As with most of the barrier islands in Southern Jersey, Ocean City was once a hunting and fishing ground for the Lenni-Lenape Indians. In 1700, the area became known as Peck’s Beach after a whaler by the name of John Peck used the beach to store whales caught off shore.
In 1750 John Somers bought a few hundred acres in the northern part of the island and used it for cattle grazing. Visitors would come to hunt and fish. By the mid-1800s, Parker Miller and his family came to live on the island as its only full-time residents, living in a house that once stood where Seventh Street and Asbury Avenue is today. Miller was a representative for lost cargo insurance claims, protecting shipping companies’ rights when ships wrecked off island. Legend has it that he used the cabin of a wrecked steamer as the family’s kitchen.
Four Methodist ministers, interested in creating a seaside Christian resort, traveled to the island to inspect it and determined it was the perfect place for what they envisioned. Standing under a cedar tree in 1879, they set out a plan to develop the land and formed the Ocean City Association to execute it. They purchased the land and cleared it to make lots, which they began selling in May 1880 for approximately $50 each. Later, they built streets. From its inception, it was determined that the sale of alcoholic beverages in Ocean City would be “forever prohibited” – a law that remains in effect today.
Development of the new island city was rapid. Within one year of its conception, a railway service brought visitors in to the island from Tuckahoe and, later, direct from Philadelphia. A rustic train station was built at 34th Street and Haven Avenue. Another station was built in 1898 at 10th Street and Haven Avenue. The 10th Street station still stands and today – listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it currently serves as a transportation center for buses.
Between 1889 and 1934, several transportation modes were available to bring people to the island. A train called the “Yellow Kid’ ran between Ocean City and Stone Harbor to the south. The Shore Fast electric line, operated by Atlantic City and Shore Railroad, ran from Atlantic City to Ocean City by way of the mainland communities of Pleasantville, Northfield, Linwood and Somers Point from 1907 to 1948. Steamboat service from either Longport and Somers Point shuttled visitors to the island between 1894 and 1918.
In 1886, nearly 30 years before the U.S. Coast Guard was created, the U.S. Life-Saving Service constructed 45 life-saving stations along the New Jersey Coast, including one at 4th Street and Atlantic Avenue in Ocean City. It operated as a life-saving station until 1937 and was instrumental in saving all 35 crew members of the sailing ship Sindia when it ran aground in 1901. It was also instrumental in the rescue of numerous small boats and endangered swimmers. The Station reopened between 1941 and 1945 to house personnel and equipment for anti-saboteur and submarine beach patrols during World War II, and in 2013 it too was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
By turn of the century, Ocean City had seen a lot of development. Asbury Avenue, the first street built in the new city, became the commercial hub. Boarding and guest houses opened to welcome visitors who wished to stay on the island overnight.
As part of a federal plan to experiment with air delivery service, the first air mail was flown between Ocean City and Stone Harbor in 1912, a flight that took only 20 minutes. In 1920 the beach patrol was established, and four years later the first high school was built.
From the north, the Longport bridge was built in 1927, from the south a bridge was built over Corson’s Inlet from Strathmere in 1946, and from the west travelers could travel from Marmora in to 34th Street by a bridge that was built in 1964.
In 1929, the Music Pier was built. That same year, Grace Kelly was born to a prominent Philadelphia family who vacationed in Ocean City at their house located on the corner of 26th Street and Wesley Avenue. Her father, Jack, was an Olympic oarsman, winning gold medals in both the 1920 and 1924 Olympics. He went on to be an owner of the firs horse race track in Atlantic City. Grace became an Academy Award-winning actress. She was featured in over 60 television shows and 11 movies, including 3 Alfred Hitchcock films. She married Prince Rainier of Monaco. The couple had three children, and the royal family continued to vacation in Ocean City until her tragic death in an automobile accident in 1982.
One of the most popular dining establishments in Ocean City was established in 1937. The Chatterbox Restaurant, now located on the southeast corner of 9th Street and Avenue, has been a town favorite since it started serving comfort food in the 30s. The building in which it is housed – a pink Spanish Mission Revival-style icon – was designed by the same architect who created the Music Pier and Flanders Hotel. To this day, the restaurant’s décor resembles that of 1950’s soda fountain with a historic mural depicting a mid-century restaurant crowd enjoying their food. The restaurant was owned by several families over the years, but has remained a popular dining venue. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused severe damage to the restaurant and its belongings, but fortunately the mural was spared. The restaurant was closed for a few months for restoration and reopened in 2013. The restaurant’s present owners, themselves customers for 30 years, purchased the Chatterbox in 2014 to save it from possible demolition. They decided to preserve the name and atmosphere to honor its tradition of being “the place where the town meets” – a tradition that continues today.
In 1954, the first Night in Venice parade was held after a town official travelled to Italy and witnessed a boat festival. He believed that Ocean City’s back bay area would be a great place to hold the same type of event. Since then, the Nights in Venice Parade has become a popular annual event where boat and waterfront home owners decorate to the hilt and parties are held throughout the bay front. The event often draws crowds of over a hundred thousand people each year. Grandstands are set up along the route, which runs from the Longport-Ocean City Bridge to Tennessee Avenue, to allow spectators to watch the passing boats that light up the night, a process that takes three hours to complete. Family-friendly entertainment is available in some locations along the route including live music, face painting and other festivities. The night culminates in prizes and fireworks.
The Ocean City Boardwalk has such a storied past, it is deserving of its own chapter.
The first wooden walkway was built in 1880, extending from the Second Street wharf to Fourth Street and West Avenue. In 1885, plans were made to extend the boardwalk the entire length of the beach after the first amusement pavilion opened on 11th Street.
In 1898 William Shriver founded Shriver’s as a restaurant, ice cream, and candy store. Later, the Shriver family would own the boardwalk theaters that once entertained audiences. Today, Shriver’s Salt Water Taffy is the oldest business that’s still in operation on the boardwalk.
Moore’s Bowling Casino opened at Moorlyn Terrace in 1905, and later a roller rink and a theater were added. It ultimately became the Moorlyn Theatre, home to vaudeville acts and silent movies with live organ accompaniment. In 1929, the Showboat Theatre, later known as the Surf, was built, first as a venue for vaudeville acts but later became a movie theater. Finally, in 1938, the Shriver Theater opened at 9th and the boardwalk, later to become The Strand. Built in the art deco style, it had one screen, two balconies and a silk curtain with King Neptune pictured on it.
Sadly, none of these theaters remain. The Surf closed in the 1980s and became an enclosed shopping area. The Moorlyn had a short run as a combination family movie theater and religious venue after it was purchased by the Ocean City Tabernacle, but closed this year. The Strand was converted to a pizza shop.
Over the years, the boardwalk has been a venue for many family-oriented events. The Ocean City Baby Parade, the longest running parade of its kind, was first held in 1909. In the early days, a doctor would weigh and measure the babies so the parade was an opportunity to gauge babies’ health. The baby parade continues today with many categories of prizes given for the most decorated and dressed up children and their floats.
After World War I, Ocean City sought to compete with rival seaside resorts by building a grand oceanfront hotel. The Flanders Hotel was designed by the same local architect who had designed City Hall and would later design the high school, music pier and the Chatterbox restaurant building. It was constructed from steel and concrete and was fireproof. With 232 rooms, a swimming pool, elegant ballrooms, multiple sun decks and a bath in each room, the tall hotel was a beacon for visitors coming into town. Guests were treated like royalty with bellhops, doormen and front desk clerks to serve their needs.
A fire in 1927 completely destroyed the boardwalk and nearly all the buildings on it. The Flanders was spared. The boardwalk was rebuilt after the fire and moved 300 feet closer to the ocean. To keep its beachfront status, Flanders developers built an extension of the main boardwalk to connect to the hotel. In 1929, three new salt water pools were added to the property, including an Olympic-sized pool, a children’s pool and a diving pool that were open to the public. The hotel’s pools were the main attraction in Ocean City for many years, until the aging hotel lost its foothold in popularity when newer, more modern hotels like the Port-O-Call Hotel were built in the 1960s. In 1978 the Flanders iconic pools closed, and for the next several years it suffered financial distress, closing and reopening as a private condominium building. In the early 1990s, a small amusement park called Playland’s Castaway Cove was built where the pools once were. Today, Castaway Cove is one of two remaining amusement areas on the Ocean City Boardwalk.
In 2008 the historic Flanders made a comeback as a first-class resort with luxury suites and penthouse condos, a heated pool, a full-service restaurant, ballrooms and meeting rooms, coffee shop, salon and spa. In 2009, the Flanders was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
One family in Ocean City has perfected the art of thrilling visitors with rides and entertainment. In 1930 David Gillian, a former vaudeville musician, opened an amusement park known as “Gillian’s Fun Deck” at Plymouth Place and the Boardwalk. The two main attractions were a Ferris wheel and a Merry-Go-Round. In 1965, his son Roy opened Wonderland Pier at 6th Street and the Boardwalk, in the location where an amusement park called Playland had burned down in 1955.
Today, Wonderland’s rides include the towering 144-foot Giant Ferris Wheel, one of the largest on the East Coast, as well as a monorail and over 30 other rides. While some newer rides have been added, some remain the same, including a 1926 hand-carved carousel, where riders can still reach for a brass ring.
The Fun Deck closed in the late 1980s, but in its place one of Roy’s grandsons opened Gillian’s Island Water Park and a mini-golf course. In 2009 the Gillian family expanded their business beyond Ocean City by opening Gillian’s Funland in neighboring Sea Isle City, but in 2012 it suffered severe damage during Hurricane Sandy and was forced to close. While the Gillian name is well-known in the amusement industry, it is also rooted in public service. Current Mayor Jay Gillian is the son of Wonderland Pier founder Roy Gillian who served as Mayor from 1985-1989.
One cannot visit the OC Boards today and pass up an opportunity to have a slice of pizza heaven. Back in 1956, a family discovered a revolutionary way of making pizza – cheese first, then the most tantalizing sauce swirled on top – and made history of its own. Originally known as Mack and Manco, the first pizza shop opened at 918 Boardwalk. Other shops opened on 8th Street, 12th Street and on the mainland in Somers Point. In 2011, the name changed to Manco and Manco – like its sauce, the reason is a family secret. But visitors don’t care – at any given time of day there are long lines crossing the width of the boardwalk at all three locations. In 2017, the Manco empire took over the old Strand Theater at 9th and Boardwalk to accommodate its constant throng of visitors.
Every week in the summer, a multitude of events are hosted on the boardwalk. From formally planned shows, exhibits and events in the music pier, to pop-up musicians who play instruments and sing to entertain and show off their talent, the boardwalk has played an important role in history, and continues to do so, in order to make Ocean City America’s Greatest Family Resort.
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