by:Jacob Schaad Jr.
Wildwood’s 25th birthday came at the start of the 1920s and it had good reasons to celebrate.
The city had come a long way since 1895, when it was officially incorporated as a borough out of the wilderness. It had absorbed a neighboring and older community into its government, one of its founders had become the only congressman to serve from that city in its long history, a future president of the United States had been a frequent visitor and most importantly the tourists were arriving in trains and automobiles and ships to enjoy the spacious beach, the ocean and what some boosters claimed was the healthy environment guaranteed to cure whatever ailed the afflicted.
But there was much more to be done in this decade that was to be known in later years as the Roaring ’20s. The nickname fitted wild, wild Wildwood because in many ways, as it moved ahead to compete against Atlantic City and Cape May for the tourist dollar, Wildwood was the lion that roared in the 1920s.
The stage was set, of course, by national events. Women were given the right to vote after their national campaign enhanced by some female campaigners who lived in Wildwood. Prohibition banned the manufacture, distribution and selling of liquor and from that emerged illegal speakeasies and bootlegging and gangsters and gaudily dressed flappers who danced the Charleston.
When the first war of the world ended in 1918 there was optimism that peace and prosperity would settle right in. The guns abroad were indeed silent, but the hopes for riches were silenced also when not-too-long later the seashore was struck by a depression. At first, according to reports from the time, Wildwood was not affected as dramatically as others, but as the months rolled by the negatives caught up to this relatively young city by the sea. The economists attributed it to an economic Wildwood slowdown that was sure to come following the resort’s fast start in the 1910s and even before that.
Good news, though, emerged from the bad. There were reports that building construction in 1919 rose from $146,000 to $1 million in 1922. The year-round population soared from 2,790 in 1920 to 5,330 10 years later. This, of course, did not include the tourism figures which multiplied the total considerably.
The city’s movers and shakers decided that more had to be done to satisfy the vacation needs of their growing number of visitors, like building a bigger and better Boardwalk, for instance. It was not to be without controversy, but then many big projects in Wildwood’s history were not to be accomplished without controversy.
Soon after the close of the summer of 1919, it became apparent that the foot- and weather beaten boardwalk was rotten and unsafe. What’s more the constantly expanding beach made a trip to the ocean seem more like Lawrence of Arabia on the Sahara Desert.
So Mayor Frank E. Smith, then the mayor of Wildwood but earlier the mayor of Holly Beach, joined some of his supporters to try to appropriate $100,000 for a new boardwalk. The ordinance failed, so the mayor reduced the sum to $50,000 and this time it passed and the city went ahead to build a 2,300 foot walk from Cedar to Montgomery Avenues with a 628 foot section connecting to an older section to the south.
Everyone was not happy in Wildwood, certainly not Boardwalk entrepreneur Gilbert Blaker. He claimed the city had promised that it would not move the boardwalk for another two or three years, and he challenged the legality of the bond issue.
So the case went to court, the city was restrained from removal of certain portions of the walk, but it went ahead anyway. The demolition crew foreman John James, and a mayor-to-be E.S. Culver were found guilty of contempt of court and fined $10 each for violating the restraint.
Hopes for a new boardwalk were stymied for a while and in February of 1921 the merchants and city officials feared the summer tourists would see a boardwalk with gaping holes in it. No problem, though. In the darkness of the night a city crew tore out a large section of the boardwalk decking, thereby requiring the suggested improvements. The city officials who authorized the nocturnal project and supported a new boardwalk won their point, but lost to angry voters in a recall election that was to follow.
Blaker, meanwhile, either tired of the whole mess or satisfied by the turn of events, dropped his legal action in the War of the Boardwalk.
Construction crews worked feverishly (this time in the daylight) to ready the walk for the summer crowds. Even so the new section wasn’t ready until late August of 1921.
Three years later, the boardwalk was back in the news. This time, apparently with little controversy, a new section closer to the beach was constructed from Oak Avenue to the North Wildwood border at 26th Avenue. It was dedicated with big fanfare on Memorial Day of 1925 led by Mayor Culver, a central figure in the earlier controversy, and with a parade, seemingly always a part of celebrations in the Wildwoods.
The boardwalk beat continued in the Wildwoods during the 1920s. Two years later in June 1927 the southern section from Montgomery Avenue to the Wildwood Crest border at Cresse Avenue opened. The North Wildwood Boardwalk, first built in 1904, was razed during the winter of 1927-1928 and a new one appeared from 26th Avenue to 16th Avenue on July 4, 1928 and dedicated at a ceremony presided over by Mayor George Redding. Wildwood Crest replaced its wooden walk of the early 1920s with a paved street and then in 1929, as the stock market crash loomed, the Crest built an untraditional walkway at ground level.
The bottom line from all this is that Wildwood and North Wildwood ultimately finalized in the 1920s two connecting boardwalks that have continued successful even to this day. Millions of tourists walk the walk every year, a reminder of the times when the ’20s roared 92 years ago.
(Some of the information in this article was researched in the book, “Wildwood By The Sea,” by David W. and Diane DeMali Francis and Robert J. Scully Sr.)