Sea Isle City is located on a beautiful island. The ocean and beaches are the main attractions – naturally. Yet there is so much more to know about this wonderful place that thousands of people visit every year.
Like many of the other city’s in the Jersey Shore area, the first visitors to the Sea Isle City region were the Leni-Lenape Indians. These tribes would travel to the island from the mainland to fish and shells. In particular, they gathered quayhog shells from along the beach. They called these shells “Wampum”, and used a purple lining on the inside of the shell as currency.
Joseph Ludlum was the first owner of the island. He bought the land in 1692 from a group of Quakers called the West Jersey Proprietors. A notable member and trustee of this Quaker group was William Penn, who is considered to be the founder of Pennsylvania.
Ludlum named the island after himself, and divided it into three sections. John Townsend purchased one of these section of Ludlam Island in 1695, and named it Townsend’s Inlet.
What was then known as Ludlam’s Beach would eventually become Sea Isle City.
In these early days, the Ludlam used the island to stock cattle and sheep. The livestock would be made to swim from the mainland to the island. Once they completed the swim to the island, the animals were allowed to roam free.
The island, with its lush and varied vegetation, was the perfect place for the livestock to graze, and they did so for nearly 100 years.
Mainlanders visited the island, much as the Leni-Lenape Indians had, for the fishing, hunting and other recreational activities, but there were no permanent settlements established on the island for another 200 years.
Though the animals would be the sole permanent residents of Ludlam Island during its first two centuries, pistols found on the island in the dunes are evidence that pirates stopped at the island while sailing up the Jersey Shore.
Charles Kline Landis purchased the island in 1880, with the intention of creating a picturesque and relaxing vacation island. He had been inspired by a recent trip to Italy. Impressed by the beauty and charm of Venice and other Italian cities, Landis sought to recreate that countries atmosphere in his resort community. He renamed the Island “Sea Isle City” and had waterways and canals, as well as importing art and statues from Europe to try to give the fledgling community an old world ambiance.
1882 was a significant year for Sea Isle City, as the community officially became a borough in Cape May County.
The Excursion House, one of the island’s first true tourist destinations was built in 1882 as well. It was meant as a one-stop destination for people visiting Sea Isle City, particularly if they were only planning on staying for one day.
The Excursion House offered all manner of recreational activities, including: dances, boxing matches, basketball games and more. Hallowe’en parties and other annual events were also held at the Excursion House. Visitors to the Excursion House were often called “shooies”, as they tended to bring lunches packed in shoeboxes.
1882 also saw the formation of local congregations for both the Methodist and Roman Catholic Churches, although neither yet had a building from which to worship.
Methodist services were offered in local homes until 1884, when the first Methodist Church in Sea Isle City was constructed. They would worship at this church for 21 years, until church moved to another building five blocks away to escape the intolerable noise of trains passing too near to the church.
Catholic Services were also held in local homes until the construction of St Joseph’s Church in Sea Isle City.
Charles Kline Landis knew that making the Sea Isle City more accessible would be vital to its future growth, so a, year later, in 1883, a new rail line and road were constructed to connect the island to the mainland. The island’s tourism industry boomed, as it was now very convenient for people from Philadelphia to take the train out to the island to enjoy the beaches. People began to stream into the community from the mainland, and Sea Isle City began to grow at a rapid pace.
This huge influx of tourists meant that hotels needed to be constructed quickly. Sea Isle City adapted efficiently to meet demand, and became renowned in the local press for the quick and vast improvement to its hospitality facilities. Indeed, when describing Sea Isle City’s progress the Cape May County Times stated, in their Christmas Day, 1891 issue, that “no place has improved more rapidly.”
The Bellevue Hotel, constructed in the early 1890s, was significant in that it was owned by Fritz and Caroline Croneckers, whose sons, Richard and Fred, would both go on to become mayors of Sea Isle City. The brothers would also inherit the hotel after the death of their parents, and, in turn, pass the hotel on to Margaretta Pfierffer, the granddaughter of Fritz and Caroline.
Another interesting hotel constructed during this period was the Continental Hotel. The Continental was the largest hotel on the island, and was easily the most modern. It even had a steam-powered elevator – the only one of its kind in the entire County.
Unfortunately, the hotel suffered from a very poor location, and was therefore never very popular, despite all of its modern conveniences. It would continue operation for 30 years, before finally being shut down in 1921.
In 1911, then governor Woodrow Wilson introduced the Walsh Act. This act of the state legislature was unique to New Jersey because it allowed municipal governments to forgo a partisan style of government. Thus New Jersey’s municipalities which adopted the Welsh Act would be run by people who did not necessarily belong to any particular political party.
This is also different from other types of councils largely because of the way that the mayor is chosen. In other American cities the mayor is chosen in an election and he is responsible for the entire city. In cities like Sea Isle City the elected officials, or “freeholders” as they are called, share responsibilities for the city. Each of the three freeholders on the committee in Sea Isle City is responsible for their own unique area.
In municipalities such as Sea Isle City, the mayor is chosen from these freeholders, and he or she serves as the chairman of the committee, with no other additional responsibilities outside of his or her area.
Sea Isle City adopted this particular style of government in 1913 and it continues to this day.
The introduction of the automobile to Sea Isle City changed the makeup of the community in many ways. Most importantly, the increased use of automobiles in the city lead to the decommissioning of the trolley line in 1916.
With cars replacing the trolley, transportation in Sea Isle City was suddenly less centralized. As a result, hotels became less popular in favor of smaller, more remote cottages and boarding houses that began to appear rapidly around the community. The automobile meant that these smaller establishments were now much more convenient to the tourist, and it was no longer necessary to stay in a hotel alone the trolley line.
With the decommissioning of the trolley line, the trolley station building was no longer in use. Local Lutherans purchased the building and set to work converting it into a church, offering Moonlit boat rides to raise the necessary funds. Up until this point, the Lutherans had been using the Excursion House for their services. The first service in the new Lutheran Chapel was held in 1923.
The entire United States suffered from a steel shortage during the Second World War, and Sea Isle City tore up the railroad so that it could be used as scrap metal. An unintended upside to demolishing the railroad was that the path where the railroad used to sit became a popular place for people to take walks and ride their bikes. The path would later be named Pleasure Ave.
The citizens of Sea Isle City are rightfully very proud of their history. The centennial, or hundred year anniversary of Sea Isle City was celebrated on May 29th, 1982 with a parade and photo retrospective. In addition, a giant cake fed the hundreds of people as they waited for the big event: a recreation of a historic villa. .True to Charles Kline Landis’ original vision for Sea Isle City, a Centennial House modeled after an Italian Villa was commissioned and brought over by barge from Philadelphia.
Modern day Sea Isle City is as beautiful and picturesque as it was when it was founded over one-hundred years ago. Today it continues to attract many beachcombers who are looking for fun and relaxation – but there are many modern conveniences to entertain them like arcades and video rentals. Sea Isle City has a rich past and a bright future, as it will most certainly continue to be a jewel of the New Jersey Shore.