The Railroad to the Wildwoods

In 1869, America’s Transcontinental Railroad was completed, and passengers could board a train in Philadelphia and reach San Francisco in less than a week. Travel to the Jersey Cape, however, was much more complicated.

Prior to the establishment of the Cape May-Millville line by the West Jersey Railroad in 1863, visitors from Philadelphia and New York reached the resort town of Cape Island (now Cape May) by steamboat. The journey, roughly 100 miles, took almost a full day, and once visitors arrived at the southern tip of the county, they rarely ventured north.

The railroad changed that. According to H. Gerald MacDonald, a local railroad expert, the track from Cape May to Cape May Court House was in operation by June of 1863. The first locomotive to serve that line was named The Congress, and since the track was not yet complete, it arrived from Philadelphia the same way the tourists did – by boat.

According to MacDonald, it is believed that in August of 1863 the first train made its way from Millville to Cape May, making stops along the way in tiny communities like Woodbine and South Seaville. By the end of that year, the Civil War had ended and Cape May County saw unprecedented growth. The railroad brought industry and newcomers to the region. Cape May County was finally connected to the outside world.

When Frederick Swope traveled to Cape May County in 1879 to purchase land from Humphrey Cresse, he could have made the train trip from Philadelphia in less than four hours. To inspect his new property in Five Mile Beach, however, Swope would need to wait until low tide and wade through the muddy wetlands of Grassy Sound.

The land that Humphrey Cresse sold to Frederick Swope was used as a remote grazing ground for the county’s cattle. The barrier island was inhabited only by hearty Scandinavian Fishermen, who had arrived by boat and settled into tiny fishing shacks along the shore. Abundant wildlife lived in its wind-battered forest. While Cape May County was now connected to hubs in Philadelphia and New York, Swope’s new real estate venture on Five Mile Beach was connected to nothing.

This did not discourage Frederick Swope. He was an entrepreneur with ties to the railroad, and by 1882, he was in business on Five Mile Beach.

He reorganized The Five Mile Beach Improvement Company into the new Anglesea Land Company and began selling lots to investors and building summer cottages for wealthy Philadelphians. Perhaps most importantly, however, he began work on a rail spur that connected Anglesea to the new station at Gravelly Run on the West Jersey line. In 1883, the station was renamed Burleigh, in honor of John J. Burleigh of Camden City, the chief operator of the West Jersey line for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Trains were quicker than wagons and steam boats, but by today’s standards, rail travel was far from luxurious. Railroad passengers grew accustomed to the deafening roar of the steam engine and the screeching of brakes. Dark clouds blew from the locomotive’s stack, and passengers expected to be covered in a film of black soot when they reached their destination.

Passengers on Swope’s new rail line endured even greater inconveniences. The railroad line to Anglesea was laid across the damp sod of Grassy Sound. At high tide, tracks would shift, derailing the train, and stranding its well-heeled passengers in the mud. Sometimes the train would sit in the wetlands for hours, while the passengers and crew waited for low tide so the track could be adjusted and the “Mud Hen” could get on its way.

While Swope worked on developing the north end of the island, Phillip and Latimer Baker had their eye on the middle of the island. They formed the Holly Beach Improvement Company in 1882 and set to work attracting investors.

Like Swope, they encountered transportation issues, but by 1885, tracks were laid from Anglesea to about Burk Avenue in Holly Beach. In 1888, West Jersey railroad acquired Swope’s line, and transportation became much more reliable.

Toward the end of the decade, Reading Railroad made its move to compete with Pennsylvania Railroad’s service to the Jersey Cape. Its first line into the county extended from Winslow Junction in Camden County to Sea Isle Junction in the south. Eventually Reading Railroad connected with Wildwood Junction near Rio Grande and continued into the Oak Avenue Station.

Phillip and Latimer Baker were quick to use the railroad as a way to promote the resort. As early as 1890, they were scheduling train excursions to the island and offering “Special Inducements” to investors who visited for the Decoration Day Celebration on May 30. A tourism flyer from that year invites visitors to enjoy “the Beginning of Wildwood’s Greatest Season” for a $1.00 round trip fare from Philadelphia. This was the beginning of Wildwood’s historic Memorial Day opening.

Besides the Decoration Day celebration, visitors came to see the opening of the Hotel Dayton, the first grand hotel to open in Wildwood. Benjamin Harrison, the Twenty-Third President of the United States, was there for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, and from then on, the resort was officially on the map.

Passengers who traveled on the West Jersey line knew they had arrived when they heard the conductor call, “Anglesea Junction – change for Grassy Sounds, Hereford, Anglesea, Wildwood and Holly Beach.”

Vintage Photographs from the Wildwood Historical Society show the pageantry of Wildwood’s early train travel. Trees line the station and the arriving train seems to stretch on for miles. Horse-drawn buggies wait to transport arriving visitors. Fine ladies stroll along the platform, hidden beneath bonnets and parasols, while upright gentlemen hold tight to their straw hats. A hodgepodge parade of brass instruments and drums makes their way through the crowd, and children laugh and look on.

By 1903, 16 trains a day pulled into the Grassy Sound Station, and every summer promised to be “Wildwood’s Greatest Season.”

(Originally publlished in Wildwood Properties)

Articles by Maureen Cawley