Ocean City: A History

by Meredith Bajgier | Jun 8, 2015
Ocean City: A History Before bright beach umbrellas adorned Ocean City’s shores, a different kind of history was developing. Beneath this barrier island’s core lies a rich past that spans more than three centuries of vibrant culture; each period of Ocean City’s progression contributed to the thriving population and rich lifestyle that exists today. Though the beach was first used for practical purposes, history obviously took the city in the direction of a different destiny. Whaling and hunting began the city's history; ministry developed it; and tourism made the city what it is today.

John Peck first breathed life into the South Jersey beach in 1700. Peck's group of whalers used the island to store their freshly-caught whales while they searched the Atlantic Ocean for more. Because the group often inhabited the beach, the area became known as "Peck's Beach." Though the island proved useful to the whaling crew, the presence of the whalers eventually diminished.

As Ocean City continued to develop, it tested out a variety of identities. When the whalers ceased to "occupy" the location and its resources, other groups investigated what the area had to offer. Native Americans used the island as an effective fishing camp during the summer months. The location also became grazing land for cattle that were driven away from the mainland. Occasionally, visitors would travel by boat to Peck's Beach, where they would spend the day picnicking and hunting. Though there was no influx of tourism during the beginning stage in Ocean City history, the early vacationers provide a first glimpse into the future of the popular destination.

The region continued to be used for a variety of purposes until 1879, when four Methodist ministers forever changed the face of the island. Meeting under a cedar tree, Ezra B. Lake, James Lake, S. Wesley Lake and William Burrell collectively decided to establish the spot as a Christian retreat and camp meeting. Today, the tree stands tall, as a part of Ocean City’s living history, between Wesley and Asbury Avenues and 5th and 6th Streets. The ministers’ plan was put into the action quickly: by 1880, camp meetings had already begun.

The men decided to re-name the island “Ocean City” and formed the Ocean City Association. Using their ministry as a guide, the four men designed the future of Ocean City. Through careful planning and development, they were able to sell and erect several buildings, including the Tabernacle. As one of the most important pieces of the city’s history, the ministers’ Tabernacle stands today and reminds visitors and residents alike of Ocean City’s long history and humble beginnings.

Ocean City continued to grow. Homes and hotels were constructed. The first school was established in 1881, and the first bridge to the island was raised in 1883. The boardwalk-- the most recognized landmark in Ocean City-- was built and rebuilt several times.

While Ocean City was already coming into its modern-day skin, the city’s history doesn’t end. On December 15, 1901, the famous ship the Sindia sunk 150 yards away from the beach, between 16th and 17th Streets. The ship, on its way to New York City, was built by Harland and Wolff-- the same company that would later build the Titanic. As it passed by Ocean City, the ship faced strong winds and unstable sea conditions. Though the Sindia was run aground in 1901, part of its mast remained above water level for many years. Tourists enjoyed the spectacle, which quickly became part of the culture of the shore town.

As Ocean City progressed, it became the shore town with tremendous cultural significance that it is today. Tourists recognize the city’s beaches and boardwalk as among the most famous in the world; residents of New Jersey look forward to summers at Ocean City--their favorite travel destination. Regardless of the circumstance under which a person views Ocean City, the shore town’s unique history undoubtedly plays a critical role.

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For more South Jersey History, visit our South Jersey History page.

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Author: Meredith Bajgier

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