People were visiting the North Wildwood Area long before the city itself actually existed.
The first of these visitors, as was the case with many other areas along the South Jersey Shore, were the Lenni-Lenape Indians. This Algonquian speaking tribe likely visited Five Mile Beach during the summer, and forged a number of trails in and around the island.
One trail at the north end of Five Mile Beach was a continuation of a mainland trail, while the other intersected the first in the middle of the island. The place where these two trails intersect each other would be the future site of the Rio Grande Bridge.
Robert Juet is credited as being the first European to visit and write about Five Mile Beach in 1609. Sailing with Henry Hudson, and English navigator, Juet arrived in Delaware Bay on August 28th. The two explorers were searching for the Northwest Passage, which was an oft sought after, but never found trading route that would provide direct access to eastern Asia.
Juet and Hudson stopped briefly in the Bay before turning around and continuing their journey. As they sailed north up the East Coast, Juet looked to the shore and saw Five Mile Beach for the first time. He described the island in his journal as “a pleasant land to see”
For the next 250 years, before permanent settlements were established, farmers used the Wildwood area as a grazing point for their livestock. These farmers would ferry their animals across from the mainland on flatboats, and leave them roaming free to graze.
The Hereford Inlet, where North Wildwood currently stands, was visited very frequently throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Whalers were the first mariners to visit the Inlet on a regular basis. They would often drag their catches into the Inlet to butcher them, while taking refuge from the ocean.
Fishermen were also frequent visitors to the Inlet, which was very attractive because in was approximately at the middle distance between Delaware Bay in the south and Great Egg Harbour in the north. The fishermen, like the whalers who had come before, took refuge in the Inlet from the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean.
These fishermen also established the first permanent settlement on Five Mile Beach: the small fishing village of Anglesea. The early residents of Anglesea would follow the ancient Indian trails to the edge of the mainland, and would then travel to Anglesea by boat. This small community by the sea would later be renamed North Wildwood.
An early problem for the small village was that the waters around the Hereford Inlet were extremely hazardous for ships seeking to visit the village. This was due to shifting sandbars and very strong currents. A navigation station was established on the southern bank of the inlet, in 1949, as the United States Lifesaving Service responded to a number of shipwrecks and groundings around the Inlet.
The first navigation station was insufficient to protect the ever-increasing shipping traffic however, and a larger station was built in 1871. This station was also unable to stop the grounds and shipwrecks so later in 1871, the United States Congress legislated the construction of a full lighthouse at the Hereford Inlet.
The land for the lighthouse was purchased in 1873, and the construction began later that year. By 1874 the lighthouse was complete, and was lit for the first time. The tower stood 50 feet tall, and had a light that could be seen for 14 nautical miles from the shore.
With the navigation of the waters around the Hereford Inlet now much safer, more settlers began to arrive in Anglesea.
John Marche was the first Hereford Inlet Lighthouse’s first keeper. Unfortunately, a boating accident killed him three months after taking his post in 1874. John Nickerson took over as keeper after the accident, until a permanent keeper could arrive.
Captain Freeling H. Hewitt, a veteran of the civil war, became the permanent lighthouse keeper in 1878, and would tend to the lighthouse until 1918. Hewitt also conducted a Baptist ceremony that was the first formal religious service ever conducted on the Five Mile Beach Island. Many families from Anglesea attended, and the lighthouse would remain a place of worship on the island until the first church was built.
1884 saw the construction of a rail line running from Cape May Court House to Anglesea, making the small community much more accessible from the mainland. That year, a bridge was constructed on the old Indian trail where Rio Grande Avenue currently sits. This bridge would be replaced twice: the first time after it was destroyed by fire in 1885, and the second when it was demolished in favor of a bridge that could bear the weight of automobiles.
Anglesea officially became a borough on June 2nd, 1885.
In 1906, a vote was held to determine whether the borough of Anglesea should be renamed. The vote was “yes”, and Anglesea officially became “North Wildwood.” It was hoped that the borough’s new name would capitalize on the success of the City of Wildwood to the south, which was experiencing amazing growth and prosperity.
In the early years of North Wildwood, the Firehouse, City Hall and the Police Station all shared the same building at 3rd and Central Avenue. The firemen occupied the first floor, the government the second, with the police station on top.
1914 saw the establishment of the North Wildwood Beach Patrol. It was created by Mayor Harry Hoffman in July of 1914, and is still in operation today.
By 1917, only eleven years after become a borough, North Wildwood had grown large enough to officially become the City of North Wildwood.
In the mid-1920s the City created its first paid firefighting division to better protect its population and buildings. These paid firemen would work along side part-paid drivers. Woodrow Hall became the first Fire Chief in 1925.
The fire department was expanded to operate out of two buildings: the three story structure that they shared with City Hall and the police, and another building at 18th and New Jersey Ave. There were always at least one firefighter on duty at each of these buildings, and some firefighters lived permanently in the firehouses.
Ironically, a fire would later destroy the top floor of the 3rd and Central Ave building, making it a two building used exclusively by the fire department. A new station was build at 15th and Central Ave in 1927.
North Wildwood, including the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, was darkened during the Second World War to protect the coast from potential attacks from enemy submarines.
After the war, North Wildwood, along with its sister city to the south, experienced a large increase in tourism due to the optimism that pervaded America in the post-war years. The public wanted to hop in their cars and explore. They were fascinated with exotic, far away countries, and had more disposable income than ever before.
From this optimistic attitude sprang Wildwood’s Doo Wop. “Doo Wop” was a term coined in 1990 by the MAC to describe the culture and architecture of the Wildwoods in the 1950s and 1960s. Doo Wop architecture consisted of flashy space-aged designed building and huge bright neon signs.
As Doo Wop began to fall out of style, North Wildwoods tourism fell declined as well. The colourful and flashy hotels and restaurants fell into disrepair. There were still enough travellers visiting North Wildwood to keep the hotels open, but not enough to justify renovating or restoring them.
The Hereford Inlet Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1964 after 90 years of service. It was replaced by an automated marine beacon, and sat abandoned and in disrepair for the next 18 years.
1982 saw the City of North Wildwood sign a lease to gain stewardship of the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse. This had been due to the tireless efforts of North Wildwood’s Mayor Anthony Catanoso and his wife. The restoration of the lighthouse began immediately, with many local volunteers chipping in to help. Within 10 months, the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse had been restored to the point where it could receive tourists.
However, North Wildwood’s tourism industry remained in a depressed state until 1997, when the Doo Wop Preservation League was formed with the intention of restoring the Doo Wop buildings to their former glory, and using the Doo Wop history of the Wildwoods to promote the area.
The League has been very successful, and, today, North Wildwood is seeing resurgence in tourism. Many of the city’s historic Doo Wop hotels and restaurants have been renovated and restored. In addition, the city has opened new, upscale restaurants and has succeeded, along with Wildwood City, in creating a bustling entertainment district.
Millions of people visit North Wildwood and the rest of the Greater Wildwoods each year to walk along the boardwalk, enjoying the rides, or take in the 1950s ambiance created by the fantastic Doo Wop Architecture.