Then & Now: Ottens Canal
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
No, the photo to right does not depict Ottens Canal. It was taken at the Wildwood Sign located at Rio Grande Avenue and the Boardwalk.
I recently attended a Girl Scouts event with my daughter's troop at the Wildwood Convention Center. She's doing her impression of Surfin' USA, being the Beach Boys are playing there on August 27th. We were fortunate to have some beautiful weather (for March). The week prior, it was snowing. That's Jersey, amirite?
I was fortunate to grow up going down the shore each summer. It's a tradition I'm happy to continue with my own family. While my Then & Now segments to date have covered neighboring Cape May, the Wildwoods also play an important role in the setting of the Thicker Than Water trilogy.
Why? Well, friends, it's about to get personal. Ready?
Alright then. Let's do this!
One of my first posts was about vacationing in West Wildwood, NJ, with my grandparents. By the late 1990s, after years of saving, they were finally able to realize their dream of owning their very own condo in North Wildwood. Located at 17th and Delaware Avenues, their "little slice of heaven" (my Pop-pop's words) had a waterfront view of Ottens Canal from the front window.
From my late teens into early adulthood, the condo was our home-away-from-home. Coffee on the docks first thing in the morning. Fishing and crabbing steps from the front door. Two blocks from the Albert I. Allen Memorial Park, where my son can be seen happily swinging in the third picture (more on that little fella in a bit).
I should note the historical marker factors into the "now". Installed by the city of North Wildwood in December, 2021, it states in relevant part:
In May 1905 Borough Council adopted Ordinance #58, vacating 18th Avenue west of Delaware Avenue for Henry Ottens to construct a canal. As part of the "Ottens Canal Tract" development, the canal would provide water access to Grassy Sound and allow Mr. Ottens to market the sale of waterfront properties. The first crabbing excursion in August landed 103 crabs in less than two hours. Final dredging was completed in 1905.
North Wildwood has 16 such historical markers, perfect for a scavenger hunt in the off season or an overcast beach day. The full listing can be found here, and includes Margaret Mace Hospital.
But just who was Henry Ottens? Simply stated, he was a visionary and real estate mogul responsible, in part, with the development of the Borough of Anglesea (now North Wildwood), NJ. While some saw only barren dunes and untamed forest (hence the current name "Wildwood"), Ottens and others saw a seashore resort.
Located along Hereford Inlet, Anglesea started as a fishing community. This article, published by The Sun By the Sea, offers a comprehensive history of the city's early years. It also includes many vintage photos, many of which served as my point of reference time and again with regard to the type of water craft the Culligans would have used for fishing.
Ottens was also known for his philanthropy, donning a Santa suit and giving out necessities to local children.
As Anglesea grew, he turned his sights south, and (as indicated above) was responsible for overseeing the development of the canal and harbor that now bears his name. Shortly thereafter, Ottens Harbor emerged as the island's primary port, with warehouses, icehouses, and other related businesses dotting its shores. One of those businesses was the Consolidated Fish Company.
A Little Party Never Hurt Nobody
My grandfather was a talker. Had the "gift of gab," as they say. But he was also an attentive listener, and loved a good yarn.
Many mornings, he was up with the sun, chatting with the owner (our neighbor) of the canal's bustling boat rental and his staff. Some of the boat boys lived across the waterway in the blue house. It used to be yellow.
The boys (teens, really) told the story of how the home had been in their family for many years. Handed down over generations, they relayed that it was a former speakeasy, complete with a trap door in the floorboards in the oft chance of a raid. It was a story my grandfather gobbled up, and happily repeated to our family.
* Please note, I have no written verification that this story is accurate. And I'm not here to perpetuate any false rumors. This article, from wildwoodhistory.org indicates that several speakeasies did operate along Ottens Harbor (including Frank Hilton's Consolidated Fisheries). Ottens "Canal" is not specifically referenced.
Was the speakeasy a tall tale by adolescents to make an old man smile? Did my grandfather repeat (and possibly embellish) the story `a la whisper-down-the-lane? Time has moved on and the answers remain unknown.
I can tell you this, though. The idea behind Thicker Than Water came to me many years before any of the research was done.
Remember that chubby little baby boy pictured earlier? My son was, as some babies are, a terrible sleeper. I'd rock and hold him. Rock him some more.
Some nights, as can happen with new parents, I'd let my mind wander. It always came back to the same place: a foggy canal circa the 1920s. Mist over the water, ragtime wafting out of the open windows. Jennie and Danny's courtship was developed long before I ever put pen to paper. And, while Shannon wasn't officially named at the time, she was always part of the bigger picture.
The House That Built Me
I've written before about my grandmother's passing. She's with my Pop now, he'll be gone 20 years this summer.
Life took a different turn, and the condo is no longer in our family. Having moved around a lot (in terms of primary residence and school districts), it always offered me safe haven and a soft landing spot. I'll always consider it as "the house that built me."
My son is too young to remember the place, but I'm glad to have plenty of photo albums to share. Our daughter was never there. Until last week, that is. We stopped by briefly on our way home from her Girl Scout event.
I'm grateful for the memories. As writers, we're often told to "write what you know", or about "what you love." In Thicker Than Water, I'm proud to say I've done both.
*Photos of the former boat boys' home courtesy of Preserving the Wildwoods: A Community Alliance (on Facebook) and Wildwood Sun By The Sea Magazine.