In Another Time > Local concern for oil pollution came early

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The huge body of water we call the ocean has been one of tourism’s best friends---perhaps its best---since the three Baker brothers discovered the Wildwoods and converted the island into a place for fun and games for those wanting to escape the ordinary of their lives.

People swim in the ocean or they wade in it at water’s edge. The more adventurous surf in the ocean, the Isaac Waltons fish in it and the seafarers captain their boats in it for pleasure or transportation of cargo and people.

And there have been some who claim they come to the ocean to revitalize their health or reinvigorate their busy everyday lives.

The ocean, though, has not always been treated kindly, sometimes soiled with unwanted products, other times accepted early on as a place for users and little said or done about the abusers.

During the second half of the 19th century, the guns of war silent once again on American soil, the trio of brotherly discoverers seemed to be more concentrated on the land than on the water when they took their first look at the virtually virgin territory they were to develop.

‘Would it work?’ they asked themselves. Latimer Baker, who ironically was to become the first mayor of part of it, wasn’t so sure of its successful future. He called the land “uninhabitable” and “inaccessible.” As a prognosticator, he turned out to be a better mayor, serving as the first and only mayor of the borough of Wildwood from 1895 to 1911 when he was succeeded as mayor of the city of Wildwood, then consolidated with Holly Beach, by his brother, J. Thompson, who served briefly because he was also elected as congressman for one term.

But that was years away from their first look. As the ocean roared in the background, J. Thompson and Philip Pontius Baker convinced their brother they could make things happen and this wild land would indeed be livable and easy to get to.

Soon, they were to learn, the ocean wasn’t always congenial to human companions sharing its waters. It had its own guardians and they were called sharks and when swimming humans started to invade the sharks’ domain, there was war on or under the water and the fish usually won.

In addition, without the help of the sharks, swimmers often entered dangerous waters and there was no one around to help them or even warn them about the potential danger.

An early drowning victim was a cook from Germany who came to Wildwood to work and took some time off on a summer day to enjoy the ocean.

It became obvious then that the municipalities needed to provide protection as they began to grow and the number of swimmers increased. A few of the bigger places like the Casino Pier offered their own lifeguard crews but there were gaps on the Wildwoods spacious beaches that people congregated on and from which they entered the ocean without forewarnings.

So it was that in 1905 Wildwood hired its first lifeguards, but it was not without tragedy. Their names were Daniel Briggs and John Wicks and they went on duty on July 1. A few days later Briggs decided to show his Olympic-like skills by diving into water from the Casino Pier. Someone apparently didn’t tell him that Olympians don’t dive into shallow water. Briggs did just that and he died in a Camden hospital of injuries suffered in the dive, less than two weeks after he was hired.

Wildwood Crest got into the act, too, and one of its colorful guards was Warren Malkin who was nicknamed “Arthur Godfrey of the Patrol” and accompanied singing lifeguards on the ukulele as they entertained on rainy days.

Some of the Wildwood guards rescued an injured seagull and brought the bird back to health. The bird was given the name of Oscar and was said to be fond of lettuce and tomato sandwiches without the bacon.

It took a while, but Wildwood was still years ahead of the women’s rights movement when it hired its first female lifeguards in 1933. Florence Newton and Mae Ottey were said by the Associated Press to be the first women lifeguards on the Atlantic Coast, ironically beating out Atlantic City by 42 years. That city didn’t hire a female guard until 1975, although in its day of Miss America Pageants it featured contestants in increasingly brief bathing suits, not always suitable for saving lives.

In those days of the Great Depression not all of the lifeguard duties were confined to the ocean. They were to enforce a law that said men must cover their chests when in or out of the water. The law was relaxed somewhat in 1936, drawing the comment from one newspaper editor that “there will be no compulsion of male bathers to wear jerseys, yet the display of the manly chest must be kept strictly on the bathing beach.” The editorial, not clear whether it was written by a man or woman, went on to say that the male bather “..seems to want to parade his gorilla-like figure before the more or less admiring gentler sex.”

Other seaside communities were not as quick to act on the bare chest ban. North Wildwood waited until 1940 to allow men to strip their chests. Atlantic City lifted the ban in 1941 and Ocean City, the most conservative of them all, even to this day on the subject of liquor, waited until after World War II to allow men to go topless.

Probably the most famous lifeguard in Wildwood’s history is Frank “Dutch” Hoffman who served during the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. The former pro football player is said to have run a tight ship and to have kept his eyes on the wide Wildwood beach at times through the use of binoculars.

But there were bigger ocean problems and they had nothing to do with what men wore or didn’t wear when they rode the waves or splashed salt water with their kids in their first visit to the seashore.

This was called pollution, some times by oil, other times by garbage people didn’t know quite what do with, and who saw the ocean as a good dumping site to get rid of it.

The problem became apparent as early as the start of the 1920s, when Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, West Wildwood and North Wildwood were all in place. Out at sea, though, the oil tankers were leaking, and some of their oil was making its way into the ocean and alarming the tourist when they saw tar-like sticky substances coming to their beaches from the pristine Atlantic Ocean, which was a prime reason to vacation at their resorts.

“Dutch” Hoffman, ever the protector of his domain, protested to the Coast Guard and the United States Army of Engineers, and the freeholders sent their view in 1922 by way of a resolution that “deplored the practice of burning and carrying boats dumping their oil refuse near the coastline of Cape May County resorts because it floats ashore and spoils our bathing beaches, and it also covers the wings and feathers of the birds causing them death.”

Apparently their appeals got little results. Like the ocean, the controversy rolled on and on with the waves for many years to come.


(Next week: New pollutions, attempted solutions.)

((The information in this article was researched in Jeffery M. Dorwart’s book, “Cape May County, New Jersey, The Making Of an American Resort Community ” and in the book, “Wildwood By The Sea,” by David W. and Diane DeMali Francis and Robert J. Scully Sr.)


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