By BOB THIBAULT
Sea Isle became a borough in 1882. Since then, there have been 21 mayors whose tenures have ranged from less than a year to more than a quarter century. Some of the early names are familiar. Some haven’t been heard for a century or more. (Anybody remember John Woertz?). But taken together, all of these men played a large part in determining the initial day-to-day, and sometimes the long-term, direction of the city. It was their job.
This is the first corps of mayors who served Sea Isle from 1882 to 1913, along with the year of their inauguration:
Sea Isle’s mayoral parade began in May 1882, when Charles K. Landis successfully petitioned the county freeholders to allow the town to become an official “borough.” The town fathers didn’t waste any time. With a grand total of 12 eligible voters, an election was held on May 17 and Martin Wells was elected mayor. His salary was set at $300 a year – equivalent to roughly $8,000 today.
Mr. Wells had one of the most versatile backgrounds ever brought to the Sea Isle mayor’s office. He had been a farmer, butcher, meat wagon driver, grocer, member of the home guards in 1861, ice plant owner, dealer in coal, seller of fish from his private pond, investor in real estate, hotel owner (in Dennisville), member of two building and loan associations, Dennisville City Council member – then mayor of Sea Isle. And after that, he served several terms on the Sea Isle City Council.
In the same year he became mayor, he opened the first grocery store on the island, Central Market House, with the motto “Everything to eat for everyone who eats.”
Martin Wells must have handled his position admirably to the satisfaction of Charles Landis, because the town began a growth spurt which lasted for decades. During his two-year term, he saw many new hotels built (Surf House, Busch’s, Aldine, Depot), the Excursion House constructed at the beach, train service expanded to the town, and visitors and buyers brought in by the hundreds – all of the pieces that Landis needed to develop his dream of a first-class resort for Sea Isle.
Thomas E. Ludlam:
As a result of that first election in 1882, Thomas Ludlam had become Tax Assessor for Sea Isle Borough as well as a member of the Board of Chosen Freeholders. In 1884, it was his turn to run for the office of mayor. He won the election and ended up serving a twelve-year term. He was also Martin Wells’s brother-in-law and partner in their ice business. It’s been said that this relationship kicked off the long tradition of entwined genealogies in Sea Isle.
During Ludlam’s tenure, the town continued to grow. More hotels were built, most notably the Continental and Cronecker’s Bellevue. The Reading Railroad came to town. New facilities were constructed, such as the first public school building, the Ludlam’s Beach light house, the first firehouse, a marine biology laboratory, and two churches. All under the watchful presence of Charles K. Landis.
The town’s early mayors were necessarily imported from the surrounding area. Thomas Ludlam was born in Dennisville, was educated there, and began his working life as a school teacher. After he moved to Sea Isle, he became one of the first Trustees of the First Methodist Episcopal Church and president of the Board of Education.
In 1886, while mayor, he began publishing the four-page Cape May County Times, and continued to do so for the next 20 years. He was even an agent of the West Jersey Railroad in Sea Isle for six years. Like Wells, he seems to have been able to mix business with business.
A year after relinquishing his mayoral reins in 1896, Ludlam bought a glass factory along with 50 acres for land development in Ocean County. This enterprise didn’t go too well. He only sold 12 lots and only a few houses were erected. The glass factory closed and was converted to a large furnace pit.
But Ludlam wasn’t through with politics. When the Sea Isle City mayor’s spot opened up again in 1899, he ran and was elected for another seven years. When that term was up, he apparently concentrated on his realty business. But he still wasn’t through with politics.
Two years later, in 1908, he decided to run for Council and won a four-year term – or so he thought. On November 11, 1910, Council passed a resolution vacating Ludlam’s office because he had never been properly sworn in. They then elected Joseph Dallas to fill the position. Ludlam then sued Dallas in the New Jersey Supreme Court to get his seat back. Wading through page-long sentences of the rendered judgment, it appears that Ludlam won his suit. Politics.
John G. Woertz and August H. Sickler:
These two men comprised the mayoral sandwich between Thomas Ludlam’s two terms.
Information is scanty. Woertz, elected in 1896, only served for seven months. His term was completed by Sickler who was mayor until March 1899. During their tenure, Sea Isle saw visitors arriving by the trainload. By the end of the century there were about 300 buildings and 30 hotels in town.
There is one later anecdote concerning August Sickler. In 1904, he paid $150 for a grant of land on the Atlantic Ocean in Ocean City. The only problem was that the plot was under water, and probably still is.
James F. Sherry:
On January 1, 1906, James Sherry followed Thomas Ludlam’s second term as mayor. Although not much has been recorded about him, he did preside over the completion of his new red brick house called “City Hall.” Ditto the Ocean Pier and the first Sea Isle boardwalk. But most significantly, it was under his auspices that Sea Isle became an official “City” in 1907.
(In the early 1900s, the prestigious “city” designation was based on population. Sea Isle must have counted its summer inhabitants, because the permanent population was only about 500.)
Bernard J. Quinn:
Bernard Quinn came to Sea Isle from Philadelphia. By trade a merchant, he served as mayor from 1908 to 1910.
Quinn became locally famous as the owner of one of the first automobiles in Sea Isle City. And he found time to sire ten children, a record for Sea Isle mayors. He died at his home in Chestnut Hill within a year after leaving the mayor’s office. Articles written at that time described Quinn as “a well-known merchant … admired by everybody who knew him – of Christian character – of commercial honesty – of high moral principles – his word as good as a bond.” A true gentleman in politician’s clothing.
Lewis Steinmeyer, Sr., a well-known real estate operator, became town marshal in 1890, and was elected to Sea Isle City Council four years later. He served as mayor from 1910 to 1913, and later as a commissioner after the form of city government was changed.
As commissioner, Steinmeyer was Director of Revenue and Finance. His job was “to conduct the affairs of the city in an economical manner.” When an ordinance was introduced to cut the current mayor’s salary by 40 percent, and the commissioners’ salary (including his own) by 30 percent, he was on his way as a successful finance director.
Adding it up, Lewis Steinmeyer served Sea Isle as a city official for more than a quarter-century. He was the last of the city’s early, largely forgotten mayors. But they all contributed their piece to its growth and history. It wasn’t easy steering Charles Landis’s ship of dreams.
This “Spotlight on History” was written by Sea Isle City Historical Society Volunteer Bob Thibault. Photos were provided courtesy of the Sea Isle City Historical Museum.
To learn more about the early days in Sea Isle, visit the Sea Isle City Historical Museum at 48th Street and Central Avenue. Hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday. Visit the website at www.seaislemuseum.com or call 609-263-2992.