In Another Time > Peer into the past of Wildwood’s piers

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The success of a seashore resort does not depend on whether it has a commercial pier that stretches into the ocean. But it helps.

The history of the piers in the Wildwoods, as well as in other South Jersey oceanfront communities, is a contradictory example of how piers have or have not influenced tourism there, especially in the borough of Wildwood Crest.

Apparently anticipating its tourism future, the first of three piers was built in the Crest in 1905, five years before it was officially incorporated as a borough on April 6, 1910. It extended out over the ocean at Seaview Avenue and Heather Road at a time when Seaview served as a promenade along the ocean.

The new facility was definitely designed for tourism. It included an 800-seat theater, bowling alleys, a roller skating rink, a dance hall and a bath house. A carousel, a still popular ride in today’s amusement scene, was said to be included in the original plans, but that evidently did not come to fruition.

Its early times were not the best of times for the pier, according to the book, “Wildwood by the Sea,” written by David W. and Diane DeMali Francis and Robert J. Scully Sr.

The pier struggled for the next four years and in 1909, a year before the Crest assumed its own identify as a borough, manager James Creamer was replaced by Harry D’Esta whose claim to fame was that he managed a show about the Johnstown Flood in Atlantic Citarry D’EstawHarry D’Esta whose Harryy.

Soon D’Esta tried to bring new life to the pier. He booked the 25 piece Troilo Royal Italian Band which in those days seemed to perform everywhere on the island that had the space for it, and had gained popularity from being featured at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier.

D’Esta also improved the food services there, promoted fishing and embarked upon a high profile advertising campaign for dancing at night.

For a while hopes were high that the Crest Pier would rival, maybe outdo, the other piers on Five Mile Beach, but they were false hopes as the pier of the Crest began to suffer

again. D’Esta was soon replaced by a man named . l. .L. StgriclerHHH H H.L. Strickler who took a different approach. He replaced the food and game concessionaires as well as the large and more expensive Italian band and emphasized special events on the skating rink.

The new programming attracted 30,000 people in one week, but it didn’t match some of the larger piers and so Strickler, as possibly a forerunner of today’s Crest Pier, made it something of a community center by staging sing-alongs, dances and kids’ parties.

The pier finally got its act together until 1917, the year that America entered World War I. As devastation occurred on the battlefields of Europe, so did it that year in Wildwood Crest when a fire destroyed the pier that was 12 years old.

In 1920, two years after peace was restored and a decade after the Crest became official, a second pier was constructed at the same location.

But the ravages of time and nature soon were to affect this pier too. By the Great Depression of the 1930s, the beach had expanded so much that Atlantic Avenue was added and that change to the geography separated the pier from the beach. So it was that in 1948, still another World War concluded, that the borough officials moved the pier across Atlantic Avenue closer to the waters that attracted so many people.

Gone, though, was the original intent.

No longer were there amusement rides and other events designed to attract tourists. The pier became for all practical purposes a community center that housed amateur contests, flower shows, community sings and the like. Finally in 1987 the third and present Crest Pier emerged when it was built two blocks from the beach. It is now a community center and is still called the Crest Pier, possibly a misnomer in seashore references because most of the piers at the shore extend onto the fringes of the ocean.

Another Crest Pier also joined the battle with nature. Not far from the present inland pier is a fishing pier started by a private club. Nowadays the only fish that can be caught there are possibly land crabs. It too has become landlocked although efforts were made in 1950 to meet the challenge by expanding it from 229 feet to 500 and adding a 25 foot fishing platform.

How much the travails of the Crest’s on again, off again piers affected tourism in that borough is a matter of conjecture. Probably not all that much since in its 102 years Wildwood Crest has done very well with its plethora of motels, self-made attractions and the advantages of the beach and ocean.

However, it must be wondered where the Crest and other municipalities on the island would be were it not for the piers of the Morey Family in the neighboring towns of Wildwood and North Wildwood. They’ve been there, first modestly and now in their full glory since the late 1960s.

Although there were efforts to build small piers on Five Mile Beach late in the 19th century, the peer among all his pier builders was Gilbert H. Blaker who has been described in history as Wildwood’s “first great amusement impresario.” In 1890, long before the Crest was thinking about the subject, Blaker (not to be confused with the founding Baker brothers) acquired the Excursion Pavilion at the ocean end of Cedar Avenue and converted it into the resort’s first entertainment pier which appropriately, if not modestly, was labeled Blaker’s Pier.

Once a wallpaper hanger, Blaker’s entrepreneur career lasted into the 1920s and had a bit of P.T. Barnum in him. Among his exhibits was a 2200 pound stuffed whale, said to be the only stuffed whale in the United States. Some people, it was said, did not appreciate the odor that came from the whale.

Coming at a time when the Wildwoods were growing into their prime days, it can be reasonably inferred that Blaker’s Pier played a big role in the island’s advancement before and during the arrival of Wildwood Crest on the scene in 1910. It also can be said that it was a two way street, Blaker benefiting from the crowds that came to the island and his pier.

Many other piers were to follow, of course, and there was high competition among them. Some succeeded, some failed but in one form or another, they have always been there as venues somewhere on the island. There was high competition among them and the crowds enjoyed them then as they still do now, a testimonial to the saying that something old can really be new again.

 

(Some of the information for this article was researched at the reference department of the county library in Court House.)

 


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