South Jersey Heritage: A Social, Economic and Cultural History - R. Craig Koedel

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The Discovery of Surf and Sand

      The fulfillment of the South Jersey shore’s potential as a mecca for tourists had to await the end of the Civil War and the adjustments that followed. However, a modest beginning of the tourist industry was made a hundred years before, as is shown in a 1766 newspaper advertisement extolling the virtues of a parcel of land at Cape May, "where a number resort for Health, and bathing in the Water." The seller suggested that "this Place would be very convenient for taking in such People."

      Another advertisement, thirty-five years and a Revolution later, appeared in the Philadelphia Aurora on July 1, 1801, announcing that Ellis Hughes had "prepared himself for entertaining company who use sea bathing, and. . . is accommodated with extensive house room, with Fish, Oysters, Crabs, and good Liquors -- Care will be taken of gentlemens’ Horses." In that year, stagecoaches ran regularly each week from Cooper’s Ferry to the Cape, departing from the Ferry on Thursdays and arriving the next day at Cape Island (the old name for Cape May City). A packet boat, powered by sail, plied the waters of the Delaware each week on two-day runs between Philadelphia and Cape May in 1802.

      With such attention being given to matters of accommodation and transportation, it can be surmised that by 1801-1802 the trickle of tourists to Cape Island was turning into a stream, albeit not yet a torrent. The Hughes establishment, together with the only other such facility in the town, a place kept by Ephraim Mills and his wife, could entertain thirty boarders, at the most, with convenience, or up to sixty less conveniently.

      A new and larger hostelry was added in 1816, ‘when Thomas H. Hughes built Congress Hall. It was far from elegant; although the building boasted three stories, a length of 108 feet, and a width of thirty-two feet, neither inside nor outside could it claim a square inch of paint or plaster. Nevertheless, it could accommodate a hundred guests. The hotel’s mammoth size was ridiculed by skeptics, who swore that never would so many people wish, at the same time, to stay at Congress Hall. Contrary to this prediction, the facility was crowded year after year. (The building, considerably enlarged, was destroyed by fire in 1878. Its replacement, the present Congress Hall in Cape May, was erected the following year.)

      Eighteen-sixteen was a significant year for the South Jersey resort for a second reason: steamboat service on the Delaware was extended to the Cape, The advertisement in the Philadelphia Daily Advertiser read, "It is announced with great satisfaction that the Steam Boat and Packet Line, is now extended to CAPE MAY. The facility with which Passengers can now be forwarded during the ensuing BATHING SEASON: the great additional accommodation and comfort which will be experienced, and the variety and novelty of the routes will no doubt be suitably appreciated by the citizens of Philadelphia." The announcement omitted, in this instance, the notice that the New Castle –Cape May leg of the voyage was by sail. However, the time in transit was reduced to a single day. Three years later, steamboats were put into service over the entire route between Philadelphia and Cape May. By the 1840’s, they were departing Philadelphia daily, except Sundays, during the bathing season.

      Competition from the steamboats prompted the stage-line companies to inaugurate one-day trips to Cape May in 1827. The coach left Camden at four o’clock in the morning and arrived at Cape Island after dark, a tiring journey which led one rider to complain, "It starts too early, and arrives too late, for satisfaction." The steamboat, he concluded, was "the least exceptionable, and most certain and agreeable mode of conveyance" to and from the Cape.

      Hotel and dining facilities had been expanded to provide for about 4000 visitors by 1849. Despite these services, the resort was so overcrowded during the summer of 1850 that vacationers were forced to sleep on make-shift beds set up in canvas tents, outbuildings, and sheds, in the dining halls, parlors, and kitchens of the hotels, and on their porches and promenades. One tourist advised anyone planning to come to Cape Island to bring his own mattress. Not all of the throngs were from Philadelphia; many came from the near South, others from points farther removed. Since as early as 1828, travelers from as far west as Cincinnati and St. Louis, and from as far south as Savannah and New Orleans, had been summering at the Cape.

      The crowds of 1850 sparked a frenzy of progress in the Cape May County resort. Shortly, the borough was incorporated as the City of Cape Island, six new public streets were plotted, the Cape Island Turnpike was opened from the boat landing to the hotel district, the gigantic Mount Vernon Hotel was planned, gas lights were installed, Congress Hall was rebuilt, and the Baptist preacher, who was also the mayor, ventured that the time had come when Cape Island should cease to allow the roaming of cattle, sheep, goats, and hogs, at will, within the city limits. Alas, it was a bubble about to burst.

      Talk in the 1850’s of laying rails to Cape Island was quickly discouraged by the steamboat companies, the drivers who shuttled tourists between the steamboat landing and the hotels, and the farmers, who warned that railroad engines, belching fire and smoke, would incinerate the county’s fields and woods, while mangling any unwary cattle which happened to stray across the tracks. The farmers’ dire foreboding did not materialize in 1863, when the first train chugged into Cape Island, but by that time the convenience of the closer Atlantic City had begun to be discovered by Northerners. Moreover, Southerners had ceased to visit any Northern resort, including Cape Island, although it lay well below the Mason and Dixon Line.

      With Samuel Richards casting his eye, perhaps enviously, in the direction of Cape May during the summers of the early 1850’s, there is little wonder that Dr. Pitney so easily prevailed upon him and his associates to finance a railroad to Absecon Beach. To Philadelphians, the appeal of a seaside resort less than two hours away would have been enormous. Even a less astute business man than Richards could not help but have been awake to the financial promise inherent in providing such a service. When the city at the end of "the railroad to nowhere" rose from the sands of Absecon Beach, Cape Island was in trouble.

      Atlantic City was but two years old when Cape Island suffered a blow that seemed more devastating, at the time, than the emergence of a rival resort. Barely had the 1856 season ended when, on September 5, the Mount Vernon Hotel, new that season and the pride of the shore, was reduced to ashes. Her accommodations for 2100 persons represented one-third of the city’s tourist facilities. Adding to the city’s woes, before the 1857 season opened, lodging for 300 more guests went up in flames. Business fell off considerably during the ensuing years.

      The summer of 1860 was only somewhat less dull than its predecessors. With the good-byes of the Southern families at the end of the season, a sizeable part of the Cape’s economic mainstay departed, never to return. In the election that fall, Cape May County went for Lincoln. When spring warmed the beaches again, the nation was at war, and much of the resort’s former clientele had become the enemy.

      Back in 1852, Richard B. Osborne, the civil engineer who built the Camden and Atlantic Railroad, was chosen by Dr. Pitney to plan his city by the sea. Under the engineer’s direction, a map of the proposed street network, on which the avenues running parallel with the ocean were named for the world’s large bodies of water and the intersecting, shorter streets were given the names of the states of the Union, was drawn by John L. Rowland. This "Street Dedication Map" was finished on Christmas Day, 1852. When the map was submitted to Osborne, the proposed city it represented was, as yet, without a name. Upon receiving it, the engineer printed in large letters across the sketch of beaches the title, "Atlantic City." Dr. Pitney’s fantasy now had a label. There remained the task of bringing it into existence.

      The burgeoning Atlantic City, like Cape Island, felt the effects of the Civil War. Pre-war development was not inconsiderable, but the city’s era as the world’s playground did not get under way before 1870. The twenty-five eligible voters in the first election, on May 1, 1854, multiplied to a population of 687 by 1860, and of 746 by the end of the war. Meanwhile, overshadowing the seven houses standing on Absecon Beach in 1852, the sprawling United States Hotel and the block-long Surf House rose alongside the new cottages of permanent and summer dwellers. On the sand dunes, swept by winds and tides, the grid of city streets began to appear.

      However, the dedication of the Boardwalk, in 1870, inaugurated Atlantic City’s epoch of greatness. In that year, the permanent population, those who worked to provide comfort and attractions for the visiting hundreds of thousands thronging to the city’s hotels and beaches every summer season, and who were, thereby, a barometer of the resort’s success, exploded from 1043 in 1870 to 46,150 in 1910. Between these two years, the Gay Nineties were the glamorous time and that of greatest expansion for Atlantic City.

      The 1870 Boardwalk was a crude structure of planks, nailed together in twelve-foot sections, ten feet wide, lying directly on the beach. During the off-season, the boards were taken up and stored. Designed as a convenience for strollers and protection for the plush carpeting in the hotels, within ten years the Boardwalk was seen for its commercial value also. In 1880, a second walk replaced the first, and, what some Atlantic Avenue business men had feared, the beach promenade became a Street lined with shops.

      The third Boardwalk, of 1884, was a permanent walkway, twenty feet wide and five feet above the sand, its original purpose as an esplanade with an ocean view was subverted when greedy merchants crammed in shops along both sides. Mercifully, a hurricane blew them away in 1889, but the same storm demolished most of the Boardwalk itself. The replacement, opened in 1890, was protected by the Beach Park Act, which granted the city control over all beachfront development. The "golden" spike (actually, an iron spike gilded with paint) that put the finishing touch to the fifth, and present, Boardwalk was driven on July 8, 1896. The new walk was a street, held up by undergirdings of steel, which was forty feet wide and stretched the length of the city. That summer, for the first time officially, it was named "Boardwalk."

      Amusement piers first extended from the wooden way out over the surf in the 1880’s. A second, then a third, rail line brought in carloads of hot, work-weary visitors to the city by the sea. Beer gardens and opera houses enticed the masses bent on pleasure and entertainment. By the 1890’s, nearly 700 hotels and boarding houses welcomed bathers and strollers during the summer seasons.

      Atlantic City was a phenomenon of American imagination, ingenuity, and cold, hard commercial realism. It gave the middle-class East what it wanted, even what it thought it needed -- a common man’s Newport, a temporary escape to a pastel paradise, a world apart where pleasure reigned and cares dissolved in a ball of cotton candy.

      However, there lurked behind Atlantic City’s gilt facade conditions of more somber hue, still there when the last train of summer pulled out from the station. The people of the resort city could not flee to the shore to forget their problems. Seasonal work meant long months of unemployment for a large percentage of the population, a situation only partly relieved when the convention trade began to generate a somewhat year-round economy during the last decade of the 19th century. Most affected, of course, were the service personnel of the hotels, restaurants, and amusement centers. Many of them were blacks who, having abandoned their jobless existences in the cities and in the South, had gone to the growing resort in search of work, only to find that most employment available there was but part-time.

      In 1885, nearly one-seventh of the permanent residents of Atlantic City were black. By 1895, the black population stood at more than one-fifth of the city’s total, and nearly one-fourth in 1905. (Figures for Camden, the New Jersey city with the next largest black minority, in 1910 show a black population one-fifteenth of the total, and for Newark, in the same year, show that, of the total population, one-thirtieth were black.) Thus, almost from the start, Atlantic City has been forced to cope with the problems of a large minority population on partial employment, facing annually periods of idleness without income.

      Discrimination against blacks was no more pronounced in Atlantic City than elsewhere, albeit business interests felt pressured to cater to the prejudice of white tourists by advertising that the blacks in the city "kept in their places." Local blacks were not forcibly excluded from cafes, trolley cars, the beaches, or the Boardwalk, although black tourists were not permitted in the Boardwalk pavilions. Black visitors frequented the beaches, going at first only after September had begun, but in 1897, and afterward, at the height of the season. Housing for resident blacks, caught up in seasonal unemployment, was bad in the extreme, hidden in alleys and behind hotels safe from the eyes of curious tourists.

      Vice in the streets and corruption in high places were perennial problems. Petty thievery, flimflam games, prostitution, illegal gambling and liquor sales, and other evils gnawed at the city’s reputation, especially when some of the prominent business and political figures became involved in their perpetration. To these worries of a growing urban society, in which amusement was the chief product for sale, was added the concern to project Atlantic City as the wholesome balance of gentility and casualness, committed to a relaxed standard of deportment that smacked neither of prudery nor licentiousness; in short, to show it as both the ideal family resort and pleasure resort. 3

      Encouraged by Atlantic City’s example of stellar success in transforming the surf and sand into profits, the other off-shore island communities of Atlantic and Cape May Counties were putting out their hands for the tourist dollar by the end of the 19th century. The city of Cape May was rebuilt after the devastating fire of 1878, in which thirty acres of hotels, boarding houses, stores, and homes were consumed. Out of the ashes rose, phoenix-like, the Victorian masterpiece that is Cape May today, admired and appreciated by many as a smaller, more quiet, sophisticated alternative to Atlantic City.

      Avalon, Anglesea (North Wildwood), and Sea Isle City took their places among the South Jersey seaside resorts in the 1880’s. Stone Harbor and the Wildwoods became prominent vacation spots early in the 20th century. Brigantine, Atlantic City’s smaller neighbor to the north, proclaimed her "extraordinary natural advantages . . . as a watering place" in 1880, ten or a dozen years after some tourists had begun regular summer visits to the island. As were the Cape May County resorts, Brigantine was connected with the mainland by a railroad (in 1889), after which the town began to flourish. The expectation of creating a rival resort next door to Atlantic City was smashed, however, by the same ice jam that knocked out the railroad trestle in 1904. The trestle was never rebuilt. Brigantine, joined to Absecon Island by a bridge, has undergone a renaissance in recent years.

      Ocean City was established as a resort with a difference. The product of the camp meeting and revival enthusiasm of the era, it was founded in 1879 by three Methodist ministers who desired to create a retreat where God could be worshiped in an environment of natural beauty. At Ocean City, as the founders envisioned it, worshipers could enjoy, with their devotions, the delights of ocean bathing with neither the unwholesome distractions of intoxicants, near-nudity, and Sabbath desecration, nor the crass commercialism and wanton vulgarity of some nearby beach towns.

      As South Jersey entered the 20th century, the population of the two shore counties was growing more rapidly than that of any other in the region. Between 1900 and 1905 Cape May County increased by 35.5%, Atlantic County by 29%. At mid-century, tourism along the South Jersey beaches had become an industry attracting an annual income in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

3 The author is indebted to Charles E. Funnell, By the Beautiful Sea, for statistics and facts regarding Atlantic City’s economic and social conditions circa 1890-1910.

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