Wildwood City is one of the most popular resort communities along the Jersey Shore, with its expansive beaches, massive boardwalk, and retro Doo Wop architecture.
As with many other towns or cities in the South Jersey Shore area, the land around what is now Wildwood City was first visited by the Lenni-Lenape Indians, an Algonquian speaking tribe.
This tribe literally blazed trails through the forests Five Mile Beach. One of these trails continued a mainland trail into the north end of the island, and the other trail intersected it in the middle of the island, at the future site of the Rio Grande Bridge.
The first recorded European visit to Five Mile Beach came in 1609. On August 28th of that year, Robert Juet, sailing with Henry Hudson, an English Navigator, arrived in what is now Delaware Bay. They were seeking the fabled Northwest Passage, which was hoped would provide a direct trading route with eastern Asia.
It became clear to Juet and Hudson upon sailing further into the bay that the Northwest Passage would not be found there, so they turned back, sailed around Cape May Point and continued northward.
It was at this point that Juet looked to the shore and saw File Mile Beach. He wrote of it in his journal: “A very good land to fall in with – and a pleasant land to see.”
It would be over 250 years before permanent white settlers would arrive on Five Mile Beach. In the mean time, the Wildwood area was used by off-shore farmers 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.
Some of these animals strayed from the herd and became wild in the forest. This became a problem for property owners in the early years of the Wildwood community.
The Hereford Inlet would also be used throughout the 17th and 18th century as a haven for whalers and fishermen travelling up and down the Atlantic Coast. The Inlet was attractive to these sailors because is was right in between Great Egg Harbor in the north, and the mouth of the Delaware Bay in the south., and offered refuge from the waters along the shore.
It was these fishermen that established the first permanent settlement on Five Mile Beach. The first settlers would follow the trails blazed centuries earlier by the Leni-Lenape Indians to the edge of the mainland, where they would embark to the Hereford Inlet by boat. They build small dwelling on the north end of the island, and named their small community “Anglesea,” which would later become what is known today as North Wildwood.
Shifting sandbars and strong currents mean that the waters around the Inlet were very hazardous for ships that were seeking to enter. In 1949 the United States Lifesaving Service decided that a small station should be established on the southern bank of the Hereford Inlet, after a number of groundings and shipwrecks occurred in the area.
Shipping traffic continued to increase however, and the first station proved to be inadequate to the task. A larger station was constructed in 1871, but this station was also unable to stop the continuing shipwrecks and grounds that were occurring at the entrance of the Hereford Inlet. It was becoming increasingly clear that a lighthouse would be required to aid ships in safely navigated through the area.
The construction of the Hereford Inlet lighthouse began with legislation from the United States Congress in 1871. The land was purchased in 1873, and construction began shortly thereafter.
1874 saw the completion of the construction of the 50 foot structure. The house’s light was visible for 14 nautical miles from the shore, and was first lit on May 11, 1874.
With the lighthouse complete, navigating the waters around Five Mile Beach became much safer, and many more people began to arrive on the Island.
Anglesea became more accessible in 1884, as the West Jersey Railroad ran a rail line to Anglesea from Cape May Court House. A log bridge was also built on the location where Rio Grande Avenue currently sits. This bridge was destroyed by fire one year later, and then replaced again in 1902 with a bridge capable of carrying the weight of automobiles.
It is around this time, in the 1880s, that the story of Wildwood City itself begins. Aaron Adams had journeyed with his wife Sarah to Townsend’s Inlet after Sarah had become sick in Vineland. The doctor felt that some time in Townsend’s Inlet would help her to recover.
Upon arriving at the Inlet they befriended the Taylor family from Philadelphia. Together the two families decided that they would like to each like to purchase seashore homes, and they returned the following year with the intention of doing so. When they returned, real estate agent John Burke showed the families a section of land in the center of Five Mile Beach.
Aaron Andrews and Joseph Taylor were both taken with the land, and joined with Burke, Latimer Baker, Nelson Robert, and Robert Young to establish the Holly Beach City Improvement Co. By 1885 Holly Beach had been incorporated as a borough.
Latimer Baker’s brother, Philip Pontius Baker was also very impressed by the land of Five Mile Beach. Latimer and Philip teamed with another brother, J Thompson Baker, to establish the Wildwood Beach Improvement Co., to develop the section of land just to the north of Holly Beach. The small community of Wildwood grew very quickly, and, in 1895, Wildwood was incorporated as a borough.
1899 saw the construction of the beginning of what would become Wildwood’s famous boardwalk. Wildwood’s boardwalk was constructed 29 years after the construction of the country’s first boardwalk in Atlantic City Boardwalk. Like the Atlantic City Boardwalk, the Wildwood Boardwalk kept sand out of the local businesses, as well as out of the shoes of those visitors walking down the beach.
The first Wildwood Boardwalk was laid on the sand, and ran 150 yards along Atlantic Ave from Maple Avenue in the south to Oak Avenue in the north. This boardwalk was not permanent, and would be taken up over the winter months.
A year later, in 1900, construction was completed on Wildwood’s first complete boardwalk. Again running along Atlantic Avenue, the boardwalk stretched five blocks further than its counterpart from the previous year, reaching from Oak Ave to 26th Ave.
The boardwalk would be moved three years later, in 1903, when a resolution was passed by the Wildwood Borough Council that approved the construction of an elevated Boardwalk that would sit closer to the Ocean than the original Atlantic Ave boardwalk. The new boardwalk was also intended to join with the new Ocean Pier, whose construction was planned on the beach at Popular Ave.
In 1904 the Wildwood boardwalk was extended further, as the Borough of Holly Beach, still a separate community, approved the construction of a boardwalk of their own that would connect with the Wildwood Boardwalk at Blaker’s Pavilion. The Wildwood Boardwalk was also extended to the south, to join up with another boardwalk being constructed in North Wildwood.
Holly Beach was incorporated into Wildwood in 1911, and the community officially became a city.
The end of the First World War saw the Wildwood Boardwalk in need of restoration and repair. As such, the Wildwood city council approved a new boardwalk project to construct a whole new boardwalk that was close to the ocean from Cedar Ave to Montgomery Ave. This new section would connect with the existing boardwalk to the south.
Many people opposed this idea, included Gilbert Blaker, who had developed the rolling chairs that served as the early boardwalk’s equivalent to the modern day tram car. According to Blaker, Wildwood had assured him that the boardwalk would not be moved for a few years, and he filed a lawsuit that stopped the construction of the new board walk.
1920 saw some controversy and intrigue, as Wildwood City Commissioner Oliver Bright staged a secret overnight operation to destroy the Boardwalk and force the city to move it closer to the ocean. Bright planned the operation for early Sunday morning because he knew that the courts were not in session on Sunday, and therefore could not stop him before his task was complete.
Bright’s motives for staging the covert demolition of the boardwalk are not entirely clear, but it was likely a combination of desire for personal gain, with trying to do what was best for Wildwood. After the War, Wildwood found itself in a decline, and the city needed more revenue. Bright, responsible for Wildwood’s finances, would have recognized this need, and, pushing the boardwalk to the ocean would create a large number of new taxable lots to help generate some more money for the city.
However, Bright was also a real-estate professional, who would have undoubtedly benefited from the new real estate that would be made available by the movement of the Boardwalk.
Whatever his motives, Bright effectively ended the squabbling, and forced the construction of the new boardwalk. Local businesses were not impressed with his initiative however, and successfully recalled him from office later that year.
The Wildwood boardwalk had become the place to see and be seen in the city. During the evenings it was not uncommon for ladies dressed in their best dresses and shawls to pay the $0.25 to have a pusher, take their Blaker wheeled chair up and down the boardwalk.
The Second World War put a serious damper on Wildwood and the boardwalk however, as the coast was darkened due to the presence of enemy submarines.
Things got on track for Wildwood after the war however, as the economy boomed and hope for the future reigned.
This post war optimism led to the creation of Wildwood’s Doo Wop, one of the most unique and enduring attractions not only in Wildwood City, but also in the Greater Wildwoods as well.
Post-war America was richer than it had ever been before. The general public now had access to automobiles in greater numbers, and televisions were appearing in nearly every home. The American people could watch television shows depicting far off and exotic places, and then hop in their car to go exploring.
The Doo Wop architecture of the Wildwood’s was spawned from these post-war attitudes and conditions.
Hotels and restaurants in the Wildwood area were constructed with unique and irregular architecture, and huge flashing neon signs were erected. This was all intended to attract passing motorists in off of the road, and resulted in businesses constantly trying to one up one another with increasingly outlandish designs.
The fifties designs of the hotel further demonstrated the attitudes of the era. Many hotels were built with a space age, rocket ship themes, reflecting a hopeful future. Others were recreations of tropical locations, complete with astro-turf grass, banana shaped pools, and plastic palm trees. The American public was fascinated with exotic locales at this time, but most still did not have the means to travel overseas. The hotels of Wildwood provided the look and feel of an exotic location that was close to home.
Wildwood also became a center for the musical world at this time, with famous musicians such as Bill Haley and Chubby Checker debuting famous songs in Wildwood Clubs. The first national broadcast of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand occurred in the Starlight Room on the Wildwood Boardwalk as well.
All of these factors lead to a booming economy for Wildwood City throughout the Fifties and into the Sixties. This prosperity was not to last however.
As the Sixties approached the Seventies, Doo Wop architecture and music fell out of style, and Wildwood fell into a severe decline. The entire community fell into disrepair, and tourism fell off significantly.
Wildwood City would continue to struggle economically until, in 1997, when the Doo Wop Preservation League was founded by Jack Morey and other business and community leaders. The goal of the League was to preserve and restore the Doo Wop architecture of Wildwood’s buildings. Besides simple preservation, the League also sought to use the historic structures and the culture of Wildwood Doo Wop to promote the city and to create a unified resort atmosphere, similar to that of Disney’s Boardwalk Hotel.
This plan has helped to revitalize Wildwood. Tourism has increased, and, today, Wildwood houses the greatest collection of authentic fifties architecture in the world. Millions of people annually visit Wildwood City’s beautiful beaches, ride the famous Wildwood Tram Car, and take in the retro Doo Wop scenery of days gone by.