Twenty-five years ago when we first bought our house in Bradley Beach, a dingy wooden boardwalk ran the length of the town. It extended 20 feet out over the beach, suspended 12 feet above the sand on greasy, precarious-looking pilings. It was anchored on the inland side to a creosote-covered bulkhead built into the natural rise of the land, and, despite its tackiness, it seemed to be a permanent beachfront fixture.
During the dog days you could camp out under the shady boardwalk, provided you were willing to tolerate the tarry smell of the bulkhead and the spilled soda or cigarette butt that occasionally rained down from overhead. On hot nights they had music — a brass band, or a DJ spinning dance tunes — in the concrete bandshell just off the boardwalk at the foot of our street. Lost in a summer evening, we’d stand by the splintery railing and watch the waves foaming white at the waterline as the band marched through a Sousa medley.
Then in the ’90s a nasty nor’easter clawed up the whole thing, tossing its slats inland like tinder. It swept away a playground, swings and slides and all, and filled the town’s beachfront pool with sandy sludge and jagged shipwrecked sections of what once was the boardwalk. The bandshell had disintegrated overnight into a jumble of whitewashed rocks.
The town got smart after that. They permanently filled in the slimy hole that had been the pool and laid out a 25-foot wide brick promenade just west of the bulkhead. So apart from the broad wooden stairs that extended down from the bulkhead to the beach every couple of blocks, our boardwalk was entirely boardless.
And they made our first dunes.
First they built a 10-foot wide corridor of hurricane fencing on the sand about 50 feet east of the brick promenade. The wired-together wooden slats, a rickety shadow of the former boardwalk, ran the entire length of the town’s beach. Inside the hurricane fencing they laid all the discarded Christmas trees from that season, filling it to the top with fragrant evergreens going brown.
The trees formed a natural barrier that trapped blowing sand. Over the next decade, the trees disappeared under slowly-growing mounds that grew into dunes 15 feet high and wide, sprouting grass and small shrubs. The hurricane fencing was mostly gobbled up, and the scrabbly dune edges were now punctuated with metal signs warning everyone to “KEEP OFF.”
Then came Sandy, a storm whose remarkable ferocity made the nor’easter’s of the ’90s seem like mild squalls. In the space of 24 hours, Sandy completely dismantled the entire mile of dunes in Bradley Beach. Ten years’ worth of foliage, and the fencing, and the signs, were rudely stripped away. Then the storm literally pushed thousands of tons of sand 50 feet inland, flush against the bulkhead.
If you had stepped off the brick promenade toward the ocean the day before the storm, you would have fallen 12 feet to the beach below. But the day after Sandy, you could step eastward off the brick promenade onto smooth, solid sand. The tops of the dunes above that level had been neatly sliced off by the storm and deposited in drifts, like newly-fallen snow, across the width of Ocean Avenue another twenty yards inland.
Although the dunes were gone, much of the storm’s fury had been spent destroying them. As a result, Bradley Beach was spared the widespread damage to homes and businesses that befell neighboring towns without that protection.
So I’m happy to report that now, more than two years later, they’re at it again. On a frigid day on the beach two weeks ago, a guy in a front loader was picking up discarded Christmas trees from a pile and depositing them into a hurricane fence enclosure that’ll grow into our next sand dune. As long as Mother Nature gives us a few years’ head start before the inevitable next killer storm, the town should have a fighting chance.