The origins of today’s Ocean City Music Pier emerged from the ruins of a catastrophic fire that occurred on October 11, 1927, and destroyed a large part of the boardwalk along with some homes and many business establishments, including the elegant Hotel Normandie, the Hippodrome Amusement Pier, the Traymore Hotel and the Colonial Theatre.
While the actual cause of the fire was never determined, more than 400 firefighters from numerous communities in the area were called in to fight Ocean City’s Great Fire of 1927. Fortunately, there was no loss of life.
By the spring of 1928, a major project began with re-constructing the Ocean City boardwalk between 6th and 12th Streets.
An important part of that construction project included building a grand concert hall that would originally be christened the Municipal Pavilion in 1928, actually undergo construction in 1928-29, and soon thereafter became popularly known as the Music Pier and provided live entertainment for the public. Mayor Joseph Champion was instrumental in dedicating this new facility and before long, the Music Pier was the site of frequent conventions, bazaars, dances, and daily free summer concerts.
As one of the most iconic buildings in the seashore resort, this distinctive structure with its oceanside location at Moorlyn Terrace and the Boardwalk reflects the architectural style of the Spanish Revival period.
Two days after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Ocean City’s Daily Sentinel-Ledger reported a lookout tower was to be built on the top of the Music Pier. Its sole purpose was to provide a means of coastal defense as a “look-out” point for protecting a portion of the Jersey seaboard from enemy submarines or U-boats in the water as well as enemy aircraft in the skies. Kelly Tjoumakaris, wrote of it in “Making Music,” which appeared in Ocean City, NJ Magazine in August 2013 (p47):
In the immediate wake of the Pearl Harbor tragedy, December 1941, the first structure in the country built especially for aircraft spotters was erected atop the Music Pier. Volunteers consisting of teenage boys from Ocean City High School to retired residents from the island kept watch 24 hours a day.
The observation tower was operated and manned 24 hours every day of the year and played a vital role in the war effort from 1942 to the end of the war in 1945. It appears the American Legion was responsible for most of the recruitment as well as the scheduling of the plane and sub spotters. It took considerable effort to establish a network of civilian observers and to train them to be able to recognize and differentiate all types of aircraft.
According to one source, Ocean City’s 147 spotters were comprised of some high school-aged youth and many adult volunteers including some retired persons. These spotters are said to have spent two hours a week observing and reporting all aircraft activity along the Ocean City shoreline. In his 1999 book, Ocean City, NJ by Arcadia Publishing, p87, Mark McLaughlin wrote, “…there were a few U-boat sightings and that one was actually captured by the Coast Guard north near Atlantic City.”
The civilian volunteers who were trained to act as airplane spotters were organized as a unit of the Aircraft Warning Service. The rare article at left mentions the Music Pier observation tower and praises the high-efficiency rating of the tower.
The little-known tower with its observation windows can easily be seen on the Music Pier roof in most of the preceding postcard images. The tower remained in place until 1968 when it was dismantled.
The next time you should happen to venture to the Jersey Shore and visit Ocean City and the popular Music Pier on the boardwalk, think about the brief but nevertheless important role this building played in our history.
In observance of Pearl Harbor Day 2016, Ocean City Magazine published “December 7, 1941 – A Day That Will Live in Infamy!” by Fred Miller. The article describes other ways in which the barrier island community mobilized civil and government resources to defend itself from attack.
We look forward to readers’ comments and recollections on the topic.
Jan. 25, 2021, William Thorpe writes: I have very fond memories of singing with the Ocean City Pops on the Music Pier in the 1980s and 90s, but had never heard about the watch tower. It was gone by the time I sang there. What an interesting story about the important role it played at a time when the entire country was united against a common enemy! I wish I had known that history when I sang WWII-era Cole Porter songs there. I’m very happy to see that the building is still there. Thanks for this story.
article contributed by Harlan B. Radford,
images from his collection
If it weren’t for picture postcards, think of all the local history that would be lost forever! Vintage postcards are indeed a treasure trove and those moments preserved in time offer us a glimpse into what life “down the shore” was like 75-100 years ago.
Come one and all, and discover the unique and enduring aspects that lured so many folks to flock to the Jersey Shore. See the ways we got there in the early days, stroll old boardwalks and promenades, enjoy the expansive sandy beaches, and swim in the ocean surf. Various personal postcard messages written by vacationers further illustrate for us what it was like back then.
Each of New Jersey’s resort communities promotes its unique charm with an attention-getting motto and seeks to lure tourists and vacationers during the summer months. Can you match the shore towns below with its slogan?
Avalon a. “The Seashore at its Best!”
Stone Harbor b. “Residential Community by the Sea”
Atlantic City c. “The Jewel of the Jersey Coast”
Margate d. “The Playground of the Nation/World/America”
Wildwood-by-the-Sea e. “America’s Greatest Family Resort”
Ocean City f. “World’s Finest and Safest Bathing Beach”
PART 1. TRANSPORTATION
Just how did people actually get to what were then remote seashore communities in their early development? The limited methods of transportation in the late 1890s and the early 1900s were both innovative and adventuresome.
Before the railroad, the only access to Avalon, and the neighboring beach town of Stone Harbor (which together are dubbed the Seven Mile Island) was by boat.
As demand began to increase, newly constructed roads all up and down the coast accommodated motorized vehicles. New railroads and bridges that crossed the channels and bay soon linked the mainland with the island resorts.
In 1934, the Cape May County Bridge Commission began to build a series of toll bridges to connect the various coastal islands creating the well-known “Ocean Drive.” Trains and railway depots sprang up in the seashore towns.
Regularly scheduled seasonal rail services connected the cities of Philadelphia, Camden, and many other South Jersey towns to provide a direct link to the shore. Eventually, by the 1930s, except for those bound for the larger towns of Atlantic City and Ocean City, the trains would all but disappear.
Imagine going back in time and getting in on the ground floor of investing in Stone Harbor.
These vintage era picture postcards show some of those means of transportation for the seashore area. These early views show causeways, draw-bridges, boats, trains, omnibuses, trolleys and automobiles. Remember, there was no Atlantic City Expressway or Garden State Parkway then to facilitate travel.
PART 2. BOARDWALKS
Completed in 1870, Atlantic City’s boardwalk was the first in the world. When it first opened, commercial businesses were prohibited anywhere near the boardwalk.
Rebuilt bigger and better after storms in 1884 and 1889, the commercial restrictions ceased, and visitors soon enjoyed a medley of entertainments, places to shop, and food!
These open-air promenades sprang up in other shore towns and made saltwater taffy, homemade fudge, amusements, concerts, and the purchase of souvenirs synonymous with visiting the Jersey Shore.
These vintage postcards depict some of New Jersey’s boardwalks of yesteryear. All told, some 44 coastal Jersey towns once had a boardwalk.
Walking the boards with us back then; enjoy the sights and the ocean breeze.
PART 3. BEACHES
Spending time on the beach, bathing in the ocean and having fun were the primary reasons why so many ventured to the seashore.
A number of personally written messages inscribed on the backs of some of the postcards clearly convey the real reasons for vacationing at the Jersey Shore.
PART 4 MESSAGES
Spending time on the beach, bathing in the ocean and having a fun time were the primary reasons why so many ventured to the seashore. In the absence of telephones, the penny postcard was the sure way to stay in touch with the folks back home and let them know just what was going on. Those simple notes indelibly recorded their authors’ splendid moments.
Reading these simple missives today, we realize that messages about kids digging and playing in the sand, bathers swimming and riding the waves, taking photos, and even complaints about mosquitos are not terribly different than those one might post today on Facebook.
Aug. 10, 1922 Boys are having a fine time. Uncle Eugene Mildred went fishing today. Expect fish for supper. Everybody is well. Boys dig deep holes in the sand. Bathe every day. Aunt Alice
Aug. 6, 1923 I am here over this week end and I am certainly having a fine time. I have even been in the ocean. I was in bathing and I got my eyes and mouth full of salt water. I came down by machine with relations and it was certainly a fine ride. I am going to Christiana next Sunday I think. Sincerely Helen Morton
Aug. 18, 1920 Dear Sister, This is our house. We would have room for you yet. Wish you were here. We were in bathing today. It’s great only it’s too cold. The nights are so very cool. We went to Wildwood this afternoon in a boat. The kiddies think it’s fine. Anna
1917 Stone Harbor’s boardwalk built by the Borough at a cost of $35,000 is a mile and a quarter long and fully illuminated by electric lights. Dedicated July 4, 1916. A Pier, amusement and Business places are being rapidly built on this new Esplanade.
Sept. 1943 Tony has been having a grand time in waves and playing in sand. Susan is happier with her kiddie car so she can move around.
Aug. 18, 1941 Dear Friends, This is Monday morning and our last week. Time is going fast. We are having a very good time. The weather has been beautiful. I was only in bathing 3 times. But I am going in today. We were to Wildwood and Ocean City. Would like to spend a day at Atlantic City. Hope you are all well. Martins
June 29, 1910 Dear Florence, When I arrived down here I spent about a half a hour fighting with the skeeters. Carrie
Aug. 15, 1918 Eight of us are here in two bungalows. Are having a fine time. Spent yesterday at Wildwood. It is delightfully cool this morning. Hope you are both well. Lovingly, Laura Pierce
Aug. 8, 1922 Having a fine time in bathing. Gloria
Aug. 6, 1919 – Dear Friend, We arrived safely and we are enjoying the bathing although it is cool. We are going by boat to Wildwood tomorrow. Mabel
Aug. 12, 1915 I am in the water almost all the time. Having a nice time. George
Aug. 4, 1919 Stone Harbor’s matchless bathing beach, is absolutely safe, life lines being unnecessary.
Aug. 19, 1942 Greetings Marjorie, It is lovely down here. If you wish you could have come with me. Maybe you will next time? Gertrude
We invite your comments, recollections, and memories about the Jersey Shore of yesteryear.
Answers to shore towns and their slogans: 1-c, 2-a, 3-d, 4-b, 5-f, 6-e
For a modern perspective on what draws Philadelphia Inquirer writer, Kristen L. Graham to the Jersey Shore, see this article on inquirer.com
A lot of people find their way here to look at old postcard images.
This scan of a 103 year old postcard is not the oldest one we display, but it may be one of the most rare.
This highly collectable philatelic find is one of very few surviving pieces of air mail flown in a Wright Brothers built biplane during a short-lived experiment from August 3-10, 1912 between Ocean City and Stone Harbor, New Jersey.
“The First Air Mail Flights in South Jersey – 1912,” Harlan B. Radford, Jr.’s authoritative 3-page story of those historic pioneer flights of the early “AERIAL U.S. MAIL SERVICE” is liberally illustrated with items from his philatelic collection.
One of the more out of the ordinary requests we have received for help came from Jeffrey J. Kirchner, AIA, of RLPS Architects in Lancaster, PA in November who wanted some old postcard images of the Flanders Hotel in Ocean City so that his firm could build a gingerbread model of it for its annual holiday gingerbread display. Here’s a better late than never update on the progress of that group effort.
After Mr. Kirchner explained his project I sent him high-res images of at least four different Ocean City beachfront hotels. He sent me these photos of the completed project on Jan. 5 with the explanation that the “background buildings are “very loose” interpretations of the Flanders and the Bellvue.”
Santa Bell Beach is complete with a boardwalk, carousel, ferris wheel, souvenir store, first-aid station, eateries, and shops, and is populated by snowpeople. There are lifeguards, volleyball players, vendors, sunbathers, boardwalkers, and one guy has a metal detector.
There’s probably way more to the story of why this company has done these elaborate panoramic scenes for the last 20 years, so I invite comments of participants or visitors to the displays.
Sorry that it took so long to follow-up on that development. In fairness, Jeff did invite me to Lancaster to see the display, but I was content to have helped from a distance.
Please let us know if there is ever anything about history with which we can help you. – John McCormick, Gaslight News editor
If a search for vintage postcards brought you to this website, then you will enjoy the blogger that I found, quite by a happy accident, while trying to help an architect in Lancaster, PA with his request for an image of the Flanders Hotel in Ocean City so that he could use it as a model for his firm’s annual holiday gingerbread display.
This is the short story of how a casual decision to aid the designers at Reese, Lower, Patrick, & Scott Ltd. in their creative Christmas confection resulted in a windfall of classic shore images for the HSR, most from the early 20th century–the “Golden Age of Postcards.”
I found a marvelous website called Moore’s Postcard Museum where I found two scans of the Flanders Hotel and emailed them to the architects to help them in their design project.
I left a complimentary note in a “enter your comment” box and asked if I could display some of the images of shore points on our website.
The blogger promptly sent me an email giving permission and then sent several more emails with the following attached files. Enjoy a trip back to old Atlantic City and Ocean City via this bonanza of vintage images courtesy of Moore’s Postcard Museum. Visit the site directly to read the author’s knowledgeable bits that accompany each card. I already bookmarked the site as a favorite. The pictures will also be placed on the images pages under Atlantic City and Ocean City so you can easily find them on a return visit.
Readers, if you have one image, one story, or a hundred we would love to hear from you and add your voice to this burgeoning online archive. If I hear back from RLP&S about how that gingerbread Flanders Hotel turns out, I’ll let you know. – John McCormick