Excursion Into the Past: The Historic Building That Was Sea Isle’s First Tourist Destination
By Linda Dougherty
The Excursion House in the 1920s.
An artist’s rendering shows the Excursion House when it was open-air.
At the turn of the century, there wasn’t much for visitors in Sea Isle City to do, besides playing in the sand, swimming in the surf, soaking up the sun ... and having a ball at the Excursion House.
For 80 years, from 1882 until 1962, the Excursion House was a Sea Isle landmark. It was its first tourist destination, designed as a one-stop experience for people of all ages, and eventually became the growing town’s social center at its location on the beachfront. That location, by the way, now is known as Excursion Park.
The three-story pavilion was originally built in Philadelphia for the 1876 Centennial Exposition. According to the history books, once the Centennial Exposition was complete, the building was dismantled and shipped piece-by-piece to Sea Isle, where it was eventually reassembled in 1882. Because it was owned by the West Jersey (Pennsylvania) Railroad, it was placed within walking distance of Sea Isle’s new railroad station.
What could you do and see at the Excursion House? Through the years, just about every kind of recreational activity was held there: dances, talent shows and boxing matches in a huge ballroom on the top floor; roller skating and basketball games on a hardwood rink located on the ground floor. An observation deck was situated on the second floor, where one could watch activities on the beach. There was a variety of stores on its ground level, as well.
The Excursion House and Surf House in 1925 as viewed from the Fishing Pier.
Many postcards from that period show the Excursion House looming as one of the largest buildings facing the beach, with its day-tripping visitors often referred to as “shoobies,” because they often brought their lunches in shoeboxes. At high tide, waves lapped at the seawall built just outside its front porch, a location that one day would prove to be its undoing.
And because of all the Excursion House offered to vacationers, it got plenty of press in the local newspapers. It also experienced many ownership changes, all of which had grand plans for the property … some of which never materialized.
“The Excursion House, owned by Brown & Champion, proprietors, is a large and handsome building, and contains every convenience for the excursionists and visitors,” it was noted in the Ocean City Sentinel of July 13, 1893. “It has an immense balcony, where hundreds can sit under cover and watch the waves roll in. A first-class dining saloon is attached, as well as several ice cream and refreshment stands. Here may be procured the best dinner that the market can provide. A large and fine merry-go-round is also here, and furnishes amusement to the young people. A good bath house is connected to the Excursion House. In the course of a few weeks a novel amusement in the shape of a ‘bicycle railway’ will be completed and afford endless pleasure to all.”
Early photos showing bath houses on the pier on the left with the Excursion House on the right, next to Stevens Theatre.
By August 1895, the Excursion House was under new management. Brown & Champion dissolved, and Harry C. Brown announced he would solely continue the business, assuming all the obligations of the firm.
“I will continue to run this place, and will pay all debts,” Brown was quoted as saying in the Ocean City Sentinel of Aug. 8, 1895. “I propose to make this place the most attractive resort in the city. Already I have introduced several new features which the pleasure-seeking people very much appreciate. But there are other attractions which I have intended to introduce and will now be able to do so.”
Whether Brown fulfilled his plans is unknown. The property changed hands at least once more before an advertisement appeared in April 1922, stating it was for sale by the People’s Market Co., Inc. of Atlantic City. It was called “one of the most desirable beach front real estate opportunities on the entire Jersey Sea Coast.”
The property consisted of a “substantial frame building of splendid construction, three stories in height. Ground floor consists of stores and several apartments. Second floor contains a splendid hall with stage, etc. No posts of any kind in this big room to obstruct the view and a splendid high ceiling. There is also a shooting gallery fronting on the Boardwalk that is included.”
The view of the Excursion House looking north. The Boardwalk Band Pavilion is shown on the right and the Excursion House and Surf House on left, circa 1915.
It was estimated that gross income of the property should exceed $5,000 per year and it was “easily financed – little cash required. Priced very reasonable for a quick sale.”
In October 1922, the Cape May County Times reported that the Excursion House was sold to “Atlantic City people,” who planned to remodel and improve the structure, “which is one of the largest and most important on the Sea Isle City boardwalk.” It also noted that a riparian grant was being procured and that an amusement pier would be built opposite the Excursion House.
But apparently the new Atlantic City ownership also failed to live up to its plans of remodeling and improving the Excursion House. Three years later, the Times reported that the property was to be condemned, as it was determined by the Sea Isle building inspector that the structure was “unsafe in its present condition and a menace to passersby.”
Fortunately, the structure was saved, and rebuilding was begun in 1925.
The Women’s Civic Club with the Excursion House behind it. To the right is the band shell.
During the late 1920s, the Sea Isle City Basketball League played games twice a week in the Excursion House Hall. The league had some familiar names for its teams: Braca, Cronecker, Pfeiffer and Canuso. The Sea Isle lifeguards held their annual benefit dance there, and the Women’s Civic Club also used the property to conduct meetings.
Through the years, Mother Nature threw all she had at the Excursion House. A nor’easter damaged the building and the boardwalk in 1920, and destructive waves during the hurricane of 1944 ripped up the boardwalk, stacking it like matchsticks and crumpling boardwalk-level businesses such as Vatso’s Restaurant. After both of those storms, the Excursion House was repaired and rebuilt, as necessary.
But there was one storm from which the Excursion House never recovered. The devastating nor’easter of March 6, 1962, reduced the building to a pile of rubble. According to historical accounts, one observer recalled seeing the roof lifted off in one piece, landing in a vacant lot behind the building.
After 80 years of providing fun for Sea Isle City vacationers, the Excursion House was gone. Thankfully, it has not been forgotten, and remains an important part of the island’s early history.
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