In Another Time > King of the Boardwalk came to town at 17

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 Sebastian Ramagosa came to Wildwood as a 17-year-old in 1914, and built a kingdom on the boardwalk.

Wildwood, with a year-round population of 3,858, larger than Ocean City’s 3,721, was at that time starting to draw crowds.

That summer, a big Improved Order of the Red Men parade was held, attracting thousands and there were complaints that the city was becoming too noisy. People were living in tents on the beach and some brought sanitation problems, causing the mayor to order all tents without sewer connections to be removed. The Board of Trade, the early version of today’s tourism commissions on the island, petitioned the city to build a municipal pier and convention center in Wildwood.

Frank Smith was mayor in 1914 and the president of the United States was Woodrow Wilson, no stranger to Wildwood from his days as governor of New Jersey. Ever the opportunist, even in those young days, Ramagosa saw a future in Wildwood and he packed his bags and came to the seashore to open a small game of chance store on the Boardwalk. In 1915 he owned five games and a year later Ramagosa was to enter a partnership with Wildwood Commissioner Ralph Carll, and he was on his way to being known as the “King of the Boardwalk.”

The period, however, turned out to be a grim time for the world as it entered what was falsely predicted to be “the war to end all wars,” one that the United States was to join two years later. For Ramagosa, though, it was the catalyst for an entrepreneurial career that was to include marathon dancers, tram cars, amusement rides, pier ownership, aquatic shows and manufacturing children’s rides.

Obviously, even if he were so inclined, Ramagosa had no time to compete against Caruso.

By the 1920s, Ramagosa’s career was beginning to roar. He was being mentioned in the same league as movie house entrepreneur Bill Hunt and Charles Douglass, who was considered to be the king of Wildwood candymakers after he opened a salt water taffy and fudge store

And when Prohibition was repealed in 1933 after 13 long years of national violence and deception, Ramagosa and Carll formed the then-legal Cape May County Beverage Company and beer flowed on the island, sometimes not peacefully. On one occasion in 1935, the Marines landed and were arrested after in a drunken condition they were denied entrance to a dance and protested the denial too vigorously.

The two partners were on the move that year, expanding the Casino Arcade which they ran. As he was to do later also, Ramagosa went beyond the shores of the Wildwoods and he turned to art as he brought for exhibit from the 1933-1934 Chicago World’s Fair a painting that was said to be worth a quarter of a million dollars. He also installed a shooting gallery and amusement rides among them some especially for children, one of his career trademarks.

A big attraction for the very young was a Fun on the Farm event, at which he gave souvenirs to the kids. After World War II, his enterprises still booming, Ramagosa added new attractions that featured nine-foot-long alligators that the brave (and not always smart) wrestled with for the audience’s entertainment.

Another attraction that drew large audiences was Billy Outten who didn’t wrestle alligators but performed just as dangerous an act. He called himself the Human Comet and soaked himself with gasoline before plunging 115 feet into a tank of water covered with burning fuel.

Ramagosa’s popular Water Follies show booked some tranquil acts also. Among them were Freckles of the Our Gang movie comedies; Sioux City Sue and her sister who were billed as Gene Autry’s Yodeling Sweethearts; “The Body Beautiful” Ann Howe, and Charlie Chaplin’s controversial protégé Joan Barry.

Soon , though, in 1949 Ramagosa realized there must be a way that the many boardwalk attractions could be reached comfortably without necessarily walking the boards. He had heard about the tram cars that were used in the New York World’s Fair in 1939. He was a fan of world fairs, so he contacted the New York authorities and asked if they had any old tram cars gathering dust. They said they had and Ramagosa bought some for the Wildwood Boardwalk.

He then formed the Tram Car Amusement Company and hired 18 young women to drive them and collect 10 cents a ride. It was a signature event for not only Ramagosa but for Wildwood.

As a reminder of his past, tram cars still ride the boards during the tourism season and their “Watch the tram car, please” outcry is now a popular identification of the Boardwalk as well as the city.

So Ramagosa, known by his friends as “Ramey,” was doing quite well during and after the big war. Among his possessions was the Sportland Pier, which he acquired in 1942 at the beginning of the war and had improved the pier despite shortages of materials because of the war. But “Ramey” was growing older, 48 at the end of the war and was to survive another eight years when he succumbed in November 1953 to a cerebral hemorrhage at what was then Burdette Tomlin Memorial Hospital.

His dance marathons, which he is credited as having innovated nationally, his piers, his tram cars and all of the other enterprises all shaped up well on his list of accomplishments, but they were getting to be too much. At one time he was involved in 76 different enterprises. He needed help.

While he continued as a major factor in his enterprises, Ramagosa got the help he needed from his son Gilbert. When his father, died Gilbert assumed control and not only maintained his father’s heritage but also advanced it with new enterprises. He was so successful that he inherited from his father the title of “King of the Boardwalk.”

The Ramagosa boardwalk empire lasted some 70 years, starting when the teenage Sebastian came to the still young city to open a store on the walkway at the start of the first World War. His son, the second “King of the Boardwalk,” abdicated his throne in the 1980s after a fire, one of many that plagued the Wildwood Boardwalk, destroyed his Casino Arcade whose value combined with that of his Sportland Pier he placed at $1 million.

The Casino Arcade was rebuilt and sold followed by the sale of the Sportland Pier in the mid- 1980s. Gone too in the years to follow were the tram car business and a bus company that the family had operated. Gilbert died in 1995, some 42 years after his father passed away.

Today Wildwood’s boardwalk empire belongs to the Morey family whose full history has yet to be written. But memories of the kings of the past still live on, starting with a visionary kid who made it to the throne and passed it on to his son.

(Some of the information for this article was researched at the reference department of the Cape May County Library in Court House and in the book, “Wildwood by the Sea,” by David W. and Diane DeMali Francis, and Robert J. Scully Sr.)

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