Townsend’s Inlet is now, and has always been, a part of Sea Isle City. That’s easier to see today than it was a hundred years ago when there was nothing but sand and scrub for two miles between the two. Over time, the sections crept closer together, but their final joining really began after World War II when entrepreneurs bought tracts of empty land and began to fill in the space, to the point where we now have one continuous community.
The first settlers came to T. I. for the same reason they came to the rest of Sea Isle – to hunt and fish and to get away from the mainland for a day. The first recorded building was a hunter’s shack in 1809, owned in part by Henry Swain. A “beach house” shows up on an 1872 map, but it probably referred to the first T.I. life saving station, built in the 1850’s. Earlier, even though there were no inhabitants, Townsend’s Inlet had an industry: men came from the mainland to produce salt by boiling sea water in large pots for the military during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
The original Townsend Inlet (with no s) in the 1700s referred to a section of the mainland which included the present-day Swainton/Clermont area. Although residents have always called it Townsend’s Inlet, the present-day T.I. had no official name until a post office was established in 1896 with Luther Swain as postmaster. For a time, T.I. was actually known as Swainton. But when the post offices realigned over the next 15 years, Swainton and Townsend’s Inlet exchanged names. The residents of the new T.I., to assert their independence, successfully requested that the sign at their railroad station be changed from “South Sea Isle” to “Townsend’s Inlet.” The name has stuck for well over a century.
In those days the railroad and the trolley provided public transport between T.I. and downtown Sea Isle with its well-supplied stores, food markets, pharmacies, entertainment, restaurants, school, and churches. That’s not to say that early Townsend’s Inlet didn’t offer some notable amenities and attractions of its own, both natural and man-made:
- It had a wide beach with 20-foot sand dunes, one of which was once the highest point in New Jersey. The beach and the ocean, the dunes, and the town itself combined to form a kind of primitive play land, especially for the kids.
- It had a natural harbor in the inlet which was once deeper and wider than it is today.
- In the beginning, T.I. was essentially a hard-working fishing village. Fresh fish, oysters and other shellfish were always a staple for local tables.
- Fishing, both commercial and recreational, continued its dominance into the 20th century. The Killcullen pier and later The Townsend’s Inlet Yacht Club pier provided fishing platforms, along with docks for excursion and deep sea fishing boats such as Captain Kramer’s motorized sailboat the Allard. Fishing trips were a dollar a day.
Bill Shellem’s general store provided everyone in the early 1900s with the basics and more. It was he who petitioned for a “Townsend’s Inlet” post office. It was the U.S. Postal Service that decided for some reason that the northern boundary of T.I. was to be 69th Street, even though there weren’t any houses there.
- Next to the trolley barn (the present T.I. Civic Center) was Cupid’s Garden where bands from Sea Isle would come to play for dances several times a week.
- The Terminal Hotel and Restaurant across the tracks provided a pleasant porch to wait for the trolley. Two of the early hotels were the Atlantic at Landis Ave. and 87th Street (which later became Busch’s) and the Inlet Hotel (c1900) near the fishing docks.
- For a change of scene, ten-cent trolley trips were available to downtown Sea Isle, as were all-day train excursions along the coast for a dollar.
All in all, early Townsend’s Inlet seems to have offered a simple yet satisfying lifestyle – and a Tom Sawyer-like environment for children to grow up in.
To learn more about the history of Townsend’s Inlet and to browse through our many related photographs, please visit the Sea Isle City Historical Museum at 48th Street and Central Avenue. Access our website at www.seaislemuseum.com. Call 609-263-2992 with any questions. Current summer hours are 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday – plus 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Monday.