Sea Isle Pioneer: Richard Atwater Was Among First to Experience Life Here, Good and Bad
By Linda Dougherty
Richard Atwater, and a rendering from a 1881 circular that promoted Ludlam’s Island as a seaside resort.
Richard Mead Atwater is hardly a household name, but he played a key role in the early days of Sea Isle City, and led an interesting, accomplished life as well.
Born in 1844 in Providence, R.I., Atwater was credited with several “firsts” in Sea Isle City. He bought one of the first building lots in 1880. His daughter Marjory was the first child born in Sea Isle. And he was one of the founders of the Yacht Club. He also served as mayor from 1913-17. Atwater found the wild island – with its rough dunes and stands of holly and cedar trees – a soothing retreat from his busy life in manufacturing, specifically glass and coke making. It was good for his family, as well.
As a young boy in Providence, Atwater was forced to work to help his mother and siblings when his father died unexpectedly. At age 15, he attended Friends Boarding School of Providence, a Quaker establishment. Upon graduation, he embarked on his first career, as a teacher for both public and private schools in Providence. Atwater graduated from Brown University in 1865, married his wife Abby Sophia Greene in 1867, and was made superintendent of schools in Millville, N.J., for a brief period in 1874.
Later that same year, Atwater was hired as assistant manager in the manufacture of scientific glassmaking at the Millville glassworks of Whitall Tatum & Company, and eventually its traveling agent, which took him across the country to write contracts. In 1876, he saw an exhibit of foreign-made chemical glassware while attending the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and from there patented several methods for making cylinders and bottles, as well as a portable finishing furnace.
Richard Atwater, who served as Commodore of the Sea Isle City Yacht Club, at a Cape May Yacht Club event in 1917.
In the meantime, the Atwater family was growing. After Richard and Abby’s daughter Betty was born in 1880, Abby was very ill. Richard thought that by sending Abby, the baby and the nurse to Cape May, the fresh sea air would help Abby recover. She did recuperate, and the Atwaters thus discovered that there was “great benefit and enjoyment from the sea bathing,” as Richard noted in his diary. They thought they would like to have a seashore house of their own, where their eight children could experience a “free life on the beautiful beach.” Richard wanted a seashore house as close to their home in Millville as possible.
Not long after, in the spring of 1881, Richard Atwater found a circular announcing the sale of lots on “Ludlam’s Island” (the original name of Sea Isle City) by a man named Charles Landis. Landis was developing Ludlam’s Island as a new seaside resort. Atwater liked that this island was not far from Millville and would soon be easily reached by a rail line of the Cape May railroad. And he loved how untamed and primitive the island was, as it had only been used for foraging cattle, horses and sheep. There was a wide beach and areas of forest teeming with wildlife, with the only structure being a lifesaving station near Corson’s Inlet. Atwater purchased one of the first building lots at auction in Philadelphia in late spring 1881, and work quickly began on a house.
Abby Atwater wrote to her sister: “We are talking now of taking all the family to a place just started on the Jersey coast called Sea Isle City. While it is getting under way to be the grand watering place the developer intends it to be, we might spend July there for a year or two quietly and pleasantly. There are no mosquitoes, and still-water bathing inside, and surf outside the island.”
Richard Atwater kept a detailed diary about those early days when the home was being constructed, describing its position as “the central front lot in the block containing the largest clump of cedar trees on the island. I acted on the advice of Edward Cooper to buy a front lot or none.”
As an example of how quickly the Atwaters’ home was built, Richard Atwater sent the details of his plan to architect John K. Yarnell on May 2 and by May 11 received the drawings and specs from him. On May 23, he contracted Chas Preston of Seaville to build the home, and on the same day bought lumber and materials in Camden, with Preston beginning his work on June 9.
The day before work commenced, Atwater noted in his diary about a trip that he and Abby had taken to the site.
“Abby and I sailed with Capt. Henry Corson through the creeks and thoroughfares and entered Ludlam’s Bay at noon of a hot day, but the sea breeze met us as we touched the shore,” Atwater wrote. “We walked across the dry inlet, lunched on oysters on the beautiful strand, took a bath in the surf and returned home, meeting the lumber for our house as we sailed up the creek.”
The adjoining lots Richard Atwater purchased in 1908 for $1,000 that he dubbed “The Barracks.”
The Atwater house was the first permanent beach home built in Sea Isle City. It was built among the dunes, between 43rd and 44th streets, and painted green with red trimmings, according to the Sea Isle City Historical Museum. The “cottage,” as Atwater called it, was a simple square structure with an open cathedral ceiling two stories high, and bedrooms at the corners of both floors.
“The life this first year was unique and can never be repeated,” Atwater wrote in his diary after the family moved in. “We were nearly alone on the beach. A few prospectors during the middle of the day were the only disturbers of our solitude. The beach was rich with shells and strewn with old wrecks, some high and dry and others showing the timbers at the fall of the tide. The flowers and berries were luxuriant and in great variety. Boys and girls went barefoot and were clad in the simplest garments. A pair of goats with their kid afforded much amusement and some annoyance as they ate clothing, stole food from the fire, and climbed the stairs in quest of food or fun.”
In 1883, Abby gave birth to the first child born in Sea Isle City, Marjory Garrison Atwater. That year, Atwater noted that “a terrible storm” lasting several days “drove the sea past the house on both sides, with a drenching nor’easter occurring in early September.” It would be a precursor of what was to come.
In 1889, Atwater had spent the summer working in Philadelphia, coming to Sea Isle only to see his family on the weekends. On Sept. 12, what Atwater described as “the greatest storm in the history of the place” struck, a hurricane that lasted for three days.
The third day of the storm, Atwater took the train to Ocean View, then “crept on my hands and knees on the railroad ties which were stretched like whiplash over the marshes,” until he reached Sea Isle. He described “a scene of desolation” but the house was standing, with only the front porch swept away.
“The town was flooded and the three miles of marsh to the Sea Side Road became a raging sea,” wrote Atwater. “Half a dozen houses above and below our house were undermined and fell into the ocean.”
The family wasn’t harmed but decided to close up the house, and didn’t return for 18 years, living abroad.
In 1907, the Atwaters further developed the Sea Isle property, and built a new house for his expanding brood. He christened the house “The Barracks.”
Later, Atwater was elected a governor of the Sea Isle Yacht Club, and its commodore in 1911. On May 20, 1913, Atwater was elected to a four-year term as mayor of Sea Isle City under the new commission form of government. He oversaw many improvements to the town, including a new public school on 44th Street and a public library in City Hall. Among the problems he had to address were many cases of “disorder” stemming from “illegal liquor selling” in 1914, and he seemed relieved when his term as mayor ended.
The summer of 1916 at Sea Isle was “plagued with sharks,” wrote Atwater. In 1918, two of his grandsons were killed when a sand dune caved in on them. The last entry in his diary came in 1921, when he noted that it was a very “quiet, healthful and agreeable season.”
Atwater retired to a large farm in Chadds Ford, Pa., that contained the site of the Battle of Brandywine in the Revolutionary War, a site he later gave to the state for Brandywine Battlefield State Park. He died in 1922 at age 78.