To mark the 180th anniversary of its founding, The Inquirer is reprinting an article from its archives every Monday for 18 weeks. Today's offering, the 16th in our series, was published Aug. 22, 1979, and describes the effect of Atlantic City's casinos on the neighboring town of Brigantine.
BRIGANTINE, N.J. - When John Rogge came here in 1946 to raise his family and start a small development company, there were only 250 homes on this island.
"Brigantine was a dead-end island," said Rogge, the town's mayor for the last nine years. "No one ever came here unless someone sent them or they got lost."
For decades it was the undiscovered island, but now people are taking notice that there is life and land across the inlet from Atlantic City.
Brigantine, bordered by 10 miles of ocean beach on one side and seven miles of bay on the other, has been virtually a ghost island in comparison to other nearby resort communities.
Resort towns south of Atlantic City, such as Ventnor, Margate, and Longport, grew rich on summer business and year-round residents, who preferred an ocean-front community quieter than Atlantic City.
But Brigantine, to the north and separated from Atlantic City by a mile of water, never prospered from the overflow. Brigantine, to the chagrin of its promoters, remained for years merely an afterthought surrounded by water.
Casinos, to no one's surprise, have changed all that.
The need for housing and apartments for people drawn to the area by legalized gambling has finally done what Rogge has worked for through three decades.
"We've been discovered," said Rogge, who has been a real-estate agent since the 1950s.
The town now has 10 real estate firms, three of which came to the island only months after the gambling referendum passed three years ago.
During that time, land values here have zoomed. But because they were lower than in other resort towns, the average sale price ($59,000) for a house here is a good $20,000 less than dwellings in Margate, Longport and Ventnor.
Until the casino industry spurred growth on Brigantine Island, development was directly linked to the means used to get from the island to Atlantic City.
Until 1925, somewhat undependable ferries were used to transport people between the two islands. Then the Island Development Co. built Brigantine's first bridge.
Bob Ockenlander, 74, who came to Brigantine in 1923 to work for the Island Development Co. as a surveyor, recalls that he, his sister and his brother-in-law were the only people living at the southern end of the island then.
"We had three miles all to ourselves," said Ockenlander, formerly the local fire chief and now the mayor's assistant. "At the most, only 12 people lived on the rest of the island."
The first bridge lasted until it was washed out in 1944. Although the state replaced it with a drawbridge, the new span hardly helped attract new residents to the island.
"The bridge would get stuck all the time," said Rogge. "Banks were very cautious about lending money in a town that could be shut off from tourist trade the entire summer because the bridge was out."
Brigantine finally began to grow after 1970, when the state built a concrete bridge high enough to accommodate ship traffic and strong enough to withstand storms.
"I guess you'd say that because of the new bridge and the casinos, we're a thriving community," Ockenlander said. "But thriving on what, I'm not sure. I liked it the old way."
There are 4,000 homes in Brigantine and 9,000 permanent residents. Rogge estimates that the town can grow to 5,000 more permanent residents without overcrowding.
At that rate, he figures the town's lone traffic light will still be sufficient to handle the additional cars of an estimated summer population of 40,000 people.
But traffic is not what has residents concerned. It is the projected development of seven casinos in Atlantic City's marina area, which is at the foot of the Brigantine Bridge.
"Unless overpasses are built so we can bypass that area, the bridge will become a problem again," Rogge said. "Our people won't be able to get to the schools, hospitals and their jobs if they are forced into a massive traffic jam that will be created by the casinos there.
"We have an island mentality because we have been cut off so often," Rogge said. "That bridge is our lifeline and now that we've finally been discovered we don't want traffic problems on the bridge to ruin it for us."