A History of the Wildwoods...

A short drive down one of Wildwood’s neat streets reveals much about its history. Stately old homes kept boarders at the turn of the century. Charming bungalows housed families returning to normal life after World War II. Funky Doo Wop motels attracted enthusiastic thrill-seekers. And now, a boom in new construction tells of an era not yet known.

(Note: The ads found on this page are from the original "Five Mile beach Journal" circa 1904. They appear here courtesy of the Wildwood Historical Society.)

The island’s earliest visitors came for some of the same reasons summer tourists come today. They came to play, to swim, to fish, to eat well and to refresh themselves along its shore. But visitors to that Five Mile Beach would probably not recognize the land today.

Wildwood was once a wild place, inaccessible to all but a few Native Americans and hearty colonial pioneers. There were no roads to the remote island - no cars, no ferries, and no trains. Vast meadows of wetlands stood between the mainland and the treasures on the other side.

Members of the Ketchemeche Tribe, or Lenni Lenape, called the island “five miles of health and happiness.” These Native Americans had permanent settlements throughout Salem and Cape May Counties, but each summer, they gathered together on the island where the ocean cooled the air and the fish were plentiful.

Later, colonial pioneers from the mainland brought a different type of visitor to the island for the summer season. These tourists came in droves…and on four legs. The island became a grazing ground for the county’s cattle, horses and sheep. Resourceful farmers branded their animals and drove them across the wetlands at low tide or loaded them onto boats. The herds then roamed freely, feasting on the grasses, salt hay and vegetation that grew abundantly across the wild landscape.

Some livestock were lost to wolves, but most thrived until autumn when they were driven back to the mainland. Occasionally, animals were lost or left behind, becoming as wild as the land they foraged.

Some early visitors to the island did not come by choice. They were sailors brought crashing to the shore by rough Atlantic seas. In response to the frequent loss of life, the US government established a Life Saving Service in 1848. A station was erected near Hereford Inlet. It was manned by county residents and equipped with a watch tower and boats for spotting and rescuing sailors in distress.

Between 1873 and 1874, without the benefit of a paved road or a train, Hereford Inlet Lighthouse was built at the northern end of this remote land. An informal fishing village followed, as the Scandinavian fisherman who worked in the waters off the coast built modest shacks along the inlet. These were the island’s first permanent residents.

In 1879 Frederick Swope, an entrepreneur with ties to the railroad, recognized the opportunity that existed along the shore. He purchased the title to Anglesea from Humphrey Cresse, and in 1882, formed the Anglesea Improvement Company. Development along Five Mile Beach had now begun.

By 1883 West Jersey Railroad was running from Cape May Court House to Anglesea. The train was unreliable, but it was a vast improvement over the wagons and boats that had brought the earliest visitors across the meadow. Local residents called the train the “Mud Hen” since the engine, whose tracks were laid across the wetlands, frequently found itself derailed at high tide. The passengers and crew would sit, stranded in the bog, until low tide when they shifted the tracks back into position, and continued on to Anglesea.

“Health and happiness” continued to be a quest for the island’s early settlers. Dr. William Tomkins, a retired army surgeon came to Anglesea in the hope of improving his health. He was the island’s first postmaster, and in 1885 he was elected mayor by 24 voters in the burgeoning community. Unfortunately, the sea breezes failed to cure his illness and he died later that year. Peter Munro replaced him in his position as mayor.

Another pioneer’s quest for a healthy environment led to development farther south along the island. In 1880 Aaron Andrew of Vineland brought his wife Sarah to Townsend’s Inlet on the advice of her physician. When the fresh air and salt water seemed to improve her condition, he became interested in obtaining his own seaside residence.

In his search, he became acquainted with businessmen, Joseph Taylor and John Burk, and together they investigated the middle of Five Mile Beach. There they found an uninhabited forest surrounded by white sand beaches. Throughout the woods, holly trees grew in amazing shapes and sizes. In April of 1882, inspired by the wild landscape, the men formed the Holly Beach City Improvement Company.

As the streets of this new town were planned, some were named in honor of Cape May County’s early pioneers: Hand, Cresse, Bennett and Leaming. Others were named for the shareholders of the new company: Joseph Taylor, John Burk, Nelson Roberts, John Davis, Thomas Montgomery, James Young, Harry Spencer and James McCandless. (McCandless Avenue was later changed to Morning Glory when Wildwood Crest was created.)

On the mainland, the Baker family of Lewisburg Pennsylvania had begun to make a name for themselves by developing land for commercial use in Vineland, NJ. When news of the Holly Beach Development project spread among their contacts in Vineland, Phillip and Latimer Baker saw investment opportunities on Five Mile Beach. Latimer obtained a position as director for the Holly Beach Company, and in 1883 Phillip visited his brother in Holly Beach to explore other parts of the island.

The brothers walked north through Holly Beach until they came to the town’s border on Cedar Avenue. There they found a wild jungle of gnarled trees and tangled grape vines. Initially, Phillip found the land to be “uninhabitable and inaccessible.” An old Indian path had been cut through the woods near what is now New Jersey Avenue, but passage to the Anglesea was difficult. One early Holly Beach resident complained of the dangerous wild cattle that chased passersby into trees. The only other access north was along the beach at low tide.

The primitive landscape did not deter Phillip Baker from his course. He purchased a tract of 100 acres for $9,000.00, and established the Wild-wood Improvement Company. The borough of Wildwood was incorporated in 1895, and Latimer Baker became the town’s first mayor. In 1898 when the original lots were cleared and sold, the brothers purchased ten more acres of the forest. Their property now extended all the way to Twenty-Sixth Street at the Anglesea town line. The great variety of trees that were cleared in the creation of Wildwood gave their names to the streets: Pine, Maple, Oak, Poplar and Magnolia.

Access to Holly Beach and Wildwood was still greatly restricted. At first visitors could only approach the middle of the island from Rio Grande Railway Station through an intricate series of log roads, sailboats and wooded paths. Later, some visitors chose to approach the island on the “Mud Hen” in Anglesea and travel south on foot.

Limited transportation did not keep Five Mile Beach from developing at a feverish pace. Investors, moved by Phillip Baker’s vision of the resort and inspired by his pioneer spirit, brought provisions and building material across the sound on flat bottom boats. Lots were sold and financed for payments of $10.00 a month, and grand beach cottages and boarding houses grew up like the trees they replaced. Wildwood and Holly Beach consolidated into the City of Wildwood in 1912.

As the island developed, great strides were made in transportation. Ferries began carrying passengers across the harbor from Rio Grande Avenue, and the railroad lines were improved. By 1903, passengers could change trains at Anglesea Station and travel south to Wildwood and Holly Beach Stations. A wooden bridge was erected in March of 1903 across the inlet at Rio Grande Avenue, and visitors now enjoyed unrestricted access to this once remote island.

Real estate flyers at the time advertised the island’s benefits to “health and pleasure seekers,” and while the benefits of the sea and salt air may have brought many of the original settlers to the island; it was the trees and parks for which the island was truly renowned. At one time, a wooded Park and fresh water lake covered the area that is now west of New Jersey Avenue between Wildwood and Oak Avenues. This park at Magnolia Lake was an early recreational center of the island.

The same twisted wild trees that had once made the land “inaccessible,” became popular tourist attractions. Locals gave them names inspired by their strange appearance: Elephant’s Head, Grand Twist, and Columbus. The most famous tree however was the “W” tree, named so because the fierce off-shore winds had twisted it into the shape of an almost perfect “W”. It was this tree that US President Benjamin Harrison insisted on being photographed with when he visited the Bakers in 1890. It was this wild tree that eventually appeared on Wildwood’s official seal.

At the turn of the century, Phillip Baker turned his attention to the dunes and forests on the south side of the island, and by 1906 the first house was built in Wildwood Crest. The Bakers continued to draw new visitors and residents to the area. In 1910, New Jersey Governor Fort officially recognized the new borough of Wildwood Crest, and Philip Baker was elected mayor.

Phillip Baker died in 1920. According to a promotional brochure developed by the Bakers and their associates, the assessed property value of Five Mile Beach from 1881 to 1910 jumped from $12,500 to $7,500,000. The once “veritable forest by the sea,” now offered “sanitary drainage and sewers, pure artesian water… macadamized streets and cement sidewalks.” Visitors could enjoy “ocean piers, casinos, theatres, skating rinks, and other amusement enterprises.” At Bakers death, the famous trees were not yet gone, and the island boasted, “Very attractive groves and parks, with most substantial oak, cedar and holly trees.”

Many things have changed on Five Mile Beach, since the Lenni Lenapi vacationed on its shores. The vision of early pioneers and settlers created a vibrant and unique resort community from a remote and inaccessible island. The island continues to grow, and its cool ocean breezes and warm white sand still beckon to those in search of “health and happiness.”

Information compiled from the following sources:

  • Wildwood: The Middle of the Island by George Boyer

  • Cape May County, New Jersey: the Making of an American Resort By Jeffrey M. Dorwart

  • Lenni Lenape of Cape May County by Jesse R. Combs

  • Early promotional flyers from the Holly Beach and Wild-wood Improvement Companies

  • Photos, postcards and brochures provided by the Wildwood Historical Society

(Originally publlished in Wildwood Properties)

Articles by Maureen Cawley