation structures were damaged having been submerged in salt water. Buoyed by strong political interests at every level, NJ Transit undertook a massive "resilience program" throughout the state which includes replacing the Bay Head Yard substation.

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For more than five years, the locals have waged numerous protests as evidenced by the many lawn signs that read, "Save Twilight Lake from NJ Transit". The campaign organizers are concerned about the negative impact to the wetlands area after years of what they say is a history of environmental neglect by the transit agency.


However, while NJ Transit has sought public feedback, it makes clear on its website that the state entity "does not require approvals by local planning or other boards." Last year, NJ Transit broke ground on the substation. Just this week, NJ Transit announced the restoration of dozens of trains providing shuttle service along the Coast Line between Bay Head and Long Branch throughout the summer.

Not-so-pleasant people sued to get on the beach

The beaches in Bay Head are not owned by the Borough. They are owned by the 73 beachfront homeowners as well as the non-profit Bay Head Improvement Association (BHIA) which takes care of them through sale of beach badges. The Association has been around since 1910!


At some point, BHIA restricted access to the beach, only allowing members, member guests and fishermen to walk "through the upper dry sand area to foreshore" during the summer months.


In the 1980s, nearby some Pt. Pleasant Beach residents had enough. They weren't allowed to sit much less even walk across the invisible beach boundary between towns so they sued BHIA. They couldn't buy a beach badge unless they were sponsored by a BHIA member. The lawsyit reached the Supreme Court of New Jersey in 1983. In a ruling, the Court cited ancient Romans which held that "by the law of nature the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea were common to mankind." The Court also cited a 1821 New Jersey case about fishermen harvesting oyster beds, saying that the seashore was not private property but "subject to the same law as the sea itself, and the sand or ground beneath it."


Today, anyone can buy a beach badge, even people from Pt. Pleasant Beach.


The canal that created an island

There is one more indignity that was foisted upon Bay Head. Originally, Bay Head was the northern terminus of the Intracoastal Waterway which continued all the way to Florida. It was the "head" of the "bay", thus the name of the town.


Yes, as early as 1833, fishermen, civic and state leaders pushed for a canal to be dug between the Manasquan River and the Barnegat Bay. The idea was to allow fishermen located along the Manasquan River to easily access the fish and oysters of the Barnegat Bay instead of a 45-mile roundtrip via water. And with a canal, fisherman from Manasquan could start their journey south via the bay for some 26 miles before having navigate the ocean.


After much delay, the canal was dug. Fortunately, the canal avoided cutting through Twilight Lake which was originally part of the plan. After the canal opened in 1925, salt water immediately flowed from the Manasquan River into the bay creating an environmental nightmare. Within a few short years, the Manasquan Inlet closed and fishermen were out of business. Most people blamed the closure of inlet to the unanticipated diversion of water from the canal to the Bay


Repeatedly, the Manasquan Inlet was dredged and reopened. Support walls were built along the jetty to keep the Inlet open to the ocean. The walls are visible today as you motor out to the ocean.


An island is born. Previously, a very long and thin peninsula that stretched from the southern tip of Island Beach State Park to Manasquan and then inland. You could walk or drive from the state park north along the peninsula and continue to Pt. Pleasant and points west without crossing water. By digging a canal, an island was created with the bay and the canal on the west, the Manasquan River to the north and the ocean to the east and south.


One last indignity was imposed by Pt. Pleasant folk. The original name of the canal was the Bay Head-Manasquan Canal. In the 1964, Pt. Pleasant officials convinced Congress to change the name to The Point Pleasant Canal.


This eyesore is history

The tallest building in Bay Head is the New Jersey American Water tower with numerous antennas from cellular companies. It's an eyesore. It doesn't even have a friendly saying on it like "Welcome to Bay Head".


The good news is that the tower has been decommissioned. Although it was supposed to be taken down this year, that is likely to happen in 2022. The cellular towers will be replaced in some fashion.


Tips for Visiting Bay Head

What's New: Nothing new to report.

Access and Parking: Most people enter Bay Head along busy Route 35, know as Main Avenue in Bay Head. There's a strip of businesses if you enter from the west along Route 13/Bridge Avenue. Parking is free but near the beach is nearly impossible. In some places the parking is restricted to a two-hour time limit.

Amenities: None

Beaches: There isn't a boardwalk or a promenade. There are 11 access points along East Avenue. Beach badges are required weekends beginning May 29. Badges are required daily from June 19 through September 6. Full season badges are $90 and half season badges are $50. Daily badges are $9 (cash only). Badges are not required under the age of 12.

Starring Role: Bay Head has been featured in the movie Tomorrow is Today.


This spring, summer and fall, follow Jersey Shore author and expert R.C. Staab as he walks the entire 139 miles of the Jersey Shore from Sandy Hook to Island Beach State Park, from Old Barney to Beach Haven, from Brigantine to Cape May.


Next stop: Mantoloking at Jersey Shore Walk Mile post 30. See Pt. Pleasant Beach, Manasquan, Sea Girt, Spring Lake and other Jersey Shore Walk beach town profiles at www.jerseyshorewalk.com

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