For over 2000 years the Leni-Lenape Indians lived in the area that would later become New Jersey. They came to the coast to fish and gather quahog shells from the beach. They made beads from the shells called “wampum” which was used as currency.
In the 17th century, the Dutch and Swedes established the first European settlements on the east coast, which ultimately fell under English rule. King Charles II granted the land between New England and Maryland as a proprietary colony to his brother, the Duke of York. Through a series of grants and purchases, the land was divided and came under ownership of a group of Quakers called the West Jersey Proprietors – one of whom was William Penn, considered to be the founder of Pennsylvania.
Joseph Ludlam bought the land from the Quaker group in 1692 and named the island after himself. He then divided it into three sections and sold the southern section to John Townsend who named it Townsend’s Inlet.
Ludlam used the island to stock cattle and sheep. Mainlanders would visit the island to hunt, fish and engage in other recreational activities, but no permanent settlements would be established on the island for nearly two centuries. It is believed that pirates would stop at the island while sailing up the Jersey coast during this time, as evidenced by the type of pistols found during those early years.
Charles Kline Landis purchased Ludlam Island in 1880 with the intention of creating a beautiful seaside resort. Inspired by a trip to Venice, Landis sought to recreate a similar community. He renamed the Island “Sea Isle City” and had waterways and canals dug to create Venice-like waterways that still exist today on the Intercoastal Waterway. Ludlam effectively marketed the island as both a place to come for a visit and a place in which to live.
A bustling fishing industry developed and shacks were built to house fishermen overnight. Before long, they began bringing their families and staying more permanently on the island. Other full-time residents joined them and soon churches, restaurants and stores were established. In 1882, Sea Isle City was incorporated as a borough and in 1907 officially became a City. By the late 1880s, hundreds of people resided in Sea Isle full time.
In 1883, the first rail lines were constructed to connect the island to the mainland. One line ran into Sea Isle from the east by way of where Sea Isle Boulevard and 41st Street currently are, and the other came in from the north by way of Corson’s Inlet from Ocean City. The fare for visitors from Philadelphia was typically $1 for a round trip excursion to the shore.
Many families flocked to the beach in the summertime, especially on Sundays. They would often bring their lunches in shoe boxes, which gave rise to the term “Shoobies”. It originated as a derogatory term for two reasons: first, the shoe box-toting visitors brought their lunches so that they wouldn’t have to buy food, thereby depriving local establishment owners of revenue. Second, these inland visitors were not always accustomed to the environment, including the dangers of the ocean, beach etiquette and other local customs so they were looked down upon by residents. Today, the term “Shoobie” is still used to describe someone who visits (but doesn’t live in) the coastal towns of South Jersey.
To provide a central place for activities for both visitors and residents, the Excursion House was built in 1882. It housed a restaurant, stores, a skating rink and a public second floor terrace. It remained the main hub of activity for the newly forming town until it was destroyed in the storm of 1962.
In 1887 a donkey-pulled trolley was built and ran the length of the island, taking travelers into Townsends Inlet. It ran until 1916 when it was decommissioned. Years later, the route would become Landis Avenue. In 2010, during repaving, workers unearthed part of the trolley track under Landis.
The oldest building in Sea Isle City that remains from this era is The Colonnade Inn, a Victorian building with a huge wrap-around porch located on the corner of 46th Street and Landis Avenue. Built in 1883 and restored in 2004, the Colonnade still operates as a hotel with privately owned rooms and apartments available for rent on a daily or weekly basis.
Also remaining is the Braca Building. Built in the early 1900s and serving as a theatre back then, the building now houses James Candy, a popular place to purchase sweet seashore souvenirs after a trip to Sea Isle.
By the end of the century, electricity lit the streets and buildings and there were over 30 hotels, railways, a school and two churches. Sea Isle had grown to both a place to live and a vacation destination.
In the mid-1930s, when automobiles became more prolific, rail service to the island went by the wayside. Having a car meant that visitors could travel to more remote areas of the island, and they were not geographically limited to the area around the train station. As a result, hotels once popular because of their proximity to the trains became less popular in favor of smaller, more remote cottages and boarding houses that were being built throughout the island.
Due to a steel shortage during the Second World War, Sea Isle City tore up the railroad that remained in the area so that it could be used as scrap metal. As a result, the path where the railroad used to run through town became a popular path for people to take walks and ride their bikes. This pathway would later become Pleasure Ave.
Sea Isle was once home to a wooden boardwalk that was built and destroyed by storms several times. In 1962 a nor’easter storm ravaged the town, destroying buildings and bringing the old wooden boardwalk to a final end. Once lined on both sides with shops, restaurants, arcades, hotels, a dance hall, a bath house and a theater, Sea Isle’s boardwalk was a bustling recreational and social meeting place. After it was destroyed, a paved pathway was built in its place. The Promenade, as it is now called, runs 1.5 miles from 29th Street to 57th Street. Construction of buildings was limited to the west side of the Promenade to allow for the creation of a dune line on the eastern side, in hopes that the town would be spared from future storms coming ashore.
The Promenade once featured a block-wide amusement park at 32nd Street called Fun City. It offered rides and carnival games until it closed in 2000 when the land was sold for the development of homes. A movement to expand the Promenade to the entire length of the island to reduce pedestrian and cyclist traffic on the streets was defeated in 2016 by the concern of residents and the environmental impact it would have on the dunes.
In the 20th century, Sea Isle City continued to flourish as a residential and resort town. However, between 2000 and 2010, the population of Sea Isle’s full time year-round residents dropped, as it did in other coastal towns in South Jersey. Economics and the climate are two reasons cited for this decline in the permanent population.
The sharp rise in property values along the shore in recent years now prohibits many families from buying property here because they simply can’t afford it. Instead, people who can afford to buy second homes are purchasing properties but not living here full-time themselves. It is not uncommon for second home-owners to purchase an older home in Sea Isle and have it demolished so that it can be replaced with a larger, taller more contemporary home. This also then creates a decline in school-aged populations, and as a result many small school districts such as Sea Isle’s have closed. School children are now bussed to Ocean City’s schools or attend private schools elsewhere. Climate change has given rise to super storms such as Sandy and Jonas, which both destroyed many homes and businesses along the Jersey coast. Rising insurance rates also cause an economic impact to people who wish to live or open a business here.
Sea Isle, like other coastal South Jersey towns, will continue to change, grow and develop in one way or another, as it has throughout history. Despite the many changes this little town has seen, including the impact of several devastating storms, Sea Isle City continues to thrive as the city that won’t quit.
Do you, or does your family or business, have a history in Sea Isle City? We’re interested in hearing from people whose families were original or early settlers, or who own or owned a business, or who have other historical information to share such as living or working here in past summers, meeting your significant others, getting engaged or married here or any other human interest story. If so, and if you would like to share your story, please contact us by clicking here. The information you provide us is through this link is confidential and we will contact you to gain more information, as well as your full permission, before we disclose any information you provide. Thank you, and please don’t hesitate to contact us! (Note: for your privacy, do not include your information in the Leave A Reply box below unless you wish others to see your information).
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