Avalon is a popular family resort community, located on the northern side of the barrier island, Seven Mile Island. It shares this island with Stone Harbor to the south.
The Lenni-Lenape Indians were the first visitors to Seven Mile Island, and its thick juniper forests. They likely came to the island primarily in the summer to fish and trap.
The barrier island upon which Avalon currently sits was purchased originally in December 1722 by Aaron Leaming. He reportedly paid 79 Pounds, or, just over $300, for the entire island. The Leaming family would own what was then known as Seven Mile Beach for the next 100 years. The family used the island as a range for their livestock, and also harvested some of the ample supply of Juniper trees to use as timber.
The first permanent buildings were constructed on the island in the early 1800s, after the island was purchased by the Tatham family. The family built a number of beach houses for use by the excursionists who would visit the island. There are accounts of Picnickers would take boats out to Seven Mile Island and make use of the Tatham’s beach houses.
The island was purchased and sold a few more times throughout the century, until it was eventually bought by the Seven Mile Beach Company in 1887. The company then founded the settlements of Avalon on the northern half of the island at Seven Mile Beach, and Stone Harbor in the south.
Reverend Charles Bond, brother-in-law of the island’s first real estate syndicate, is credited with having named Seven Mile Beach, “Avalon”. The mythical Avalon was part of Welsh legend, and was an island with a castle on it intended for dead heroes. In the Legend of King Arthur, the King is carried to Avalon after his death. The myth also states that Avalon was home to the Fairy King Oberon, who, legend has it, had many miraculous magical powers.
The first house constructed on Avalon was known as Old Limerick, and it stood between 30th and 31st Street in modern day Avalon. The first baby born on the island was Avalon Corson.
The first deed given to the founding Seven Mile Beach company was to the West Jersey Railroad for a rail line running the length of the island. The deed included six plots along the streets of Avalon to be used for train stations and service buildings.
Construction of the railroad was difficult, and the first structure build across Townsend’s Inlet to Sea Isle City washed into the ocean before it could even be used. The second suffered a similar fate in an autumn store, and the third was lost to the ocean along with some equipment, before it could be completed. The fourth attempt was successful, and train service began to be offered for Avalon starting from 37th street.
Another early snag occurred when the railroad refused to run trains until their were buildings in Avalon to show passengers. In 1897, the Seven Mile Beach Company therefore constructed a number of “sample” cottages as well has the Hotel Avalon, to get the trains running. The hotel would later have to be moved to save it from beach erosion.
For the early residents of Avalon, rain was the only source of water for drinking and cooking. One especially dry summer the rain simply was not filling the water requirements for the community, and a tank car full of water had to be brought into Avalon and parked for community use. Avalon’s water works was built in 1898, and extended in 1901.
A significant event for the population of Avalon in these early days was the sinking of the Commonwealth. The ship, commanded by Captain W.S. Willets was sailing to Philadelphia from New York City with a cargo that included coffee, tobacco, tea and more. On January 4, 1890 the Commonwealth encountered a severe storm, and, straying to close to the island, ran around on the shore of Townsend’s Inlet.
Most of the cargo on the ship was salvageable, and the crew was rescued without any fatalities. The Commonwealth herself did not fair so well however. After being trapped in the inlet for a week, the waves began to tear the ship apart as it became further jammed into the sandy ocean floor of the inlet.
The cargo that still remained on the ship was washed ashore, and quickly taken by the early residents of Avalon.
Unfortunately the Commonwealth was too damaged to be recoverable, and, on February 2, 1890, the wreckage of the ship was sold to John Townsend.
Avalon officially became a borough in 1892.
By 1893, the Seven Mile Beach Company was already advertising Avalon as a resort destination. The small community expanded rapidly during these early years, and many homes and businesses were constructed.
The Peermont Land Company purchased six hundred acres south of Avalon to develop Peermont. Avalon and Peermont would remain separate communities into the 20th century, due to the fact that they were separated by high dunes and dense wilderness. The train and the beach were the only ways for the two communities to access each other. Peermont joined with Avalon upon the flattening of the dunes and the construction of a road between the two communities.
To accommodate Avalon’s rapid growth, the forests of the island were cut down, and the dunes around the community were levelled to flatten the island. Today only a few hills and juniper trees remain on Seven Mile Island.
By 1905 Avalon consisted of seventy-five houses, a school, and two churches. At this point Avalon was twenty years ahead of Stone Harbor in terms of development.
The Avalon Beach Development Company bought the island in 1907 with the intention of turning Avalon into a fashionable and exclusive resort. The Company wanted Avalon to be “The Jewel of the Jersey Coast”, and to be superior to the other resorts along the shore. To that end, the Avalon Beach Development Company spent over $500,000 from both public and private donors to develop and improve Avalon.
1913 saw the construction of a 1.25 mile-boardwalk between 21st and 32nd street, similar to the boardwalks constructed in Atlantic City and Wildwood City.
1944 saw the merger of the Seashore and West Jersey railroad lines with the Reading Railroad. After this merger automobiles and boats became the preferred method of transportation to the island, and the era of train travel to the island was over.
Robert. C. Bennett, who would go on to become one of the “great hosts” of Philadelphia hotels, managed Avalon’s Whitebriar Hotel on 21st Street at the beach block for a few seasons in the mid-1950s. The hotel had been purchased by the Wolfington Family of Philadelphia, and had been original called the Puritan Hotel, before assuming its modern name of the Whitebriar Hotel.
Like much of the Atlantic Coast, Avalon was severely damage due to the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962. The storm achieved hurricane force winds, and swept the East Coast of the United States, causing huge ocean swells.
The National Weather Service reported after the storm, that the extratropical Ash Wednesday Storm had been caused by several low pressure systems in the south-east United States. These low pressure systems combined to become a massive and slow moving coastal storm, that, in addition to its hurricane force winds, caused high tides that were up to nine feet above the average water level in the area.
The size of the tides was compounded by the fact that March 6 was the spring equinox, as well as a new moon, where the Earth and the Sun are aligned. Both of these phenomena on their own have been known to cause higher than average tides.
The storm pummelled the coast continually, and lasted for five successive high tide cycles. By the time the storm was over, much of the east coast had been forever altered by the intense wind and high waves. The storm was given its name because the worst day of the storm occurred on Ash Wednesday, March 7.
Avalon suffered greatly during the Ash Wednesday storm, as it experienced severe flooding, and lost a major portion of the coastline to the Atlantic Ocean.
The damage was especially severe in the areas of Avalon from 7th street and below, which ended up being completely overtaken by the tides, and were swept into the Ocean. Today, only small parts of 6th, 7th, and 8th street exist in Avalon, with the rest of these streets being now underwater, in what is now known as Townsend’s Inlet. In addition to this damage, a large proportion of beachfront houses and other properties were destroyed.
Beach Erosion continued to be a major problem for Avalon, and, after the storm, rock barriers were placed around 8th street to try to block the ocean, and prevent any further land from being lost. Today, more large rocks are being used to strategically reinforce the sand dunes on the inlet side of Avalon and protect the coastline. Engineers are using the latest technology to attempt to stem the tide of erosion, but it is clearly a difficult up hill battle.
However, it is encouraging to note that Avalon’s neighbor to the south, Stone Harbor, has not only been able to stop beach erosion, but has also been able to reverse it. Indeed, successful use of anti-erosion technology has seen the coast around Stone Harbor increase in size in the recent years.
Today Avalon is a popular family resort destinations, and is visited by millions of tourists each year. To protect the beauty of the Seven Mile Island wilderness for future generations, an environmental protection program has been developed on the island to try to preserve the few remaining historic sand dunes that still exist around Avalon.