The Duke Of Gloucester

by Editor | Jan 7, 2008
The Duke Of Gloucester There was a time when thousands of people visited Gloucester City each day for fun and entertainment. Visitors enjoyed balloon rides, fireworks, concerts, fine dining, baseball, cricket, and gambling establishments. And all of this was possible thanks to the Duke of Gloucester; Billy Thompson.

Thompson arrived in Gloucester City in 1870 at the age of 22. Born in Ireland, he immigrated with his family at age twelve to New York. He must have had an adventurous spirit because he left New York for Philadelphia as a very young man. There he worked in a billiard hall and later saloon. It was not long before he owned the saloon/hotel. He soon set his sights on Gloucester City, envisioning an entertainment mecca that would lure visitors from Philadelphia and surrounding communities.

His first endeavor was the Buena Vista Hotel that he rented from the Gloucester Ferry Company. He turned it into a resort that drew large crowds every weekend. His lease expired in 1872 and instead of giving up, he built his own on Third Street. He eventually bought the Hugg Fisheries, which gave him rights on the waterfront. He wanted interests in the ferry service but could not obtain the company, so again he built his own. Thompson had such a capacity for building a dream that in thirty-nine years he owned several business; built the Camden, Gloucester and Woodbury railroad; and also built a 900-acre amusement park called the Washington Park-on-the-Delaware. By 1880, there were 98 bars, gambling casinos and bawdy houses in Gloucester City.

“The Duke” was not just an entrepreneur, he was also a politician. He served on the Gloucester City Council, the New Jersey legislature, and was a member of the County Board of Freeholders. He began having political trouble in 1904 when he lost his re-election to the city council. By this time, a new political party had won the State assembly and racing was made illegal. Thompson lost his track. In 1909, he lost Washington Park to a fire. He eventually became financially bankrupt and lost most of his business holdings. His health soon began to fail, and in 1911, he was encouraged to take a trip to Ireland with hopes that the trip would improve his health. He was so broke by this time that friends gathered together to donate the money he would need for passage. Within weeks of his departure, he died in his homeland of Ireland. His wife arranged for his return and had him buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery. He left ten children and a legacy that will never be forgotten.

The old Coast Guard base on King Street is one of Thompson’s lasting accomplishments. He built the mansion and later sold it for $100,000 to the government as an immigration station. Thousands of immigrants, many from his beloved Ireland, first set foot on American soil in Gloucester City, the home of the “Duke”.

For more South Jersey History, visit our History page.

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Author: Editor


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