A Brief History of The Wildwoods

Courtesy of The Wildwood Historical Society
George F. Boyer Historical Museum
Mr. Robert J. Scully, Curator


“A very good land to fall in with – and a pleasant land to see.” These words, written more than 350 years ago, are the first recorded description of the Island of Five Mile Beach, upon which Wildwood and her sister communities now stand.They were set down by Robert Juet, who sailed with the English navigator, Henry Hudson, on a voyage of exploration for the Dutch East India Company in 1609. Seeking a new route to China, Hudson entered what is now Delaware Bay on August 28th, but confronted by shoals and convinced the stream really wasn’t the sought-after northwest passage, he swung his ship, the “Half Moon,” about, rounded the point at Cape May, and headed northward in the Atlantic.

Gazing shoreward, Juet watched the green waves crest and break on a broad, gradually sloping beach of fine, white sand that had as its backdrop a vast, vine-tangled forest of great beauty. It was Five Mile Beach, the “very good land” described by Juet in his journal.

No further written record of it appeared until the land grant from Charles II to James, Duke of York, in 1664; then through various deeds until August 21, 1717, when the West Jersey Society conveyed “all its title and interest in Five Mile Beach to Aaron Leaming, Humphrey Hughes, David Wells and Jonathan Swain.

But, long before Juet cast eyes upon it, Indians – a branch of the Algonquins called the Lenni Lenapes or Delawares – frequented Five Mile Beach. They cut two trails through the dense forest. One, a continuation of the mainland King Nummy Trail, entered the north end of the island and stretched southward just west of the present New Jersey Avenue. In the middle of the island, it met another trail that entered where the Rio Grande Bridge later was built.

With the eventual departure of the Indians, and long before the white settlers came to the island, off-shore farmers used the land to graze their horses and cattle, ferrying the animals from the mainland on flatboats. As the herds grew in size, many of the animals strayed away into the forest and became wild, roaming the island at will and posing a problem that continued to vex property owners as late as 1905.

About 1870 a few fishermen became the first white settlers, erecting shacks at the north end of the island and naming their settlement Anglesea. In 1874 the government built a lighthouse at Hereford Inlet.

The first settlers followed Indian trails across the meadows and then reached the island by boat. Then, in 1884, the West Jersey Railroad ran a line from near Cape May Court House to Anglesea. About the same time, a crude log bridge was built at what is now Rio Grande Avenue. It was destroyed by fire. In 1885 another was built, being replaced in 1902 by a bridge to carry autos.

The story of modern Wildwood and her sister communities began in 1880, the result of a man’s concern for his wife’s health. Sarah Andrews became ill in Vineland and the doctor advised her husband, Aaron, to take her to Townsend’s Inlet to recuperate. There they became friends of the Joseph Taylor family of Philadelphia. Both families returned the following year, determined to acquire seashore homes. John Burke, a real estate salesman from Vineland, brought them to look at a tract of land in the center of Five Mile Beach.

Impressed, the trio joined with Nelson Robert, Latimer Baker, and Robert Young to form the Holly Beach City Improvement Co., and in 1885 Holly Beach Borough was incorporated.

Philip Pontius Baker had accompanied his brother, Latimer, to Five Mile Beach in 1881 and he, too, was impressed. As Holly Beach developed, Philip and Latimer, together with a third brother, J. Thompson Baker, organized the Wildwood Beach Improvement Co., to develop the Wales-Physick Tract, just north of Holly Beach. Their dream led to incorporation of the Borough of Wildwood in 1895. Seventeen years later, in 1912, Holly Beach and Wildwood consolidated as the City of Wildwood.

In 1905, after Wildwood began to grow, Philip Baker purchased the land south of Holly Beach and named it Wildwood Crest. The community was incorporated as a borough in 1910. West Wildwood, the “baby” of the four sister communities, was incorporated as a borough in 1920.

Today, hundreds of thousands of visitors each year echo Juet’s words, “A good land to fall in with.”

(Based on George F. Boyer’s Book, WILDWOOD – MIDDLE OF THE ISLAND)