The Founding of the Borough of Wildwood Crest
Incorporated – 1910 A.D.
Wildwood Crest came into existence with the dawn of the twentieth century and its history of less than 120 years — brief by many standards — has more than its share of memorable happenings.
The Baker Brothers — successful merchants from the farm community of Vineland — had visited the area known as Five Mile Beach on several occasions and were impressed by its natural beauty and expansive beaches. They were convinced of its potential as a resort and considered its development as a profitable business investment.
In 1895 they formed the Wildwood Beach Improvement Company and founded the borough which they named Wildwood, a name inspired by the fact that the new community was actually situated in a forest by the sea. This sylvan setting is very difficult for us to imagine today, when the trees have almost all disappeared from the island.
The success of their first venture in Wildwood filled the Baker Brothers with optimism and they began to consider expanding their development to the area just south of Wildwood — an untouched wilderness of sand dunes and thickets. The beginnings of Wildwood Crest are eloquently described in the words of its founders: “It was manifest destiny that the silent waste of long neglected beach at the southern end of the island should be made to serve the needs of the present. To place it in condition to attract home builders required great faith, experience and a great outlay of money. The men who had founded Wildwood, seeing it evolve year by year out of the nothingness of wild nature into an orderly and prosperous community, were equal to the task. Everything, save the magnificent beach in front, required work. A year after the dredges began to pour the clean white sand from the bottom of Sunset Lake upon this space, it had leveled streets and avenues that had been traced across its now elevated surface, and a number of cottages had been erected.”
The first four streets in Wildwood Crest were located in what we would consider the northern end and given the rustic floral names of Morning Glory, Buttercup, Lavender and Heather Roads. The first house was built in 1906, and the first baby born in Wildwood Crest was also born that same year — Baker Crest Thurber, born September 9, 1906. The Baker Brothers gave the baby a deed to a Crest lot at Lavender and Pacific Avenues (where the Lavender Hall Rest Home stands today) to commemorate the event. By the following year the public’s enthusiasm for this new venture required that construction should begin on one new house each day over a period of two months. Nor did the astute Baker Brothers hesitate to add a slightly theatrical touch to the promotion of their latest endeavor, and in 1907 the Wildwood Crest arch was built at Cresse and Pacific Avenues. Rising to a height of 30 feet and illuminated every evening by the lighting of a “Pompeiian fire,” it marked the entrance to Wildwood Crest in a truly spectacular way.
ROMAN ARCH — This view (looking south) of the 30-foot arch at Cresse and Pacific Avenues in Wildwood Crest, built in 1907, shows homes still standing today.
By 1910 the area had grown rapidly enough to acquire the designation of “borough”, and it was so decreed by New Jersey’s Governor Fort on April 6 of that year. A formal election was held one month later, and with 28 of the borough’s 103 residents voting, Philip Pontius Baker became the first Mayor of Wildwood Crest.
“Growth” remained the key word during the borough’s first official decade. The Baker Brothers, in a promotional pamphlet published in 1910, described Wildwood Crest as “the bright shining example for the many growing resorts elsewhere upon the New Jersey coast.” In a remarkably short time — just four years after its official founding — they were able to advertise the development of “hundreds of handsome homes, big hotels, apartment houses, and business blocks. Twenty miles of cement sidewalks; all streets graveled and with sanitary sewer system. Trolley line through property. A storm-proof sea wall. Boardwalk along entire beach front. Gas, electricity, underground telephone system, artesian water, no public debt.” Quite an impressive accomplishment in just a few short years!
The “Boardwalk” mentioned above was actually a street or promenade bordering the beach and was also known as Atlantic Avenue. It was located where Seaview Avenue stands today, but by the 1920’s Wildwood Crest’s beach had widened sufficiently for another street to be cut through, closer to the ocean. This is the Atlantic Avenue that we know today. Ocean Avenue soon followed.
By 1910 the Borough of Wildwood Crest extended south from Morning Glory Road to Rambler Road in an eighteen block development of flower-titled streets. Running in a north-south direction, west of Atlantic Avenue, were Pacific Avenue, Philadelphia Avenue (today’s New Jersey Avenue), Park Boulevard and Lake Road.
The fame of Wildwood Crest was beginning to spread and in no time at all, testimonials to its excellence — especially its health-giving benefits — were offered to the public. Dr. Theodore Foote of Vineland stated in 1910 that “The lives of many invalids and people in delicate health have been prolonged by even a short sojourn at the seashore, especially on Five Mile Beach, because of the dry atmosphere due to the wooded growth and also to its exposure to the saline breezes of ocean and bay tempered by the gulf current, in which respects Wildwood Crest particularly excells.” Tossing another bouquet in the direction of the Wildwood Crest arch, Dr. John F. Leavitt of Camden stated in the same year that “A season in the enjoyment of our summer house at Wildwood Crest has given new life to my family and a brighter meaning to existence.”
The beauty of the environment, then, with all its health-giving benefits, was the major attraction of Wildwood Crest during that first decade of rapid growth. The Baker Brothers had found themselves the perfect resort community to promote and, as they advertised in 1910, they knew exactly how to do it: “Do not forget that children who play in the sand and splash in the surf lay up a stock of strength that will last them a lifetime. It will pay you to get a home at the seashore for your children’s sake.” These methods of promotion may have been just slightly exaggerated, but there is no question that they brought results. By the second decade of the twentieth century — just a few short years after its founding — Wildwood Crest was very definitely on the map.
A Tribute to Philip P. Baker, Founder of Wildwood Crest
“Hard though the struggle was, he never let down his ideals an iota.”
PHILIP PONTIUS BAKER (1846-1920)
Founder of Wildwood Crest
Philip Pontius Baker was born January 14, 1846 on a wheat farm in Cowan, Union County, Pennsylvania. When he was nine years old his father died. Being the eldest of eight children the responsibility of the farm fell on his shoulders at an early age and shortened his formal education.
In 1869 he and his brother, Latimer, moved to Vineland, New Jersey, where they established a prosperous mercantile business. In 1876, at the age of 30, Mr. Baker married Lizzie J. Noyes. They became the parents of six children — five daughters and one son. The son, Curtis Thompson Baker, was appointed in 1911 at the age of 33 to be Judge of the Court of Common Pleas for Cape May County. Curtis died in 1913. Four of the Baker’s daughters married. They were: Bessie Noyes Tomlin, Rena Hoyt Kaler, Marie Katherine Robeson and Nettie Dayton Moffett. Jane Pontius Baker remained single. After the death of their father, Jane took care of her mother until she died in 1928.
Philip P. Baker’s mansion in Wildwood Crest, located at Aster and Pacific Avenues. It was built in 1912, and the Baker family moved into it on July 4, 1913. It still stands today.
In 1882 Philip P. Baker was elected to the State Assembly, and in 1886 he was elected to the State Senate. It was largely through his efforts in the Senate that the New Jersey Training School for Feeble-Minded Children and the State Institute for Feeble-Minded Women were established, both located in Vineland. Mr. Baker served as President of the Board of Management of the Children’s Training School for 30 years. He was known and loved by the children, and for many years the Baker Club, comprised of the older boys, looked to Mr. Baker for guidance.
In the mid-1880’s the Baker Brothers bought a large tract of land on Five Mile Beach and developed what is now the City of Wildwood. Then, beginning in 1904, Philip P. Baker directed the founding of Wildwood Crest. This was his major business interest during the last 16 years of his life. He was the first Mayor of Wildwood Crest, the first President of the Fire Company, the first President of the Fishing Club, and a Trustee of the Presbyterian Church in Wildwood, in addition to membership and participation in many other organizations.
Mr. Baker died on August 14, 1920 at the age of 74, and was buried in the family plot in the First Baptist Cemetery in Cape May Court House along with his son Curtis. (Later his wife Lizzie, and daughters Bessie and Jane, joined him there.) One of the many tributes paid to him is found in the Vineland Training Bulletin of September, 1920: “Once in many years God, in His wisdom and goodness, gives the world a man whose life embodies the spirit of service for the welfare of others. This He did when Philip P. Baker was born … “
Marker situated on the Baker family burial plot in the First Baptist Cemertery in Cape May Court House, NJ.