A Day at Soupy Island- Where Memories are Made
I don’t think any other place in South Jersey has granted more smiles, laughter and fond memories to city-dwelling urchins over the last century than Soupy Island. I wrote about Soupy Island about a year ago. Many people have emailed me regarding their recollections. Words cannot express how much joy it gives me to receive these precious memories. I’ve recently become a mother and, as any parent can tell you, there is no greater joy than to hear a child’s laughter.
On May 4, I was invited to Soupy Island for a second visit by Dawn Christman. Dawn sits on the committee as chair of the Hessian Woods Girl Scouts. Since 1999, her organization, as well as the Boy Scouts, has held an Annual Camporee at Soupy Island. The Girls from various troops in West Deptford Township set up their tents and enjoy a weekend of fun at this children’s resort. There is a general theme each year, and in 2013, it was Halloween. Children dressed up in their finest costumes and strutted around the expansive grounds.
The concept for Soupy Island originated in 1877 when a Philadelphia entrepreneur, John F. Smith, began transporting Philadelphia children to Smith Island, located in the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Camden, for a day of fun, a hot bowl of soup, and crackers. Until a steam ferry company cut a canal through Windmill Island in 1838, Smith Island was not a separate sand spit. Windmill Island received its name because John Harding built a windmill there in 1746, but he died from his continued exposure of standing in the river during construction. The Smith Family was living on the island, mostly during the summer season and decided to open up their land to the public. Many physicians at this time thought fresh air would be healthy for children as cities grew increasingly overcrowded and polluted, creating unhealthy conditions during the summer heat. Underprivileged children visited Smith Island to enjoy a day of leisure.
In the 1880s, a man by the name of Jacob Ridgway built an amusement park on Smith Island and ran steamers to it from Philadelphia and Camden. Known as Ridgway Park, It became a place for Philadelphians and New Jerseyans to spend a day of fun. To paint a picture of island park, groves of willow trees flourished on the island. And visitors could enjoy beer gardens, hot air balloon rides, tight-rope entertainers, a hotel, pool, restaurants and parks.
In 1886, Smith Island could no longer accommodate the throngs of children who flocked to the small island during the warm months. The Smith family moved the park to Red Bank, New Jersey, near present-day National Park, where it still remains today. The new sanitarium became known as Soupy Island.
By the 1890s, the continued presence of Smith and Windmill islands impeded the City of Philadelphia from expanding its wharves and port facilities. In 1891, the Army Corps of Engineers contracted with American Dredging to remove the islands from the river. By 1897, Windmill Island was completely gone and became a distant memory; the dredge spoils served to fill in the back channel of League Island and also added 21 acres to Pettys Island.
Under-privileged kids continued to travel via steamboat from Philadelphia to Soupy Island, but most now arrive by bus.
Soupy Island has played some vital roles during its existence. There was a sanitarium (hospital) built for children affected with Tuberculosis. It once stood near one of the swimming pools. Soupy Island also served as a refuge for 8,000 local families during the Great Depression, providing them with shelter and sustenance. During the Second World War, armed guards within the grounds of Soupy Island performed surveillance of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard across the Delaware River and the park reportedly hosted emplacements containing defensive weapons for possible air attacks.
Soupy Island has served generations of children and it will continue to be a pillar of our South Jersey community for the foreseeable future. Children still flock to “the island” to enjoy an exciting day riding the carousel, climbing on the various playground equipment, swimming, playing volleyball and enjoying the original sliding board, zooming down it while sitting on wax paper.
Technology may have changed, but the lasting memories have not, including the joy I witnessed among these young Girl Scouts. Their tents sprawled across the lawn and laughter filling the air, as it has for over a century on these special Soupy Island grounds.
P.S. As a former Daisy to Cadet….”On My Honor, I Will Try…” Girl Scouts and former Girl Scouts, should be able to finish this sacred oath.
Until Our Next Adventure, My Friends! -The Yummygal