History of Ocean City, NJ

ocean-city-boatOcean City is a city, located on a barrier island in Cape May County, New Jersey, along the Jersey Shore. It is a prosperous family resort community that is well known for its prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages within its limits.

The first name for the island was Peck’s Beach, probably named after whaler John Peck. Peck used the island as a staging area for his whaling expeditions.

The local Indian tribes had also used the island as a summer camp, due to the abundance of fish available in its waters.

On September 10, 1879, four Methodist Ministers: James E. Lake, Wesley Lake, Ezra B. Lake and William H. Burrell chose the island of Peck’s Beach as the location for a Christian resort. Simon Lake and William B. Wood joined these four Ministers in October, and together they created the Ocean City Association. They also chose to rename Peck’s Beach as Ocean City.

William Lake was responsible for surveying the island for future development, and May of 1880 saw the sale of the first lots to the public. By October the total number of buildings on the island was 51.

Ocean City began to slowly grow, and, in 1880, it had a population of just under 100 people. The Superintendent of the Ocean City association at this time was Ezra B. Lake, one of the founding Ministers.

Improving accessibility to the island became a priority in 1880 as well. A rail line was built from Pleasantville to Somers Point, and a steamboat was commissioned to carry passengers to Ocean City’s Second Street wharf.

1880 also saw the construction of a boardwalk that stretched from Fourth Street and West Avenue to the Second Street Wharf.

William Boyle and his brother Albert also published the first issue of the Ocean City Sentinel in 1880. The Sentinel is still published in Ocean City today.

The U.S. Post office opened for business in Ocean city in 1881, and William H. Burrel, another of the founding members of the town became the first postmaster. The Ocean City police force was also established, consisting initially of five officers.

In keeping with the town founder’s vision that Ocean City should be a Christian resort, the Ocean City Association adopted a number of laws on July 5, 1881 that forbade swimming, riding, or driving on Sunday, and limited the hours in which the beach could be used for bathing in a “nude state.”

1882 saw the construction of the first schoolhouse in Ocean City, and was the run by Mattie Boyle. It was built between 8th and 9th street on Central Ave. Before the construction of this school, children would attend school at the Ocean City Association office.

Ocean City had continued to grow in its third year: there were now 178 buildings in the community, 112 of which where houses.

The first road from Ocean City to the mainland of the Jersey shore was constructed in 1883. Including of a bridge located at 34th street in Ocean City, the road lead from Beesley’s Point to Cape May City on the mainland.

1884 was an important year for Ocean City, as the community officially became a Borough, with Gainer E. Moore elected as mayor. Railway service into Ocean City also began to be provided by the West Jersey Railroad service.

The City Council passed more laws in 1885 to restrict bathing on Sundays, and, from August 19th to 23rd. Ocean City played host to the Temperance Convention.

The goal of the Victorian Temperance movement in the United States was to preserve the traditional values of home and community. Alcohol abuse was viewed as particularly evil by the members of the Temperance movement, because of the detrimental impact that they felt it had on families. Ocean City, with its lack of pubs and saloons was an excellent choice of venue for the Convention.

The Excursion House opened for business in 1886. It was Ocean City’s first amusement house, and offered a number of luxuries to its guests, including: high-quality bathing facilities, reasonably priced food, a playground for the children, as well as yacht rides. The Excursion House would continue to be a very popular attraction until September 9, 1897, when the building was destroyed by fire.

Ocean City officially became a city on March 25, 1897, and by the turn of the century, Ocean City had grown to a population of 1,307 people. Ezra B Lake, one of the city’s most influential founders, lived to see the small community he had helped to create become a city, but died on August 7, at the age of 66.

On December 15, 1901 the city saw some excitement as the Sindia, a large four-masted ship from London, ran aground near Ocean City’s 16 Street during a heavy storm. As the ship became wedged deeper and deeper into the sand of the beach, its hull began to crack under the pressure, and water and sand began to rush in.

The Sindia sent up distress flairs around 2:30am, and the Ocean City Life Saving Station and the mainland Middle Station were the first to respond, quickly dispatching rescue crews. The Middle Station’s surf boat was eventually used to bring the crew of the Sindia to shore in the cold, pounding rain. The Captain of the Sindia, Allan MacKenzie stayed aboard until the last group was rescued later in the day.

The cause of the crash is still unclear, but rumors began to circulate immediately that the crew had been drunk. The British Naval Court ruled that MacKenzie himself was responsible for the crash, and that he had not exercised “proper and seamanlike care and precaution”. He was prohibited from Captaining of vessel for six months, but died, a shattered man, before his suspension was over.

In 1904 Ocean City celebrated its Silver Jubilee with a ceremony that included hundreds of residents. S. Wesley Lake, a founder of Ocean City and the current President of the Ocean City Association gave a speech on the history of the city. The outlook for the future of Ocean City was extremely positive with the city’s continuing growth, and expanding tourism industry.

1904 also saw the expansion of two of the city’s most famous amusement piers, as Captain John L. Young bought both the Myers’ Pier and the Casino Pier. Young spent nearly $8,000 renovating and restoring the Casino Pier, which he also renamed “Young’s Pier”

Another large amusement pier, the Municipal Music Pavilion, was constructed in 1905. The pier was 118 feet long, and was the site of daily free band concerts.

Ocean City’s tourist industry had continued to grow, and expansion of the city’s infrastructure became very important. The record crowds of August 23, 1906 best demonstrated this growth. It was estimated that over 25,000 people visited Ocean City on that day, with some parts of the boardwalk become so crowded that they were nearly impassable.

Travellers were flocking to Ocean City in ever increasing numbers, and the city became even more accessible from the mainland with the construction of a new trolley line in 1907. The new line ran across Great Egg Harbor Bay to Atlantic City, and was meant to provide Ocean City with faster service to and from Philadelphia.

To compensate for the increasing automobile traffic in the city, the 34th Street Bridge was expanded in 1909. More roadways to the mainland were constructed in 1914 by the, including four bridges that connected Ocean City with Somers Point.

Ocean City’s new City Hall was opened on New Years Day 1915. Mayor Harry Headley and a number of city officials gave a tour of the building to some guests as well as the press. The Mayor did not get to spend much time in the new building however, as he was voted out of office five months later.

Shark attacks were the most significant events on the Jersey Shore in 1916. During a twelve-day period in July four swimmers were killed by sharks while swimming in the waters off of North Jersey beaches. The newspapers ran a series of alarming shark attack articles that created a shark scare along the Jersey coast.

Ocean City Mayor Joseph G. Champion was critical of these stories, and suggested that there were actually no more sharks than usual off of the Jersey shore, and that the hysteria created by the press had severely hurt Ocean City economically.

On January 16, 1920, Prohibition became the law in the United States, with the passing of the 18th Amendment. Many in Ocean City welcomed prohibition, as the city, with its roots as a Christian resort was already alcohol free. The rest of the United States would now join Ocean City in prohibiting the sale or import of alcoholic beverages.

Prohibition would last in the United States until 1933, with the passing of the 21st Amendment. The end of prohibition in the rest of the country had little effect on Ocean City, as the city stayed true to its roots, and remained dry.

October 11, 1927, was the date of one of the most devastating fires in Ocean City’s history. The fire was reported to have started in a pile of trash under boardwalk at 9th street. It destroyed almost the entire boardwalk from 10th St to Moorlyn Terrace, and took with it a number of boardwalk businesses, including Shriver’s Salt Water Taffy, the Plaza Theatre, the Hippodrome Pier, and many other smaller businesses.

The rebuilt boardwalk was considerably closer to the ocean, which has become a problem in recent years, due to the gradual shrinking of the beach. Some of the lost businesses were rebuilt along the new boardwalk, and the buildings that survived the fire were moved up to the new boardwalk as well.

During the Second World War an airplane observation tower was built on top of the Music Pier in Ocean City, and was constantly manned by volunteers. Two local servicemen: Harold Sumpter and John Collins, were the first casualties for Ocean City in the war

In 1949, male swimmers were granted the right two wear bathing suits without tops, repealing an old ordinance that required men to have their torso and frontal rib areas clothed at all times.

By 1960 Ocean City had grown into the largest municipality in Cape May County, with the U.S. Census reporting that the city had a population of 7,618 people.

Ocean City implemented a beach tag system for their beaches for the first time in 1976. This controversial policy required that all beach users purchase a tag upon entry to the beach. The money from beach tags was to be used to improve beach safety and infrastructure. In the first year Ocean City collected nearly $800,000 from the sale of beach tags, nearly double the estimated total.

1985 saw the end of Ocean City’s “blue law” ordinance that prohibited businesses from operating on Sundays. Judge Philip Gruccio decided that the “blue line” could not be legally enforced by Ocean City until he could hear the case in court. Sunday operation was, at least temporarily, now permitted.

The 1990s was a decade that saw the restoration of many of Ocean City’s classic buildings. The Ocean City Music Pier was renovated and restored at the cost of over $4 million, and restoration work also began on the exterior of the Ocean City City Hall.

Today Ocean City remains one of the most popular summer family resorts in the Jersey Shore area. The city now has a population of around 15,000 people during the winter, but the population expands to over 110,000 people in the summer. True to its roots in the Victoria Temperance era, the city still prohibits the sale of alcoholic beverages. The lack of alcohol has made the Ocean City beach very popular among families, and has earned Ocean City the title of “Best Family Beach of 2005”, as decided by the Travel Channel.

February 2, 2023, 2:19 pm