History of Wildwood Crest, NJ

history-wildwood-trainThe story of Wildwood Crest begins with the Baker Brother, Philip and Latimer. The brothers were successful businessmen from Vineland, a mainland farm community, and had visited the Five Mile Beach Area numerous times.

They were both taken with the large beaches and beautiful wilderness, and, in 1895, they joined with their brother J Thompson Baker to form the Wildwood Beach Improvement Company. The Company then founded the Wildwood borough, named after the forest by the sea in which the new community stood.

The Wildwood borough expanded quickly and was very successful, so the Baker brothers decided to expand their development to the land south of the borough. This land would later become Wildwood Crest, and was an unspoiled wilderness of dense thickets and sand dunes.

Building a community in such an environment and making not only liveable but attractive to future home buyers was no easy task, and the Baker brothers put the experience that they had acquired in founding and growing the Wildwood borough to good use. Philip P. Baker was the primary director of the founding of Wildwood Crest, and this project would prove to be the last major business venture of his life

The Baker Brothers also put a great deal of money into the transformation of the wilderness into a community. They brought in white sand for the beaches from the bottom of Sunset Lake, and levelled many of the sand dunes.

The early years saw the construction of the first streets and avenues, as well as a few small cottages.

Wildwood Crest’s first four streets were located on what is now the northern end of the community, and were given floral and rustic names. Some of these street names included Morning Glory, Lavender, Buttercup and Heather Roads.

The first house in Wildwood Crest was built in 1906. The first baby born in Wildwood Crest, Baker Crest Thurber, was born on September 9, 1906. The Baker Brothers, in celebration of the event, gave the baby a birthday present of a deed to a Crest lot at Lavender and Pacific.

Wildwood Crest began to grow very quickly, and by 1907 demand for housing was so great that construction began on at least one new house every day for a period of two months.

In 1907 the Baker brothers had the Wildwood Crest arch built at Cresse and Pacific Avenues to mark the entrance into Wildwood Crest in a fantastic and theatrical way. The structure was 30 feet tall, and was illuminated each evening with the light of a “Pompeian fire”

By 1910 Wildwood Crest had grown sufficiently large to officially gain the status of borough. The City extended for eighteen blocks from north to south and about six blocks east to west. These early streets were landscaped to include beautiful flowers.

New Jersey’s Governor Wort decreed that Wildwood Crest would become a borough on April 6 of 1910. The borough held a formal election one month later, and Philip Pontius Baker was elected to be Wildwood Crest’s first Mayor.

Philip Baker, besides being responsible for the creation of the borough and being its first mayor, was heavily involved in many different areas of the community. He also served as the first President of the Fishing Club, and was also a Trustee of the Presbyterian Church in Wildwood. He was also an active member of many other organizations throughout the community. Baker also was elected the President of the committee in charge of creating the Wildwood Crest Fire Company.

The Fire Company was incorporated on November 17th 1910, with W.G. Taylor serving as its first President, and Samuel B. Taylor serving as the first fire chief. Taylor would be fire chief for the first year of the Fire Company’s operation.

An Ordinance was passed to officially establish the Wildwood Crest Fire Company on January 2nd, 1911. A charter from the State of New Jersey was recorded later that month in the County Clerk’s Office. The Fire Company received $100 from the borough in that first year to fund its operations.

Wildwood Crest’s fist borough hall was established in 1911 as well. It was located at 6106 Pacific Avenue at Sweet Briar Road, and had been leased from Edwin B. Pagan. The borough hall also served as the first fire hall, as the Fire Company was given use of a garage like section of the hall that included a room for meetings.

The Baker Brothers also published promotional material for Wildwood Crest in 1910 that described the borough as “the bright shining example for many growing resorts elsewhere upon the New Jersey coast”. The pamphlet also advertised the impressive amount of development that had occurred in Wildwood Crest during the first decade of the communities existence, including:

“hundreds of handsome homes, big hotels, apartment houses, and business blocks. Twenty miles of cement sidewalks; all streets gravelled and with sanitary sewer system. Trolley line through property. A storm-proof sea wall. Boardwalk along entire beachfront. Gas, electricity, underground telephone system, artesian water, no public debt”

The Wildwood Crest boardwalk was, at this time, a street that bordered the beach where Seaview Avenue is today, and was named Atlantic Avenue. By the 1920s the beach had widened enough for another street to be constructed that was closer to the ocean. This street is the current Atlantic Avenue, and Ocean Avenue was constructed soon afterward.

Wildwood Crest also began to gain a reputation of having recuperative, healthy benefits. Dr. Theodore Foote of Vineland suggested in 1910 that a visit to Wildwood Crest could prolong the lives of people with delicate health. Foote felt that Five Mile Beach in particular was very healthy because it offered a “dry atmosphere” because forest areas, as well as having warm ocean breezes.

The Baker Brothers took advantage of these medical testimonials in their advertising literature. They were not above using a little exaggeration in their advertisements to draw visitors into Wildwood Crest. For example, an advertisement from 1910 suggested that living in Wildwood Crest was of particular benefit to children. The advertisement reminds parents “that children who play in the and splash in the surf lay up a stock of strength that will last them a lifetime. It will pay you to get a home at the seashore for your children’s sake.”

The Wildwood Crest Fire Company faced a major fire in 1917 that destroyed the Crest Pier, which was the centre of social activity and recreation for the borough. The Pier would be rebuilt, and construction was complete three years later, in 1920.

On August 14, 1920, Philip P. Baker, the man who was most responsible for the creation of Wildwood Crest died at the age of 74.

The Wildwood Crest beach patrol was given a headquarters in 1925. A permanent hospital tent was established on Wildwood Crest’s beaches to provided more immediate care and protection to beach visitors. The tent, which would later be replaced by a permanent building, included standard medical equipment, as well as beach cleaning equipment.

The Fire Company also received a new home in 1925, as they officially moved into their new firehouse located on the southeast corner of Pacific Avenue and Cardinal Road. This building would serve as the Fire Company’s headquarters for the next 65 years, and is used today as part of Wildwood Crest’s Municipal Building.

On March 16th 1927, the Fire Company purchased “Old Betsy” which was a 1000-gallon per minute American La France water pumper. “Old Betsy” has recently been refurbished and is still with the Fire Company today.

Wildwood Crest continued to grow up until the Second World War, when, like the rest of the Greater Wildwoods and the rest of the Eastern United States, Wildwood Crest was darkened due to the presence of enemy submarines along the Atlantic Coast.

The construction of Atlantic Avenue in the 1930s had meant that the historic Crest Pier was now cut off from the ocean. In 1948, the Pier was moved across Atlantic Avenue so that it was again an ocean side building.

After the War Wildwood Crest prospered again, like Wildwood City to the north, and became a center for Doo Wop style and architecture.

Post War America was filled with hope and optimism. The American public had more money than they had ever had before. They had access to television sets that showed them far away, exotic locales, and they had automobiles.

The restaurants and the hotels of the Wildwood area needed a way to attract passing motorists, so buildings were designed with fantastic, colourful space age architecture, and flashing neon signs.

Built in 1957, the Ebb Tide Motel at 5711 Atlantic Avenue was the first motel to reflect the Doo Wop style in Wildwood Crest. Will and Lou Morey were responsible for the design of the Ebb Tide and many others hotels in the Greater Wildwoods.

The Doo Wop era was high point for tourism in Wildwood Crest, and the borough prospered.

Unfortunately Wildwood Crest, like Wildwood City to the north, would fall into a decline during the 1970s and 1980s. Doo Wop feel out of style, and the Wildwoods fell into disrepair.

In 1987, the old Crest Pier was demolished, and a new, modern facility was built in its place.

The 1990s saw a reversal of fortune for the Wildwoods, with the creation of the Doo Wop Preservation League in 1997. The goal of this League was to not only preserve and restore the historic Doo Wop architecture of the Wildwoods, but also to use Doo Wop to promote the community and to create a unified resort atmosphere.

The restoration of these historic buildings has revitalized the Wildwood Crest Community, and tourism has greatly increased. Today millions of visitors per year travel to Wildwood Crest to visit the beaches, walk the boardwalk, and see the retro, fifties atmosphere created by the borough’s Doo Wop past.

In the year 2000, with donations from the Wildwood Crest Historical Society, “Old Betsy” the Fire Company’s historic water pumper, was refurbished and restored to better than new condition. She is still with the Fire Company today.

August 17, 2017, 5:55 am