Two Weeks on an Abandoned Island: The Burlington Island Story

Two Weeks on an Abandoned Island: The Burlington Island Story


A derelict landmark, a camera crew, and 96,100 pounds of trash

“My first impression was that it was such a stark contrasthere is this beautifully wild, reforested island with a sparkling freshwater lake in the middle of it, and it’s littered with mounds and mounds of century-old trash.  -Maria McDonald, UBB Cleanups Program Coordinator


In February of 2019, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection contacted our cleanups coordinator, Maria, seeking our help with a cleanup of a new kind. Burlington Island, a 300-acre chunk of land in the middle of the Delaware River, had been a project of the state’s for decades, but because of the scope of the task, they lacked the resources and expertise to get very far. We jumped at the opportunity to use our cleanup expertise on a large-scale, historically significant project, and were eager to learn more. 

The story behind Burlington Island is a fascinating one. First home to the Lenape Indians, the island was settled by Europeans before New Jersey was even a state. Settlers mainly used it for farming. In the early 1900s, it became a popular picnic ground and beach area in warmer months. Then in 1917, the Island Beach Amusement Park was built, drawing crowds from all over the region with its towering roller coaster “The Greyhound”. Just a decade later, the park was largely destroyed by a series of fires. 

Photo courtesy of the West Jersey History Project

Then, sold in lots to private investors, the once-popular piece of land sat empty, and ambitious development plans never really materialized. Ownership was transferred back to the City of Burlington in 1953. For a while, it was used for sand and gravel mining. The remnants of lasting infrastructure were demolished (though not really cleaned up). It became a dredging area, and for a time the Army Corps used it as a dump site. In 2012, the Burlington mayor signed an executive order banning recreational use of the island. The land was littered with the remnants of its past and therefore unsafe for visitors.

Photo courtesy of the Times of Trenton

So this is what we were up against: A 300-acre island scattered with mounds of 1950s refrigerators, vehicle carcasses, an oil tank, and dozens of rotting relics of its amusement park days. The island was off-limits to visitors, only accessible by boat, and overtaken by nature. We got to work.


On an initial site scout with the DEP and some administrative officials from the city council, our cleanups team marveled at how nature had overtaken the trash on the island. Trees had grown over bedsprings, and entire terrariums existed inside soda bottles from the 1940s. It was at once a marvelous feat of nature and a disheartening example of human carelessness. 


Consider the surroundings of Burlington Island: the Delaware River is a powerful, important waterway, the drinking source for 5-10% of Americans. It provides water to New Yorkers, Philadelphians, and everyone in between. The rotting infrastructure had been left on the island for years, long before the Department of Environmental Protection was formed, which means the garbage was leaching into our drinking water chemicals long declared toxic to humans. 

Time was of the essencewe got to work. Our team presented to city council in their chambers, twice. They got an executive order from the mayor to life the ban on Burlington Island. They coordinated a 30+ crew of public sector, private sector, and nonprofit volunteers. They contracted a barge, the municipality’s waste removal service, and a local recycler. 

Once on the island, the crew was challenged to new lengths of problem-solving. Because the island had been uninhabited for 50 years, the trash had grown into the island, which meant it wasn’t as simple as scooping up mounds of garbage in a skidsteer. Tires had to be dug from the beach with crews of shovelers. Steam tanks had to be spliced in half. Barges had to loaded, refrigerators lifted from pits, bed springs cut from tree branches. The team worked tirelessly and meticulously (taking care to do as little harm to the environment as possible) for two weeks straight.



In the end, we were able to remove 96,100 pounds of trash from Burlington Island. The island no longer looks like a dumping ground, and the city will move forward with its plan of eventually reopening it as a public recreation area. 


This project, like all our cleanups, was entirely funded by the purchases of our customers. While you may not have been there with us, digging a long-buried engine from the sand, you are the reason we’re able to do what we do. 

And we learned a few things with the Burlington Island cleanup. It was the most complicated, logistically challenging cleanup we’ve ever organized, and the first cleanup in which we were sought out for our expertise. Our ability to take on high-threat, high-yield cleanups has grown with each passing year, as has our understanding of how crucial they are. If it weren’t for United By Blue and its customers, Burlington Island would remain a beautiful but trash-filled forbidden gem causing immediate danger to the Delaware River.

Sound like your idea of a fun Saturday? Join us at an upcoming cleanup.


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