Ocean City Fishing Club marks its centennial

Over the heads of bathers on the public beach, Ocean City Fishing Club members walk out on their private 635-foot fishing pier, on the boardwalk near 14th Street. It is one of only five such oceanfront fishing piers in the state's four Shore counties.
Over the heads of bathers on the public beach, Ocean City Fishing Club members walk out on their private 635-foot fishing pier, on the boardwalk near 14th Street. It is one of only five such oceanfront fishing piers in the state's four Shore counties. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 22, 2013

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - A fire, two World Wars, women's lib, a barge accident, and a half-dozen storms threatened to destroy it, but the venerable Ocean City Fishing Club and its fabled pier have stood against the odds, surviving to celebrate the club's 100th anniversary this summer.

"It really is a remarkable tradition when you think about it," said Paul H. Keuerleber, 70, of Hatboro and Ocean City, president of the oldest continuously operating fishing club in the nation. The club limits its membership to 190 anglers and only in 2002 began to allow women to join.

To celebrate its centennial this summer, for the first time the club is allowing nonmembers to venture onto what remains the only surfside fishing pier in Ocean City.

Not to fish, but to enjoy the view during two-hour-long open houses. The first session, held July 7, drew a surprising 543 people. The final open houses will be held 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday and Aug. 22.

The anniversary is also commemorated by this year's Ocean City beach badge, which features a rendering of the structure, and an exhibit at the Ocean City Historical Museum. There will be a three-day Centennial Fishing Tournament in October.

Ocean City's is one of five such oceanfront fishing piers in the state's four Shore counties: There is one other in Cape May County, in Avalon; two are in Atlantic County, at Ventnor and Margate; and there is one in Ocean County, in Seaside Heights.

The Ocean City Fishing Club was founded in 1913 by a group of prominent Philadelphia businessmen to "advance, promote and enjoy the sport of fishing," at a time when Woodrow Wilson was president, gasoline was 8 cents a gallon, and the Panama Canal wasn't quite finished.

Although it's not a secret society behind the pier's locked gate along the Boardwalk near 14th Street, it is a tradition that has long been marveled at in whispers by passersby wondering exactly what goes on in there.

But members only - and sometimes their guests - are usually the only ones allowed beyond that locked door to the rarefied spot along the beachfront that includes a small clubhouse where antique wooden lockers line the walls and a cadre of rods and reels covers the ceiling. The meandering pier extends 635 feet over the ocean. Members can have access 24/7.

"I've had friends of mine from church tell me they have always wondered about the pier and what the club is all about," said Margaret Feil, 66, of Ocean View, who became its first female member in 2002 and is now one of three women in the club. "It's such a unique thing."

Previously, women could fish off the pier only if they were accompanied by their member husbands. Women could not set foot on the pier's farthest reaches and were relegated to a segregated lounge during social occasions. The membership 11 years ago decided it was time to change the bylaws to include women, she said.

These days, to be considered for membership, men and women have to wait for a spot to open up, be sponsored by a current member, then pay a $1,000 entry fee and annual $250 dues, and a yearly $50 bait fee. The money goes into an emergency fund.

But it's that wooden pier that holds the greatest mystique.

The original pier on the site opened Memorial Day weekend 1915 to much fanfare. Six months later it was gone, destroyed by a howling nor'easter. It was rebuilt by the following summer, but by 1918 another winter storm had badly damaged it.

A second pier was built at North Street, and membership continued to grow to nearly 450 members - a remarkable feat considering two more local fishing clubs had cropped up. One was built at Park Place and the Boardwalk and was called the Anglers' Club. The other, the South Ocean City Pier Company, was constructed at 59th Street.

Crisis struck again in 1921. After the club had made a name for itself by hosting the first national surf-fishing contest, attracting anglers from all over the world, its silver-cup trophy was lost in a fire.

A storm destroyed the North Street Pier in 1922, and it was never rebuilt. A violent storm in 1932 severely damaged the 14th Street Pier, and at the same time, the Anglers' Club was wiped out.

In writing the club's history at the 30-year mark, Frank H. Stewart, a longtime member and a successful Philadelphia electrical supply owner, wrote of the "tremendous changes" that had occurred in Ocean City since the club's founding, including paved streets and "hundreds of cottages."

Stewart, a historian and environmentalist, said he missed the "old-time pure white sand" and admired the way the club had survived the vicissitudes of World War I, the subsequent Great Depression, and losses and expenses from storms.

"Thousands of various types of clubs have failed to stand the stresses during the time of our existence," wrote Stewart, a notable character who purchased the old Philadelphia Mint building to preserve it but when he couldn't muster community support, razed it as an example of how not to treat a historic landmark.

More stresses came in the form of more storms, including the 1944 hurricane and the March 1962 storm that again destroyed the pier, but it was rebuilt. The '62 storm also ruined the 59th Street pier, which was never repaired, and left only a rickety carcass sticking out of the surf that became a local landmark until Sandy washed it away.

In 1980, two large barges broke away from an outfall-pipe construction project and slammed into the south side of the pier. It was repaired and reopened three months later. Another major rebuilding project took place after a January 1992 storm destroyed the front section.

"I think it's survived so long because people who join it really love fishing, and they come here and feel such camaraderie in this club," said Dan Michaels, 69, of Ocean City, a past president and 18-year member. "And the view is incredible."

Club president Keuerleber agreed.

"It's just nice to be able to come out here anytime you want and fish and get away from all that," said Keuerleber, waving his arms in the direction of the people-covered beach and the boardwalk beyond.

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at inquirer.com/downashore. Follow on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo.

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