OCEAN CITY, N.J. — Along the oceanfront of this Shore resort, it's a sight that hasn't been seen in almost a century:
A 50-foot-wide, three-block-long pathway of sand has been opened up between the beach dunes and a row of storefronts where a section of the Ocean City boardwalk had stood since 1928. The work has exposed a kind of visual time capsule of what the spot may have looked like before the wooden walkway became the iconic centerpiece of this Cape May County town.
This phase of a $10 million, five-year project to replace the last three blocks of the seven-block main section of the boardwalk — where amusement piers and other commercial entities are located — has temporarily changed the landscape.
"To see it without the boardwalk in that spot is a unique sight … a rare glimpse," says historian Fred Miller, who has written nine books on Ocean City history over the last 25 years. "Especially when you think about how old the boardwalk is, how long it has been there."
The incarnation that most people are familiar with of Ocean City's boardwalk was built within a year after a massive fire in 1927. The fire destroyed the previous boardwalk — a narrow and shorter affair first built in 1880 — that was located about 300 feet farther back from the ocean and stretched only four or five blocks. An expansion began in 1885 that eventually extended the boardwalk to more than a couple of miles.
After the 1927 fire, town fathers decided it was a good idea to move the new boardwalk closer to the water's edge so that parking lots could be created landward and visitors could be closer to the sea as they promenaded along the walkway. Through the 1920s and into the early 1940s, the boardwalk extended from East Atlantic Boulevard to 23rd Street until a hurricane in 1944 lopped off four blocks on the northern end. That section was never rebuilt.
The boardwalk today stretches about 2.5 miles from St. James Place down to 23rd Street. The main business area is flanked mostly by residential neighborhoods.
Instead of using all wood in 1928, officials decided to build a concrete substructure for the main section of the boardwalk, from Fifth Street to 12th Street. That use of concrete was a first at the Shore. The concrete substructure ultimately lasted almost 90 years before the city embarked on the rebuilding project five years ago to replace it with an all-wooden support structure, according to Roger A. Rinck, Ocean City's engineering and project manager.
Rinck said the concrete substructure, which had steel reinforcement, was not unsafe. But over time, constant battering from high tides, storms, and salt-water exposure had begun to take a toll, with signs of wear and cracks appearing in some spots.
"So the decision was made to replace the substructure," Rinck said. "We created a plan to do that with as little disruption as possible to the businesses there."
That meant doing the work in the off-season, when few tourists would be around, and working on it in increments of three blocks or less, Rinck said.
Rinck said officials decided to build the new substructure entirely out of wood because rebuilding a concrete one would have ballooned the project's cost. The rebuilding is being fully funded through the city's capital improvement budget.
For the new substructure, wooden pilings are being driven deep into the sand, and a wooden frame to hold planks for the decking is being built and bolted together in place. The wooden plank sections, 12 feet wide and 42 feet long, are being assembled off-site and brought in, to be fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Carol Phillips, manager of Mia's Christmas Gallery, at 1078 Boardwalk, said the project has created a minor inconvenience for some of her customers but has been fun to watch.