The Beachcomber – Memorial Day

Surf City Is a Family Resort Thanks to Longtime Mayor Leonard T. Connors Jr.

By PAT JOHNSON | May 25, 2018
File Photo by: Pat Johnson Mayor Len Connors at his last Surf City Taxpayers meeting. He spoke frankly on issues related to the fiscal health of the borough: the borough had no debt when he left office in 2015.

What has made Surf City special, as long as most of us can remember, is the insistence of its long-running former mayor that it remain a family resort. Mayor (and state Sen.) Leonard T. Connors Jr. was New Jersey’s longest-serving mayor. During his tenure, from 1966 to 2015, he was adamant that Surf City would remain livable. In the 1970s the borough adopted an “Animal House” ordinance barring large rentals that might attract noisy college kids. Surf City’s sign proudly says “A Family Resort.” It’s a comfortable place to return to year after year, and there are generations of families that do just that.

The beach and the bay remain the main attraction, and Connors was instrumental in presenting the idea that the beaches should pay for themselves – his borough was the first to require beach badges. When he stepped down in 2015, the borough was debt-free!

Unlike other Island towns that have become bedroom communities, Surf City borough has maintained a shopping district: a food market, a butcher, a bagel shop, restaurants, an old-fashioned 5 and 10, a laundry, a newspaper (The SandPaper), a library and also a thriving arts district. The arts district now includes Jon Law’s Art Framing and Gallery, Solace Art Studio and Gallery, the m.t. burton Gallery, Ann Coen’s Photography and Gallery, Firefly Castle and Art Gallery, SwellColors Glass Studio, Art and Decor and East.

Entertainment is low key and relaxing. There are only two bars: the Surf City Hotel and the Northside; there are two miniature golf courses and two bicycle rentals. Residents can kick back and enjoy bingo at the firehouse on summer nights.

Hard to imagine that the bustling Surf City was once a dismal swamp. “Town on the Edge of Great Swamp” is a chapter in John Bailey Lloyd’s Eighteen Miles of History on Long Beach Island (Down The Shore Publishing, 1994).

According to Lloyd, the northern half of Surf City from 12th Street to 25th Street was once covered in stagnant bogs, twisted red cedars and bayberry bushes ringed by huge, primordial dunes. It was called the Great Swamp and was nearly 200 acres that extended into modern-day North Beach. As early as 1690, whalers from Long Island and New England established whaling stations on its edges. It remained largely undeveloped until 1821, when a group of investors from Burlington County realized the fresh sea breeze was a panacea for Philadelphia and Camden city dwellers and built a boarding house they named the Mansion of Health. Another book written by Lloyd, Two Centuries of History on Long Beach Island (also from Down The Shore Publishing, 2005), recounts that that same year, the Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane struck, forcing the ocean over the dunes and destroying the great cedar forest. But the boarding house survived and prospered for a while, though the railroad from Camden to Atlantic City in 1845 would later pull vacationers farther south.

For a long while the area called Long Beach City was made up of a handful of seaside and fishermen’s cottages. Then in the early 1920s, after a road was finally built north from Ship Bottom, three real estate investors joined to develop the area decimated by the storm (renamed Surf City in 1899). They pulled out the stumps of the trees, bulldozed the dunes and made the area “flat and treeless as a prairie,” said Lloyd. In 1928, one of the investors, Charles Durborow, also president of the Long Beach Board of Trade and the Surf City Improvement Association, gave $1,000 to start the Surf City Yacht Club.

But the real building boom wasn’t until the Garden State Parkway was completed in 1955. The summer cottages were not so much for rent as they were for returning middle-class families, many civil servants from Philadelphia. Surf City can be said to be going through a new building boom, with larger and more-luxurious homes replacing those decimated by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. But it’s still a family resort, and the main attraction will always be the beaches.

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